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Taking it personally
In the fight against global warming, local activists are walking the walk
BY LINDA FALKENSTEIN APRIL 19, 2007
This is the year Al Gore won an Academy Award for his documentary ‘ really more of a disaster movie ‘ about global warming. An Inconvenient Truth was a surprisingly entertaining ride through blind misdeeds to the planet that have left Homo sapiens teetering on the edge of disaster. Is there still time to save life on earth as we know it?
Even as the film made Al Gore the unlikely Angelina Jolie of climate change, the man who was once the next president of the United States was ripped by the right-leaning Tennessee Center for Policy Research for not being energy efficient in his own lifestyle. His home near Nashville, the group charged, uses more than 20 times as much electricity as the national average.
While some have defended Gore and challenged the group’s claims, the incident underscores the importance of not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Turning back the clock on global warming requires not just rhetoric but personal sacrifice.
Governments have an essential role to play. The federal government can insist on higher fuel-efficiency standards and promote alternative sources of energy. President Bush, seen by many as an impediment to progress, has called for a 20% cut in gasoline usage over the next 10 years.
In Wisconsin, Rep. Spencer Black and Sen. Mark Miller have introduced a ‘Global Warming Solutions’ bill modeled on a landmark law in California. It seeks to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels. Black says possible approaches could include the use of more fuel-efficient vehicles, the development of biofuels, incentives for buying hybrid cars, an increase in mass transit, and other initiatives to reduce reliance on automobiles.
Locally, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz has embraced a ‘Natural Step’ program to maximize the city’s energy efficiency. But the city council last month defeated a proposed ordinance to require landlords to use more energy-efficient lighting.
These initiatives aside, it’s clear, at least to some people, that turning back the clock on global warming will require widespread changes in personal behavior. The whole of our society is complicit in energy policies that have clogged the atmosphere; thus we all need to help find solutions.
But how great a role?
A common criticism is that the kinds of changes recommended for the average Joe ‘ buy a more efficient refrigerator, ease off on the heat and air-conditioning, use fluorescent bulbs ‘ are too slight. But when advocates advance more dramatic proposals ‘ fining people for driving gas guzzlers, making it harder to park, enforcing carpooling ‘ they are met with derision.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t point to global warming as a looming catastrophe that cries out for forceful action, then ridicule and dismiss all calls for dramatic change.
In Madison, as throughout the nation, some individuals are taking personal responsibility for the problems caused by global warming. They are setting an example for others by altering the way they live their lives.
As we head into the 37th annual Earth Day this weekend, we’ve picked a half-dozen such souls from the Madison community, to present a range of responses to the crisis of global warming.
Finding win-win solutions
Jon Foley is not a pessimist. He knows the challenge is great, but he’s up to it.
‘To pretend everything is fine, to keep on dancing on the deck of the Titanic, is not smart,’ says Foley, 38, director of the Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment at UW-Madison. But he doesn’t think all is lost: ‘We have to get started on solving these problems now ‘ but we also have some time to keep working on them.’
Foley knows it’s frustrating that many solutions seem small: ‘One percent here and there. But if we keep at it and look at the long term,’ these little actions add up. Besides, encouraging small changes is more effective than ‘screaming at people about how we are going to have to live in caves and eat tofu by candlelight from now on.’
Where is the best place to direct our attentions? Foley plays the ‘win-win’ card. Almost everything that ordinary people do to help save the planet will save them money too.
Among his suggestions: Use compact fluorescents instead of incandescent bulbs. Get a home energy audit. Install additional insulation and weather stripping. Have your furnace inspected, and change the filter regularly for better performance.
Foley doesn’t mince words about SUVs: Don’t drive them. He blames much of the U.S.’s abysmal per-capita energy consumption on these ‘living rooms on wheels.’ Buy a smaller car, he advises, or use the bus system.
In his own case, Foley used to live in Mazomanie and commute. But he moved to live close enough to walk to work. His four-member family, including two drivers, gets by with one car. He takes a taxi when the need arises, which he says is far cheaper than insurance and maintenance on a second car.
Foley and his family have managed to cut their home energy usage in half, mainly through upgrading appliances. They get by without air-conditioning. He’s looking to make other changes to his home, built in 1910 ‘ better windows, a new furnace, maybe even a solar water heater. He sees it as a five-year process. He spins it as ‘not a sacrifice, but living smarter.’
In addition, Foley’s family buys 100% wind power through a green energy program that Madison Gas & Electric hopes to expand in 2008 (currently there’s a waiting list). And he’s planted trees, which absorb carbon dioxide, keeping it out of the atmosphere.
The good news, says Foley, is that solutions to global warming ‘are in our grasp. We have the engineering solutions we need.’ And while he’s troubled that the state is eying more coal-fired power plants, he’s encouraged by signs that it’s helping to develop cleaner energy.
‘It’s time to become leaders in this field,’ he says. ‘This is a whole new industry, and Wisconsin could become the go-to place in the world for renewable energy and smart biofuels. It’s a great business opportunity.’
Curtailing auto use
Mike Neuman has been working on ‘the car problem,’ as he calls it, for 25 years. His original job for the state Department of Natural Resources was to study the environmental impacts of state highway projects.
Looking at emissions and the effect of highways, he saw that car emissions were clearly causing environmental harm, including forest and wetland loss. And he tied vehicle emissions to an increase in asthma attacks, including the one that killed Madison Times publisher Betty Franklin-Hammonds after a peak traffic period.
In 1999, Neuman made headlines when he proposed a plan to actually pay people not to drive. An uproar ensued, and Neuman ended up being reassigned within the DNR. Having him continue to review environmental impact statements, he says, was ‘just too much for them.’
Neuman cites evidence that the climate is warming faster than scientists previously predicted. ‘We can’t put this off. We have to reduce motor vehicle use, increase mass transit use, particularly buses, get rid of single drivers and instead carpool.’
And while Neuman, 57, still owns a car, he tries to use it as seldom as possible. He bought his near-west-side home more than 20 years ago, and always commuted to his job downtown via bike or bus. ‘I can’t say I’m 100% non-driving, but I’m more watchful in terms of how many miles I drive.’
Neuman considers environmental advocacy his second job. He frequently writes letters to the editor and to public officials. He has testified before legislative committees, and works within groups, including the Preserve Our Climate Coalition and the Madison Bus Advocates. He also writes for madisonindymedia.org on environmental issues.
The number-one thing people can do to combat global warming, says Neuman, is to cut back on auto use. ‘The auto is the worst thing to ever happen to the environment,’ he says.
Well, actually, it’s the second worst thing. Air travel, it turns out, is even more of a burden on the environment, per passenger mile, than driving cars. Neuman suggests that people fly less and ‘invest in forestry somewhere’ to offset the impact of jet fuel emissions.
Andy Olsen, 46, has long cared about the environment. The former Dane County supervisor (and, briefly, Madison alder) is now a policy advocate for the Environmental Law and Policy Center. He’s working on ‘repowering the Midwest,’ helping farmers invest in cleaner, renewable energies. This involves some ‘rabblerousing in very rural America,’ where farmers and environmentalists have often disagreed. A big part of his work is to form coalitions with ag groups.
Olsen helps farmers to become more energy-efficient and utilize renewable technologies like wind, solar power and biofuel. This allows agriculture to be ‘more part of the solution than the problem’ in terms of global warming. And farmers can own the energy-creating systems, so these initiatives contribute to rural economic development as well as environmental protection.
One innovative project Olsen supports is the Farmers Union Carbon Credit Program. It would pay landowners for storing carbon in their soil through ‘no-till crop production and longtime grass-seeding practices.’ The Farmers Union would then trade the carbon credits on the Chicago Climate Exchange. Big companies could purchase these credits to offset their emissions. Thus industry would foot the bill to pay farmers for following environmentally sound practices.
At home, too, Olsen looks out for the health of the planet. Last year, as a birthday gift, he got a portable solar panel that folds up like a briefcase ‘ basically a solar generator that recharges batteries.
Olsen and his wife, Debra Stapleton, have bought a hybrid car, invested in a high-efficiency washing machine and an energy-efficient refrigerator and are continuing to weatherize their home. He’s also looking at installing solar space heating. He uses compact fluorescent bulbs, and has given these bulbs as Christmas gifts. Through such means, he estimates he’s cut his energy use by 30%.
‘Before you go solar, start with efficiency,’ he advises. ‘It gives the most bang for your buck.’
Having faith in the future
Dave Steffenson, a Methodist pastor, retired in 2000 and began working with Wisconsin congregations to reduce the ecological footprint of churches and parishioners. He’s now acting director of the Wisconsin Interfaith Climate and Energy Campaign, preaching that protecting the planet invokes three central precepts of the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Stewardship. In Genesis, it says the role of humans is to take care of the earth for all creation.
Justice. The role of religion to speak for the voiceless ‘ including, in this case, the natural world.
Values. The prophets and Jesus believed in a life
not based in materialism. People of faith are called on to live a sustainable lifestyle.
Even so, urging people of faith to change their ways is a challenge, says Steffenson, because ‘congregations have not had environmentalism in their self-image.’ Some Christians on the extreme right ‘misunderstand environmental themes, see it as pagan or New Age, nature worship or blasphemy.’ But he sees a shift occurring, especially among younger church members.
Churches themselves can be somewhat wasteful, because they tend to be large buildings that are not in constant use. Steffenson likes to start with noncontroversial changes, like switching to compact fluorescent lighting, and move on to larger projects, like advocacy to the Legislature.
Steffenson, 69, has a long history of activism, starting with civil rights campaigns in the 1960s and the peace movement during the Vietnam War. He became interested in environmental issues when he moved to Green Bay in 1972. The environment, he says, is a ‘good way to get at a whole lot of social issues.’
He moved to central Madison so he could walk more, noting that he’s getting a little old to bike. He owns a hybrid car and buys locally grown food.
‘I’m just one indicator of the religious community in U.S. becoming aware of the threat [to] nature and becoming active,’ says Steffenson, who has 14 grandchildren and is ‘haunted by whether they will curse us in the future. We have a very short time to do the turnaround. That’s what motivates me.’
Pulling out all the stops
Jan Sweet, 48, is not actually a global-warming activist. He is, however, vehemently anti-car.
Sweet’s crusade to reduce oil use would doubtless help combat global warming, even though he is ‘neutral’ on the issue of climate change. ‘Weather does change in cycles,’ he says. ‘I’m not on board with global warming 100%.’
But Sweet does think humans have failed to manage the earth’s resources. Instead, ‘we extracted and exploited,’ creating a world of trouble.
Sweet devotes himself full time to raising public awareness over our finite supply of oil. He fronts a Madison group called Cities Without Cars, devoted to reducing oil dependence and strategizing ways to survive when oil is no longer available.
‘Maybe when the car you have right now reaches its maturity, you don’t get another one,’ he suggests. In the future he foresees, with more co-housing, groups of 25 families could share one or two cars.
He has proposed building new housing without parking and a ban on auto ads. He’s called for capping buildings at five stories in anticipation of the day when there won’t be enough electricity to run elevators. He’d plant fruit trees around town to stave off famine from breakdowns in the food supply.
To the extent that there’s been a response at all to Sweet’s push, it’s been hostile. A Wisconsin State Journal editorial has deemed his proposals ‘twaddle.’
Yet it may be a misstep to dismiss his ideas out of hand. One of Sweet’s more recent proposals, to charge drivers a toll to drive into central Madison, is modeled on a system adopted in London in 2003. If you’ve ever been stalled in a bottleneck on East Johnson or University Avenue heading in or out of the isthmus, you can see how the argument makes some sense. Even if everyone were driving a Prius, there would still be a traffic jam.
Sweet’s concerns about cars destroying communities started decades ago, when he went to the UW-Milwaukee for a degree in urban planning. He gave up his car in late 1980s. ‘The first year was the hardest,’ he relates. ‘It gets easier.’ Living in Madison ‘ a walkable city with good public transportation ‘ makes things a bit easier.
If some of Sweet’s ‘little economies’ seem a bit offbeat, his goal is sincere: ‘I’m tickled to think that I am doing something to help Madison.’
Getting by with less
Marion Stuenkel is so conscious of her carbon output she didn’t go to a family gathering in Ohio last Christmas. The 60-year-old grandmother could have ridden in a car with other family members ‘ as they pointed out, she wouldn’t be using up any extra energy ‘ but Stuenkel held her ground. ‘You have to give up the idea that you will only be happy through traveling,’ she says.
Stuenkel’s parents were conservationists. Her father, a steelworker, once turned down a job at a nuclear plant: ‘There was always a sense that we were mindful of the environment.’ She moved to Madison in 1993, in part to be closer to her son. ‘I didn’t want to waste energy going back and forth from New Mexico to Wisconsin.’
Last year, Stuenkel retired from her state job, after calculating that she could get by on retirement benefits. Given her lifestyle, it doesn’t take much.
Stuenkel avoids shopping, because ‘we don’t need all this stuff that we’re advertised into buying.’ She walks or takes a bus most places she goes; she owns only a few pieces of clothing; she drinks tap water. Her view is that stuff generates more stuff: If you buy books, you need a bookcase. Clothes need hangers. Bottled water generates bottles.
Because most grocery store food is transported long distances, she buys food only at farmers’ markets. That means this time of year, her diet is ‘somewhat restricted.’ The one indulgence she hasn’t given up, yet, is coffee.
If this makes retirement ‘ a time when others are playing golf and taking Caribbean cruises ‘ sound like enforced penury, Stuenkel doesn’t see it that way. As she puts it, ‘Working all your life does not give you license to destroy the environment.’
Stuenkel admits it’s been hard not to travel. She’d always dreamed of seeing the Great Wall of China; she has friends in New Mexico and a Swedish exchange ‘sister’ she may never see again. But she prefers to see the positives in staying put. She calls it ‘gathering appreciation’ and ‘swearing stability.’
In her 644-square-foot apartment on Madison’s east side, Stuenkel unplugs appliances (including her refrigerator) when they’re not in use and relies on natural light when she can. If she needs to use the Internet, she goes to the library. She uses a solar oven for her personal cooking. It’s portable and can cook eggs in about two hours, she reports, so long as the sun is shining. And when it’s not? ‘You don’t always have to eat cooked food.’
While Stuenkel believes in everything she’s doing, she is not one to force her practices on others. But she thinks others will come around as the need for change becomes more evident.
‘All this stuff has been thought of before and shoved aside,’ she says. ‘Thoreau has one paragraph that says it all.’ She’s referring, of course, to his classic advice: ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity!’ He wasn’t ahead of his time, says Stuenkel, so much as we are behind ours.