On a bright Sunday morning last April, I found myself working outside the home of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center here in Memphis, Tennessee, getting it ready for a new coat of paint. It was by no means a volunteer job: landlord Dan LaMontagne is a good friend, and he had offered to pay me a living wage.
(Though I’m fortunate to have a great full-time job, reducing debt from risks taken during the first internet boom is still a priority. Worse than the financial burden: I’ve used it as an excuse for procrastinating on parts of my personal mission, and staying silent on important issues.)
So when Sierra Club activist Steven Sondheim emerged from the building, I felt a mixture of admiration and remorse. Sondheim, a former board member of the Greater Memphis Greenline (and no relation to the lyricist and composer), has worked on sustainable transportation and other local and regional environmental issues, causes to which I’ve contributed little outside a one-year stint as treasurer for the club’s local chapter over ten years ago, and some minor fundraising. Hearing that he’d attended the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in November, and had just given a talk on global warming, I asked about his message.
Gently stepping into my personal space, Steven smiled, then turned serious. “I asked the audience a question, Jeff…the same one I’ll ask you now: of all the organizations and corporations and people in the world that contribute to global warming, who do you think is the worst climate denier, and the worst climate perpetrator of them all?”
Mentally scanning recent news of industrial pollution, auto emissions, factory-farm methane, and consumer waste, I said, “I don’t know, Steve…coal-fired utilities? Factory Farms? Auto pollution? “
“Sure, Jeff…those are all major contributors, in terms of cause. But I say the worst offenders, the biggest climate change deniers—the people most responsible for global warming, are you…and me.”
I was about to defend myself, considering I drive an energy-efficient hybrid car, support sustainable agriculture, have been recycling and free-cycling for years, and have tried to vote for candidates with earth-friendly records. But the fact that he had lumped us both in the same category was disarming. Steven had obviously contributed far more time and effort to sustainability efforts than I, so what could he and I possibly have in common, in terms of actually doing something about it?
He saw my brain doing overtime. “So…you want to know why it’s you and me, Jeff?” I nodded. “Because we both know how serious global warming is. But unlike many climate change deniers, we actually believe it’s a problem, yet we’re not doing anything about it! Oh sure, we recycle, eat less meat…maybe ride our bikes…conserve energy at home—as we should.” I briefly considered defending my semi-paleo dietary habits; Steven wasn’t finished. “At this late stage in the process, Jeff, those things aren’t going to turn global warming around…Jeff, if we don’t take much stronger action soon, we’re going to lose New York City within the next ten years!”
Two parts of my psyche kicked into gear. One said, Jeez, Steve, gimme a break…I live here in Memphis, with enough problems of my own, and if somebody chooses to live in New York, let them worry about moving back from the rising waters. The other part of me knew he was talking about social responsibility, and our roles as intelligent, knowledgeable, American citizens who’ve been letting the big-money players run the show for way too long.
That part of me knew I had shirked my duty to learn what’s really happening with our country’s contribution to climate change, and to find out what I could do to make more of a difference in slowing our heat engine down. Somehow, my mid-90’s passion for helping people discover sustainable food habits had melted away in a mix of entrepreneurial enthusiasm, internet mania, easy access to credit, and never-ending book projects. And all the while I was mired in debt and postponing full-time employment (losing a good marriage in the process), global warming was proceeding at an alarming pace. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know things were getting worse.
Pulling two Worldwatch Institute books off my shelf just now confirmed this. In State of the World 1990, Christopher Flavin’s Slowing Global Warming noted that global temperatures had been rising, with circumstantial links to atmospheric buildup of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane and the introduction of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and that numerous computer models predicted much faster warming that would reach an increase of 4.5 to 9.9 degrees Fahrenheit late in the 21 century. And in Vital Signs 1996, I had actually highlighted sections in which Worldwatch Institute founder Lester Brown informed readers that
- ’95 had been the warmest year since record keeping had begun 130 years earlier
- Industrialized countries had failed to meet the emissions-limiting goal established by the 1992 Earth Summit’s Framework Convention on Climate Change
- A new breed of intense and violent storms in India, Europe and the U.S. illustrated global climate models showing warming oceans releasing more energy into the atmosphere
- The insurance industry, dealing with a surge in claims for weather-related damage, were joining activists and scientists in telling governments to cut dependence on fossil fuels and slow the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases
At the time, I thought I was doing my part by gardening and supporting organic agriculture, and by encouraging my students to practice earth-friendly eating habits. None of these activities were particularly lucrative, so I gradually found myself following the money, working as a freelance food stylist and recipe developer, helping companies sell all sorts of sustenance, much of which involved way more “food miles” than your local farmer’s market. I’ll never forget preparing my first factory-farm pork ribs for the camera. Eventually, I learned that an enterprising food stylist in Memphis a) shouldn’t turn down any paying gigs, and b) better be prepared to style a whole lot of barbeque.
So hearing Steven’s challenge, I knew that I not only hadn’t helped reverse global warming lately; I had actually encouraged it to some degree, meanwhile being lulled into complacency, supporting the environment in the ways that were most convenient for me, while assuming the tough work of activism and education would be covered by people who had the time and inclination for that.
Steven read my mind: “So, Jeff…I say those of us who know have got to act now…we really don’t have the luxury of waiting around for somebody else to do it.”
Motivated, I asked about Steve’s upcoming talks, and in late June, paid my first visit to a gathering of the Memphis Friends Meeting, a group of Quakers to whom Steven posed the same question he had to me. In the next blog post, I’ll share what I’ve begun learning from that talk, and how it got me thinking differently about what I’m doing here on the planet.