One stifling August afternoon in Manhattan last summer, as I minced my way through a constellation of molten chewing-gum smears, I was blindsided by an impudent question: “Do you have a minute for the environment?” a kid with a clipboard called out, putting me off-balance and in real jeopardy of fouling my fresh sneakers. “Huh?” I snapped. Then, being larger and louder, I came back with a few questions of my own. For starters, who was he to be prying into the time expenditures of a busy man? What did he want with a minute of mine? And how, exactly, might such an item be useful for the environment? Did he imagine that it might—what?—save the planet or something? That’s what I figured; I wanted to hear him say it.
My idealistic assailant was staked out in front of Trailer Park, a white-trash-kitsch bar on 23rd Street that serves hot dogs and anti-freeze margaritas—as good a place as any to take on weighty issues like the mortality of Mother Earth.
Twenty-Third is a two-way thoroughfare that cuts clean across the lap of the island, climbing imperceptibly over a hump of terrain where deer used to rut and pushing back the city’s concrete curtain far enough on either side that the gritty promenade almost passes for open space. Walking along its wide sidewalks offers a panorama of the seemingly infinite array of goods and services available to consumerkind. It’s as if the entire Yellow Pages had been stuffed into 12 loping blocks: alcohol, barbers, clothing, delis, electronics, furniture, groceries, hardware, ice cream, jewelry, karate, laundries, music, nail salons, opticians, parking, quilting materials and supplies, restaurants, storage, tax return preparation, underwear–retail, variety stores, weight loss, X-ray laboratories, yoga. … Granted, for zipper-repair you might have to trek up to 35th, but otherwise, you could live out your entire life within the bounds of this 1.91-mile stretch of cement, glass, steel and plastic, without wanting for much of anything realized by the Information Age (and probably several earlier ages, too, thanks to the likes of Housing Works thrift). Henry Hudson never could have imagined the marvelopolis that would bloom here when he first spotted Manahatta 400 years ago.
“What exactly do you mean by that?” I asked, trying not very hard not to mock the kid. “‘A minute for the environment’?”
He explained that he was working for a local environmental group canvassing for like-minded people to support its cause of establishing a clean-energy economy. Last summer, that meant funding Washington lobbyists pushing the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, legislation touted as a way to create a marketplace for carbon dioxide emissions, which in turn would motivate corporations to curb greenhouse gasses and, with luck, ultimately help reign in global warming. Given that markets grow by nature, commoditizing pollution had always sounded like bullshit to me. But the kid, he was for real. And so we talked, as a steady flow of potential environmental-minute donors streamed around us.
He was Jared Dubin, a 19-year-old from suburban River Vale, N.J., who would head back to Penn for his sophomore year in the fall. Tan and slight with wiry blond hair and a guileless smirk, he should have probably been lolling on a beach, trying on ambitions with some salty-skinned summer crush. He had taken this $7.25-an-hour job partly because it sounded like a cool cause and partly because the Italian joint where he’d worked the last two summers didn’t need him. After four weeks of hailing people down, trying to meet the darting glances of NewYorkers, he had come to view this enterprise as just a job. He’d learned not to go after white guys in suits and to avoid the stroller- pushers, and, as you might imagine, he’d had all kinds: crazy, presumptuous, pitying, belligerent, condescending, unemployed, offended, offensive. Which is to say, by the time Jared and I crossed paths, he was no pushover.
“Do you really think we can ‘fix’ the planet?” I asked, emphasizing my skepticism with air-quotes.
“It’s more of a course correction,” he allowed. “Obviously we’re not going to get the planet back to where it was. But if we don’t do anything, it’s going to get a lot worse.”
Undoubtedly. But I found myself wondering just how bad it might get. And what it is, exactly, that we’re trying to save the planet from. Death by climate change? Is Earth as vulnerable as we are to the caprice of climate? What would it even mean for a planet—and not just any planet, but this one, the only one we know of with the atmospheric conditions necessary to sustain surface life—to die?
It seemed that whether I had a minute for the environment was just the tip of the melting iceberg. I want to save the planet as much as the next guy, but I resented the rhetorical guilt-trap Jared’s questioning represented. Plus, the more I thought about it, the more vexing this whole encounter was becoming, and with no help from the kid.
I kept my questions to myself as Jared steered the conversation back on message, hoping to close the gap on the day’s quota. He had a job to do—inking $125 in automatic monthly debits—and it wasn’t fair to rope him into my celestial-existential line of inquiry.
“Can I put you down for $10, then?” he pressed, pulling me back into the muggy here and now.
“Oh, sorry, man—I can’t,” I said. “Conflict of interest,” I added, offering no explanation. And with that cryptic excuse as cover, I continued down 23rd’s gooey sidewalks. All that stuck was Jared’s troubling question. Did I have a minute for the environment? In principle, sure, but it felt a little more complicated than that. Clearly, I would need to grill someone who’d already finished college—a scientist, even—if I wanted a true appraisal of what my time was worth to planet Earth.
Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory occupies a rolling parcel of land on the west bank of the Hudson River some distance north of Manhattan. I couldn’t think of a better place to sort out the extent of our impact on Big Blue than an institution wholly devoted to understanding how the planet works. Besides, as a cyclist, I knew this stretch as a green summer escape from the gray kiln of the city, and it was a perfect day for a ride.
I loaded up my bike and paid a visit to Wally Broecker, a founding father of climate science, to discuss some of the notions in his recent book, “Fixing Climate.” Broecker, a chemical oceanographer, is credited with having coined the phrase “global warming” back in 1975, though he insists it was inadvertent, a stroke of common sense; he’d prefer to be known for the more than 500 papers he’s written, many on the mechanics of climate change.
As much an institution as the institution itself, Broecker arrived at Lamont in 1952, working summers as he finished his undergraduate degree in physics, helping with Maurice Ewing’s pioneering work on radiocarbon dating. Applying those methods to sea water, a novel idea, Broecker eventually described an elaborate model of deep ocean currents that transfer heat and salt around the globe on a 1,000-year cycle, and he demonstrated how this vast “conveyor belt” affects climate. Indeed, climate is a slave to oceans, which store 60 times as much carbon dioxide and 800 times as much heat as the atmosphere.
Broecker’s office at Lamont is situated as if at the prow of a ship, his vessel a $40 million glass and steel architectural jewel thrust up among the pines. It’s a striking sight against the motley assortment of other buildings, like sheet metal labs and brick buildings that house core samples containing isotopes dating back 50 million years. The building was a gift from Gary Comer, the billionaire founder of Lands’ End, who had become alarmed on a 2001 yacht trip to the Arctic when what he’d expected to be a high adventure navigating through the sea ice at the top of the world had instead turned out to be smooth going.The protective polar ice cap was disappearing, and seeing such a grand metamorphosis with his own eyes—a geological shift on a human time scale—galvanized the entrepreneur (who has since died of prostate cancer) to try to do something about it. Soon enough, he came courting Broecker for an expert explanation.
Visitors searching for Broecker in the Comer Building are met by a 15-foot chartreuse and pink polka-dotted stuffed snake undulating above his nameplate, flicking a red felt tongue. A laminated printout taped to the wall reads, “I am the climate beast, and I am ANGRY!”
Broecker works with his back to his always-open door, at a broad table stacked with dissertations and reams of isotope data from the world’s oceans. Notably absent is a computer. Turning to me like Yoda—white wisps of hair swaying about his head, a scar marking the deep depression in his jaw where two cancerous tumors were removed—he offered me a wooden seat and an explanation. “I like my pencil,” he told me, adding, unnecessarily, that he’s “from another era.” In fact, he is 77 and says he never learned how to type. (He handles e-mail by scribbling terse responses on printouts, which his secretary, Joan, types back in his name.)
With his pencil’s eraser, Broecker etched a circle in the space around a desk lamp to illustrate how the tilt of the Earth’s axis changes on a roughly 20,000-year cycle.This natural cycle, along with the planet’s elliptical orbit, varies the seasonal distribution of sunlight on Earth, which, in turn, affects the ocean conveyor belt and, thus, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And as we know from the Antarctic ice core samples that Al Gore made famous from the top of a cherry picker in “An Inconvenient Truth,” CO2 levels and temperature are intimately hitched.
For the last 25 years, Broecker has been trying to explain how past climates have occasionally shifted seemingly outside the realm of natural cycles and more abruptly than anyone would have thought possible. The temperature decreases that brought on the last pronounced glacial period, 12,900 years ago, happened in less than 100 years—almost Hollywood fast. (In fact, the Dennis Quaid character in the 2004 doomsday flick “The Day After Tomorrow,” the one where all of New York was suddenly covered in ice, was loosely based on Broecker.) Broecker believes that period was the result of a sudden, mysterious “jamming” of the ocean conveyor belt, which upset the Earth’s thermostat, and he’s concerned that the rate at which we’re currently changing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere could trip some hidden switch that sends the whole system reeling in one way or another. Thus, the climate beast: It’s a physical analogy, a reminder we’re poking at something that we don’t fully understand and that may suddenly lash out.
“What we are going to do is make a significantly large climate change so that almost nothing, none of the plants out there, will be comfortable,” Broecker predicts. “There’ll be other plants that like it better, and they’re going to replace—on some time-scale—the plants that are here. And it means that all the wildlife that lives in association with those plants is going to change, as well; there’s going to be mega extinction of species.”
Some scientists go so far as to argue that human beings have become a geological force in our own right, physically altering the biosphere so profoundly that we merit our own geological epoch: the Anthropocene—from “anthropo” for “human,” and “-cene” for “new”—a term coined a decade ago by Nobel laureate chemist Paul Crutzen. His rationale: Humans have disturbed 30 to 50 percent of the planet’s surface, increased our population tenfold in three centuries and changed the balance of atmospheric carbon dioxide in ways that will linger for tens of thousands of years. And the escalation keeps escalating: There are more of us all the time, living ever longer and having more impact with no real notion of how we’re going to feed, clothe and house everyone given upward trends in population and living standards. “This is not going to be a smooth transition,” Broecker says.
After a long morning of hashing through dire scenarios, Broecker suggested we “go for Mexican.” It wasn’t until we were nearly through our enchiladas at Fiesta Mexico that I spit out the question I’d been formulating. Namely, is climate change a matter of life or death for the planet itself? Can we physically ruin the planet? Are we facing catastrophe? He chewed it over, finishing his iced tea before answering. I wondered if I’d worn out my welcome, perhaps stirred the Climate Beast himself.
“The planet,” he assured me, “will be around for a long time. ‘Ruin’? ‘Catastrophe’? These are loaded terms.” But if we’re not exactly ruining the planet, then what? “One way to look at it is, let’s say you were born in the year 2070. You would then look back and say, ‘My ancestors made a mess; they melted a fair amount of the ice that’s on the planet—they took away that beauty.’”
It seemed a curiously unscientific answer, and it made me wonder about the limits of science’s ability to tackle some of the bigger questions we have about our relationship with our environment. How are we supposed to fathom the true scale of our impact if even the experts fall back on explanations cast in emotional terms? It wasn’t the cold, hard science I was looking for.
I came to realize that neither Broecker nor his peers can say exactly how climate change is going to play out, other than “we’re going to heat it up.” There are too many variables for even the fanciest of computer models to factor, and that’s just as frustrating for scientists as it is for the rest of us. It shows in spectacles like “Climategate,” in which prominent United Kingdom researchers were exposed for burying contradictory data to tell a cleaner, clearer story about the consequences of rising carbon dioxide levels. We have to recognize that scientists have the same limited human abilities as the rest of us to convey the complexity and scope of our situation. As Broecker went for the last chip in the plastic basket, antsy to get back to his office, he told me, “I’d love to be around for another 50 years to see what happens.”
As we claw at the planet’s crust to get at its energy-dense fossil fuels, who can say whether the scars we’re leaving are superficial wounds or something more serious? I realized that I wasn’t even sure if the planet was considered to be alive and, if so, whether its fate might be sealed by some grander power in the cosmos. In other words, does it even matter what we do? It’s a perfect question for James Kasting, an atmospheric scientist at Penn State. In 1992, he and Ken Caldeira published a brief and monumental paper in Nature entitled, “The Life Span of the Biosphere Revisited,” in which they spun out Earth’s actuarial tables, concluding that 95 percent of life forms will go extinct in 500 million years and that 1.2 billion years from now, the planet will be completely uninhabitable. “The story,” Kasting told me, “hasn’t changed much since then.”
Among the risk factors our hurtling hunk of rock faces—encroaching galaxies and errant asteroids among them—the physics of the sun are comfortingly predictable: It’s getting brighter all the time, at a rate of about 1 percent every 100 million years or so. As the Earth’s surface heats up, evaporation and rainfall increase, speeding up the weathering of silicate rocks and drawing down carbon from the atmosphere. (Don’t get excited, warns Kasting: “It’s too slow to help us with global warming in the short term.”) Carbon dioxide levels drop when the sun heats up because volcanic output doesn’t increase with weathering and carbon is stockpiled in limestone seabeds, and this decrease keeps the atmosphere from heating up too much. It’s a self-regulating thermostat that, Kasting says, explains why our planet’s porridge has been pretty close to perfect for billions of years.
But eventually, there will come a point where there’s too little carbon dioxide left to compensate for rising temperatures: They skyrocket, and the oceans evaporate. “Once the oceans are lost, the Earth is dead,” Kasting said. Eventually, a runaway greenhouse effect will turn our home into a sterile ball of fire, like Venus.
“But is Earth actually… alive?” I asked, somewhat sheepishly.
A sigh. Kasting explained that the Earth will stay tectonically active for several billions of years, which is also what Broecker and several other scientists at Lamont had told me. “The Earth itself is not alive—it’s just a rock with a little bit of water on it,” Kasting said. And I felt like I was getting somewhere. Then, he added: “Unless you’re a believer in the strong version of the Gaia Hypothesis.”
Unless? How could the answer to such a seemingly straightforward question depend on “beliefs”? Kasting sent me to Briton James Lovelock. An independent scientist who is only loosely affiliated with Oxford University, and who answers to no boss and accepts no grants, Lovelock is a rare breed, a true iconoclast. Forty years ago, he developed the Gaia Hypothesis, which argues that the atmosphere, oceans, surface rocks and all life on the planet form a self-regulating system geared to sustain habitable conditions through a complex set of biological and chemical feedbacks. The gist is that “Gaia” is a single living organism. In other words, she’s alive.
When he introduced it in the late 1960s, this was radical stuff, embraced by environmentalists because it gave their activism a scientific backbone and pilloried by the heavies of biology (Richard Dawkins among them) precisely because of its tinge of anthropomorphism. Forty years on, whether the Earth is ‘alive’ remains an open question. “I think the biologists have not yet produced a satisfactory definition of ‘life,’” Lovelock told me over a patchy VoIP line to his countryside home in Devon, England. “They say life is something that reproduces itself and corrects the errors of reproduction through natural selection; by such a definition, I’m not alive—because I can’t reproduce.” (He turned 90 last July.)
Given his unique perspective, I wondered what Lovelock would have said to Jared back on 23rd Street. So I asked. His reaction came as a surprise: “It is the most amazing hubris to think of saving, or killing, the Earth—Gaia has survived 3.5 billion years and suffered insults far worse than our actions,” he said. “Your N.Y.C. kid who thinks he can save the planet would do better to think about saving himself.” This is a man whose theory has become save-the-earth dogma, and here he was striking a note of what sounded suspiciously like ambivalence—as in, don’t worry about the planet.
If we can’t stop the Earth from burning up some distant day, I figured Lovelock would have some ideas about putting the brakes on the processes that we can control. And he does: Much to the chagrin of many environmentalists, he’s a proponent of nuclear energy. But, as he enters his 10th decade, his primary focus is getting people to recognize that we, as a species, need to adapt to a new environment regardless of how we ultimately decide to handle energy production in the long term. “We’ve already changed the Earth so much that it would take thousands of years to get back to where we were before we changed it,” he said. “You can’t just expect it all to be returned to normal.”
Yet, that’s exactly what today’s brand of environmentalism seems to be all about. A movement that started with Earth First monkey-wrenching in the 1970s and Greenpeace ship blockades in the 1980s has given way to increasingly facile gestures of self-sacrifice on behalf of Big Blue—car-pooling, recycling, providing your own grocery bags—in the name of “sustainability.” The most troubling aspect of sustainability, to me, is that it implies a certain noble adherence to the status quo, as if good old-fashioned resoluteness itself might stop the change. Climate heading out of control? Why, let’s sustain it! The mentality reminds me of a community action poster I spotted recently in the West Village: “Let’s keep our neighborhood the way it is!” Do they not realize that the West Village, like the rest of Manhattan and the rest of the universe and everything in it, is constantly being torn down and rebuilt? Sustainability, I’m afraid, is not remotely sustainable.
I’m not suggesting we give up on our tepid efforts to rein in resource consumption or to devise a fuel source somehow free of unwanted byproducts. But we need to recognize that even if we were miraculously able to sustain present levels of atmospheric CO2 at 390 parts per million, we’ll still probably melt the ice caps and flood the world’s coasts, from 23rd Street to Vanuatu to Bangladesh, and that loss of land will create a flood of refugees well beyond Biblical proportions. I’m not so sure “sustainability” translates well into all the languages necessary to reach the 5 billion people on the planet who may not be interested in keeping things as they are. Maybe we’re too hung up on trying to preserve Earth in the form we know it from our tiny little corner of time, blind to the fact that it has never been static. I wonder if our concern would, in the end, be more productive if we admitted it’s really our own asses we should be trying to save. I mean, do we really care about Earth itself? The dirt?
Straddling a loaner mountain bike on a windswept crest called Burro Pass, at 11,200 feet, in southeastern Utah’s La Sal Mountains, I suck a breath in over my teeth—anything to glean oxygen from the anemic air. Perched on the tippy-tip of my bike’s saddle, I’ve just zigzagged up a veritable goat path through a stand of aspens, my acid-laden legs pin- wheeling the chain in a position cruelly known as the granny gear.
“Jesus,” I say. “It’s been a while.”
“It’s worth it, though,” says my friend Jackson, snapping pictures of the red rock panorama. More than a mile below our alpine vantage lies a vast, sculpted and very different landscape. It appears strangely exposed, as if the scalp of the Earth has been peeled back to reveal the jumbled geological workings beneath. You would recognize the terra cotta spires and crenellated cliffs as the backdrop to commercials for Marlboro and Ford, not to mention Thelma and Louise’s last hurrah.
Clif, the third member of our party, is nodding and chewing a Clif Bar (no relation).
And I do mean “party.” This modest outing is my version of a bachelor party. In two days, my fiancée, Christelle, and our families will converge on Moab for our wedding.
It’ll be small—14 altogether. Jackson, a minister by virtue of a certificate obtained online from the Universal Life Church in Merced, Calif., and my best friend, will marry us. He’ll triple as the photographer. Clif is a friend from town who agreed to guide us on this section of trail called Hazard County. I’ve ridden bits of it over the years but never linked them the way we’re doing today, a ripping 26.5-mile route, mostly downhill, known as The Whole Enchilada. The name had sounded fitting, given my pending commitment.
From the early planning stages, it was understood that the minister and the groom would need a few days of riding time in the Moab vicinity before the wedding. I wanted to soak in the landscape, which I’d been exploring for almost 20 years, and get in a couple of five-hour mountain bike rides to test my body and cleanse my soul before saying my vows. I needed to be sure I was me for the big moment. And there was no place on Earth like Moab for me to settle into my best self.
I was excited for the wedding but preoccupied with thoughts about where I’d been and how I’d gotten to wherever it is that I am. Unlike Broecker, I could last another 50 years—but what had I done with the first 40?
We pedal into the next section, a steep line scratched into a cattle pasture, with me bringing up the rear. I keep shooting off the single track whenever it turns, which is often, and stop to regroup. It really has been a while—five years, actually. I force out a lungful of air and push off again. Loosening my grip on the bars, I let the bike follow the trail rather than forcing it. As I give in to gravity and slice down through layers of geology, my mind tries to organize my own life into similarly distinct strata, each with its own recognizable formation shaped by unique forces.
It’s an exercise in human nature. We’re predisposed to interpreting Earth through our own experience, and we superimpose our lives on the land to lend it meaning. But considering that the whole of human existence is too brief to appear on standard geological timetables, we inevitably run into the dilemma presented by deep time—when the difference in scale becomes so great that it runs beyond the quantitative and takes on a qualitative character.This, Lovelock pointed out to me, is one reason that “science needs metaphor.” Without it, science only gets us so far. So here’s a metaphor, from John McPhee’s 1981 book, “Basin and Range,” to help explain deep time:
Consider the Earth’s history as the old measure of the English yard, the distance from the King’s nose to the tip of his outstretched hand. One stroke of a nail file on his middle finger erases human history.
McPhee’s comparison captures why it has been so difficult for us human beings to wrap our minds around the terrific notion that we could possibly do anything to indelibly mark the planet. It’s hard to make sense of the contradictions. On the one hand, the scale of things suggests we’re insignificant specks in time and space, flickers on an insignificant particle of the universe; on the other, we’re told that driving to the grocery store to stock up the fridge is ruining the planet.
But all I can think of while I’m cruising down this trail—finally in my groove—is how the planet will ruin me if I crash.
Clif and Jackson are waiting at the next junction, but the trail has widened, so I put my mass to its full advantage and fly on by. I’m bombing down a dirt road at about 45 mph—super loose now—when I round a bend and suddenly find myself surrounded by a forest of blackened trees. I stop and try to take in the scene. A wildfire had swept through, burning everything for several square miles around, and now the charcoal limbs are stenciled in sharp contrast to the Majorelle blue sky and distant red mesas. The scorched scene feels like the period in my life about five years ago when I met Christelle: stark and fascinating in a certain light, but desperately in need of new growth.
This, I realize, is my “minute” for the environment. I am not saving anything, per se, or even making a measurable donation, but it is just such moments that put me in tune with the planet— and somehow that seems important.
Moab has always been this way for me. On my first visit there, in 1992, I fell in with a local legend named Todd Campbell, professional recreationist and author of Moab’s definitive trail guide, “Above & Beyond Slickrock.” I saw him—with his massive black beard, tan forearms as solid as shipping ropes and distaste for authority (and helmets)—as a latter day Ed Abbey, and my guru and guide to this ‘harsh and hostile land.’
Todd showed me that, tough and impervious as it looks and feels, canyon country is shockingly fragile. A thin crust of soil matted with organic material essential for cholla and scrub oak to take root blankets the desert, holding it in place. This protective layer is called cryptobiotic soil, and you’ll notice that it forms firm little mounds of flora from which every bush and tree sprouts. Put a boot in it, or a knobby tire, and the soil crumbles, exposing the loose grains of sand beneath; they’ll be gone with the next wind—and, with them, any hope of vegetation. “Don’t bust the crust” is the local mantra, and it’s what helped me visualize human impact on a larger scale. I’m not sure if I’d say the planet as a whole is exactly fragile, but maybe on its own scale it is.
The notion of a place with a unique environment, requiring its own code, keeps drawing me back to Moab. I got to know myself here, wandering among the labyrinthian rock fins in Arches National Park, hugging sun-warmed boulders and running the flour-fine sand through my fingers. I’ve forged friendships here. For Mother’s Day one year, I brought my mom to show her a natural formation called Delicate Arch, which is easily my favorite place on Earth.
Once, when I lived in Santa Fe, I came camping to the area with my then-wife, on a last-ditch effort to save our marriage. I remember that, as we were coming and she was going, we ran into a woman I knew who lived in New York. It was nothing about her in particular, but the surprise encounter shifted my mind to my deep desire to change my own environment, and I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. It’s the only time I’ve visited Moab when the sense of place lost its grip on my heart, and recognizing that drift hardened my decision to walk away. We didn’t have kids. Each of us still had time. Our marriage felt like a mistake, and, once I knew that in my gut, I couldn’t live with it.
And then I met Christelle, and as we flirted with the prospect of marriage, we kept getting hung up on the where—even before the when and whether were settled. Christelle is French but didn’t want to organize anything overseas; we love New York, but there wasn’t any one place in the city especially meaningful to us both. Sitting on our couch one sunny Sunday, she turned and asked, “What about Delicate Arch? That would be cool, uh?” Indeed. She’d been there with her family when she was 20, and they had hiked the 45 minutes to the arch in the August sun. She felt something like God present there. I’m not remotely religious, but I’d spent many a sunset sitting on the rim of sandstone facing the arch, trying to tune in to some universal truth. So when Christelle suggested we get married at that very spot, any doubts I’d ever had about our relationship vanished like loose sand.
In a way, it was the Earth—or the power of place—that ultimately brought Christelle and me together. We like the fact that if we ever have grandchildren, they’ll know from a glance at our wedding picture precisely where we stood on this planet as we promised the rest of our short lives to each other.
Fifty years from now, Jared Dubin will be nearly as old as Wally Broecker is today. I wondered what he expected to happen by then and how his perspective might have been shaped by a summer of verbal sparring over the environment on the streets of Manhattan, so we met up again just before he went back to school. This time, Jared brought along a friend from the job, a kid from Larchmont, N.Y., named Benjamin Roberts, who was headed to Vassar for his freshman year. He’d taken a year off after high school to travel the third world, and he wore broken-in Birkenstocks and the utilitarian buzz-cut of a rangy backpacker.
Jared bombed as a canvasser. He should have been fired at least six times, for missing both daily and weekly quotas, but he managed to carve out a niche as “the intangibles guy” among the revolving summer crew at Environment New York. Ben, sincere and intense and fast-talking, proved to be a master of “first-responding” people, meaning he was deft at redirecting them toward contributing. By the end, he started telling anyone who agreed with the issues, straight up, that they should get involved. “You lose yourself,” Ben said, explaining what it’s like to be in the canvassing zone. “I have a set of skills now that I believe I can sell anything.” In eight weeks, he hauled in $10,000 in monthly contributions.
As for the issues themselves, both Jared and Ben walked away not knowing quite what to think about where our planet is headed. Both agreed that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill “stinks” and that politics alone probably isn’t the answer to weaning our society from fossil fuels. “Until people get up and go to Washington, and make it seem like this is something that people really care about, politicians are going to do what’s comfortable,” Jared said. “It’s easy to give $10.” Ben jumped in: “We need people willing to go to jail. Willing to get shot.”
Jared and Ben seem willing, but they’re also savvy enough to know that revolting would be a waste unless they know what they’re fighting for. What are they—or any of the rest of us—supposed to make of the conflicting predictions from the scientific world? In January 2009, for instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that the changes in temperature, rainfall and sea level happening as a result of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are “largely irreversible” for 1,000 years after those emissions stop completely. Other scientists warn that even if the ice caps don’t melt, the expansion of warming ocean water will raise the sea level anyway. Some prominent climate scientists insist that we’re doomed if the world doesn’t stop burning coal now, but others, like Broecker, see that prospect as an improbability. He believes we can recapture carbon from the atmosphere and eventually lower CO2 concentrations. But to what levels? Should we dial it back to pre-Industrial Revolution? People in northern Europe might not appreciate the colder climate that would create. An astronomer named Roger Angel, a member of the National Academy of Sciences (read: “not a kook”), argues that we can build a solar shield in space to reflect the sun’s warming rays.
“Is the problem that we’re dependent on oil? Is the problem that the climate is getting warmer? Is it a human problem? Is it a problem with the Earth?” Jared asked. “Is the Earth always going to be here, but maybe we won’t be here in the same capacity?” None of us had easy answers. “There are so many theories,” he said. “It would be nice to know what was correct.”
Despite the unavoidable uncertainties, Jared and Ben seem optimistic about the Earth’s chances. That attitude should come in handy since they’ll probably get stuck with the bulk of the work I suspect it will take for us to adapt to the environment we’re so dramatically reshaping. You could say, of course, that adapting is what we’ve always done—but doesn’t “always” imply forever? Let’s not assume that just because the Earth will be around for long enough to count as forever, we’re guaranteed to be part of the picture. “We’ve got to survive,” Lovelock told me, almost imploring. “We’re a pretty useful species, and it would be an appalling loss to the planet—after waiting three and a half billion years to get us—if we go and knock ourselves off. Because it’s taken the planet that long time to evolve a species who can think and talk, and who can go out in space and see what a marvelous planet it is.”