Two items rattled across my desk that, at first glance, didn’t appear to share much in common.
The first, a letter from former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and his wife, Lee Udall, to their grandchildren, appeared in Colorado-based High Country News, “a nonprofit media organization whose mission is to inform and inspire people to act on behalf of the West’s land, air, water and inhabitants.
The second item is an annual publication of High Country News’ spiritual opposite: The Index of Leading Environmental Indicators (2008) by the Pacific Research Institute, a think tank in San Francisco. PRI’s president recently penned “Earth Day doomsayers need to get their facts right,” a piece in which she describes Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Truth” as “convenient fiction” — a pretty good hint at where the institute is coming from.
In their letter, the Udalls seek to persuade the family that will outlive them to engage in a “lifetime crusade…to develop a new energy ethic to sustain life on earth.” Stewart Udall expresses regret for his role in the creation of the national highway system “on the shortsighted assumption that cheap oil was super-abundant and would always be available. This illusion began to unravel in the 1970s, and it haunts Americans today.”
In the PRI report, author Steven F. Hayward attempts to dispel what he characterizes as misplaced, overwrought pessimism about the environment, particularly in the United States. Yes, the United States emits more greenhouse gases per capita than any other nation. But it also managed to lower emissions in 2006 by 1.5 percent, he notes.
Americans emit greater greenhouse gases, the PRI report says, because we live better than the rest of the world, including Europeans. We’ve got bigger homes, more air conditioning and an overall higher standard of living. Barring a huge breakthrough in carbon-free electricity, the PRI report asserts, we would have to shrink our economy and lower our standard of living to reach an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 — the goal cited by both Democrat presidential candidates, and by states including California and Minnesota (Oregon is shooting for 75 percent by 2050). Hayward doesn’t offer an explicit alternative to that goal, although he implies that we’ll have to aim lower, if we aim at all.
The Udalls also foresee a shrinking — but one that the United States has no choice but to embrace. Even with technological advances that reduce our need for fossil fuel-driven electricity, “Americans must finally cast aside our notion that we can continue the wasteful consumption patterns of our past. We must promote a consciousness attuned to a frugal, highly efficient mode of living.” The Udalls cast this new frugality as a must, which we must aspire to.
No matter what your perspective — shrinking is bad, can’t happen; shrinking is good, must happen — 2050 is 42 years away.