On Cardigans and Social Distancing

Sitting in front of a fire, wearing a cardigan sweater, in February 1977 President Jimmy Carter addressed the nation about the energy crisis that had punched the country in the gut. Clearly the White House’s thermostat must have been turned down. The fire crackled, making the living room warm and toasty. Carter spoke of national policies but also what citizens could do, uttering the words “conservation” and “sacrifice.” The message was clear: turn off unnecessary lights, turn down the thermostat, put on a goddamned sweater.

I remember clearly the contrast from the December before, when every house in my neighborhood was decked out in holiday lights, to the following December when there were no holiday lights to be seen. Everyone took to heart the message of conservation, and also perhaps the message that the annual rite of hauling out ladders to string the lights was no longer necessary. And ever since, the rite is no longer obligatory but voluntary. Now I marvel when I see a house strung out in lights.

I wonder what social distancing — what the mandate to work at home, what the elbow bump (that now is even too close) — will do to our social practices. I can teach class from my living room. Maybe I could teach it from across the world? Why risk running into a student or colleague in the hallway?

Jimmy Carter was absolutely correct about what we needed then and still need to do now about our energy habits. He discussed not just conservation but renewables and a comprehensive national policy.

Now in the face of a viral pandemic, it is absolutely right for us to stay as far away from each other as we can. But not forever, I hope. Not for long.

Conservation is key for energy policy or what we now think of as climate change policy. Social distancing is necessary to stave off the coronavirus. But these are ways of addressing symptoms, not getting at underlying and systemic processes. Addressing climate change means developing renewable sources of energy, just as Carter anticipated over forty years ago but which has yet to be carried through. In fact, under the cover of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has been busy rolling back Obama’s climate change measures.

Likewise, preventing pandemics requires robust public health policies. But instead of these, the United States’ health care system is geared to addressing individual’s needs (or at least those with decent health insurance) not the systems that allow for the proliferation of illness in the first place.

If we address the roots of these problems, maybe the future could hold holiday cheer and lots of hugs and kisses from all our friends.

The Groundhog Verdict

I think it’s safe to say, this day after Groundhog Day, that summer will be coming soon. In my part of the world, it was cloudy all day yesterday. No groundhog would see its shadow; winter will soon end.

More confirmation, this morning’s New York Times screams out, “Science Panel Says Global Warming is ‘Unequivocal’ — Cites Human Role — 3-year study foresees centuries of rising temperatures.” Above the fold on its first page, the Washington Post headline reads, “Humans Faulted for Global Warming.” The words and graphs are ominous. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin writes:

Declaring that “warming of the climate system is unequivocal,” the authors said in their “Summary for Policymakers” that even in the best-case scenario, temperatures are on track to cross a threshold to an unsustainable level. A rise of more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels would cause global effects — such as massive species extinctions and melting of ice sheets — that could be irreversible within a human lifetime. Under the most conservative IPCC scenario, the increase will be 4.5 degrees by 2100.

Much damage has already been done and the amount of greenhouse gases already in the environment will continue to wreak further havoc even if industrial countries stopped emitting gases tomorrow. Bush and company can’t deny the facts any more, but they are still dissembling and stalling, pretending that new technologies can fix the problem rather than taking responsibility and capping emissions now.

It’s easy to feel like the problem is too big to handle. But this isn’t daunting Howard Ruby, the chief executive of Oakwood Worldwide, who, according to another Washington Post article today, is encouraging conservation measures in all 40 of the rental complexes he owns in the U.S. and Canada. The Post’s Mike Salmon writes,

Oakwood’s chief executive, Howard Ruby, became an environmental evangelist after a cruise last year off the Norwegian coast where he saw the effects of warming temperatures on polar bears. His ship should have been dodging ice floes, but he saw open water everywhere. Just 500 miles from the North Pole, “there were no ice floes,” he said. With no ice, the polar bears have nothing to support their offshore fishing expeditions and are now in danger. “They’re dying fast,” he said.

Moved by the plight of the polar bears, Ruby started putting money into environmentally friendly plumbing and building materials and encouraging renters to do common-sense things to cut down on emissions. According to the Post, Ruby gives out a calendar that suggests things like limiting showers to five minutes, unplugging items when not being used, and other simple things, that if even 10 percent of his renters carry out, will reduce greenhouse gases by 1 million pounds.

Reportedly, many of his tenants are happy to cooperate. But some don’t see the point, including one woman that the Post says “didn’t buy the global warming concept,” and another at Oakwood Rosslyn who “said she thought the planet was destined to incinerate for religious reasons.”

So, dear readers, think on this. Reply with your thoughts: What’s the connection between the United States’ unwillingness to cap emissions and its frighteningly large percentage of religious fundamentalists who think we are all going to incinerate anyway?

God, if there be a god, save us from ourselves.