Introducing Slate's environmental advice column.

Illuminating answers to environmental questions.
Sept. 25 2007 5:33 PM

Raise the Green Lantern

Introducing Slate's environmental advice column.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker. Click image to expand.

Slate is pleased to launch "The Green Lantern," a weekly Q&A about climate change, pollution, and whatever other environmental bogeymen are robbing you of sleep. The column kicks off in earnest next Tuesday, with a primer on how to identify the greenest airlines—or, at the very least, the carriers that are starting to realize they can't stand pat on emissions. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty, please indulge The Lantern as he offers up a mission statement.

Given the glut of earnest save-the-planet advice, it's all too tempting to declare apathy and embrace our broiling, smog-choked future. One's eyes tend to glaze over after hearing the phrase "carbon footprint" for the umpteenth time, amid the eternal bickering over what's truly green and what's just feel-good pap. For every Ph.D. touting, say, sugar-cane ethanol as a silver bullet, there's another who stoutly believes the solution is bunk; both experts, of course, can marshal copious, mind-numbing statistics to prove their respective points.

Rest assured, however, The Lantern isn't here to add to your frustration by endlessly touting Energy Star appliances or by becoming irrationally exuberant over organic cheese doodles and solar-powered laptops. The aim of this column is to bluntly assess what can realistically be done to protect the environment—and, perhaps more importantly, what cannot.

So, expect plenty of hard-core number crunching as The Lantern fields whatever vexing questions come his way. Are you hastening the apocalypse by flying budget airlines? Is it better to go vegetarian or stick with eating pigs, albeit ones that were slaughtered within a 10-mile radius? Should you feel guilty about preferring NASCAR over tennis? Does hiring a firm to plant trees in Zambia justify your addiction to air conditioning? And can you really become part of the solution by gassing up on Willie Nelson's biofuel?

The Lantern shall strive to answer all of the above in the coming weeks and months while hewing to three main tenets of green guruism:

Skepticism, not pessimism. As polar bears and residents of Linfen, China, can attest, the environment is in such dire shape that even drastic action might not set things right. This is particularly true when it comes to global warming, which can seem hopelessly irreversible, barring a sudden decision by mankind to abandon modern civilization. In The Weather Makers, for example, biologist Tim Flannery states that even if we reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent over the next three decades—a tall order—we're still in for a massive temperature spike by 2100.

So, should we just gorge on Hummer limousines and Styrofoam packing peanuts while we can and hope that someone develops a workaround over the next century? Heavens, no. For starters, the assumption that technological wizardry can save us strikes The Lantern as hubristic; just because mankind has in the past devised clever methods for improving agricultural yield and finding oil doesn't guarantee that we'll also eventually figure out a way to stave off environmental catastrophe. More importantly, while making eco-friendly personal decisions may not yield many perceptible benefits right now, it's the long term that counts. Any campaign worth pursuing can take decades to bear fruit, but it has to start somewhere. Imagine if 19th-century crusaders against child labor had given up after a year or two, convinced that economic growth would halt if 8-year-olds were forced to give up iron smelting.

What's more, positive, discernible change is possible during our lifetimes. In 1976, for example, there were 102 days on which Los Angeles experienced a stage-one smog alert; in 1996, there were only seven such days. And, against all expectations, many parts of the world are becoming reforested; Asia alone gained 2.5 million acres' worth of woodlands between 2000 and 2005.

Put your own house in order. Too much environmental journalism nowadays plays "gotcha!" with well-meaning celebrities. Granted, it's fun to lampoon Al Gore for living in an oversize Tennessee manse or to pick apart John Mayer's allegiance to what he terms "Light Green" (an ethos that apparently makes it OK for him to fly private jets and drive a Porsche SUV). But just because rich-and-famous moralists aren't perfect doesn't mean all environmentalism is a fraud. Yes, Al Gore probably emits more carbon than you—so what?

Along those same lines, the fact that China and India are only getting dirtier shouldn't be used as an excuse for inaction, either. Maybe you're convinced that individual choices in the First World means little as long as Asian smokestacks keep puffing away with abandon. But there are considerable economic benefits to going green, especially as oil prices climb toward $90 per barrel and beyond, and health-care systems are stressed by illnesses due to pollution. The consequences of reckless development are already becoming apparent to elites in Delhi and Beijing, and they'll hopefully be able to look to the United States for guidance. It's one thing to try to cajole factory owners in Guangdong to go green because the West considers it moral; it's quite another to show them how to bolster profits by streamlining consumption.

Avoid the rabbit hole. Choices that appear environmentally sound at first glance often seem less so when closely scrutinized. British author Chris Goodall, for example, recently raised a ruckus by arguing that it might be better to drive to the supermarket than walk. He pointed out that someone walking 3 miles would expend 180 calories, perhaps derived from a pre-walk hamburger. Since the production and transport of hamburger meat requires ample energy, the pedestrian could be responsible for three times as much carbon emissions than if he'd driven the same distance. (Among Goodall's other contrarian assertions: Organic cows are worse for the climate than their steroid-pumped brethren, and paper bags are less green than plastic.)

Entertaining stuff, and worthy fodder for discussion. But there's always a danger of getting too bogged down in the numbers; do enough mathematical contortions and you can make it seem as if virtually any human activity is bringing us that much closer to the apocalypse. (For example, what if Goodall's theoretical shopper drives to the market, then uses the time he saved to run a gas-guzzling lawn mower?) So, while The Lantern vows to employ the utmost rigor in analyzing the costs and benefits of individual actions, don't worry—this column won't come off as a giant word problem, chockablock with computations that lead only to wishy-washy conclusions.

In other words, The Lantern won't be afraid to take a stand after completing his back-of-the-envelope calculations.

And so, with his piece spoken, The Lantern opens the floor to questions. Is there an environmental quandary that's been keeping you up at night? Send it to ask.the.lantern@gmail.com, and check this space every Tuesday.

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