Saturday, January 28, 2023

#28 / The Mail


"The Mail" is what The New Yorker calls its "Letters to the Editor" feature. "The Mail" always shows up right at the beginning of each issue of the magazine, and it's always the thing that I read first.

I was particularly struck by a letter that appeared in the The New Yorker's December 26, 2022, edition. That was my birthday, but I read the letter before that day actually arrived, the magazine always coming a few days in advance of the date posted on the cover. Here's the letter that captured my attention:

In the Crisis
Elizabeth Kolbert, in her sweeping survey of climate change (“A Vast Experiment,” November 28th), makes a stimulating contribution to the national conversation about this challenge. I especially appreciated her discussion of the role of narratives in spurring (or stalling) action. As Kolbert points out, pessimistic narratives can be limiting. But, in the U.S., examples of making radical change to curb or adapt to the climate crisis are hard to come by. If we incorporated instances of progress into our story of the crisis, perhaps our culture would be more deeply engaged with transitioning to sustainable energy.
One generative source of alternative narratives is Europe, where many communities, cities, and regions have taken transformative measures. Copenhagen, for example, has one of the world’s most successful district-heating systems, which supplies energy to ninety-eight per cent of the city’s buildings, largely by capturing waste heat from electricity plants. The system cuts household bills by nearly fifteen hundred U.S. dollars a year, and saves Copenhagen—which plans to become carbon-neutral this decade—more than seven hundred thousand tons of CO2 emissions annually. Austria offers another encouraging case. Twenty-five years ago, the town of G├╝ssing was one of the poorest in the country, a forgotten frontier along the former Iron Curtain. Since 2001, when the town began producing all of its heat and power from renewables, its economy has been revitalized, and the municipality of four thousand people has become a model for how to transform a place with green energy.
Hervey Scudder
Brattleboro, Vt. 
I appreciated Scudder's observation that there are very few examples, in the United States, of "radical change to curb or adapt to the climate crisis." He is certainly right about that, and yet "radical change" is precisely what is necessary. 
I think Scudder is not only calling us out, but is giving us a hint about where that "radical change" might come from. Both of Scudder's specific examples talk about actions taken at the "local" level - by cities, in fact - and his general statement is that "communities, cities, and regions" are the place where radical changes are occurring in Europe. 

Because the global warming crisis is so "big," so daunting, we tend to think that our "biggest" governments should be taking the lead in addressing it. And, of course, we ultimately do need national (and in fact international) actions to stop the production and burning of hydrocarbon fuels. Still, there is a lot that can be done at a local level, and it's my belief that if we don't start making "radical changes" locally, we will never get to the point of insisting that our state and national governments take the radical steps that they need to take.

Thinking about my own hometown, Santa Cruz, California, what about a city program to plant - and maintain - tens of thousands of trees? What about a door to door effort, at the city level, to retrofit home and business lighting systems to shut off lights and appliances when they are not in use, thus saving power? More ambitiously, what about installing solar collectors on all residential and business structures in the city that have good solar orientation, tying the new power produced into little "microgrids" that cut our dependence on the ever less dependable Investor Owned Utilities (like PG&E) that are currently the only source of power we can access? What about computer-driven systems that can make sure that we "share rides," instead of each individual one of us having to use our individual automobile when we want to go anywhere?

This is only a very "partial list" of locally-based programs that could help reduce our use of fossil fuels, or that otherwise respond in a positive way to the crisis we face. There are a lot more possibilities!
"Radical change" is absolutely needed, and what might be the most radical thing of all would be to start making changes ourselves, locally, right where we live. My very "partial list," here, does not even begin to outline the possibilities - but I bet you get the idea!

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