Monday, October 15, 2007


So I just found out (courtesy the Google Blog) that today is Blog Action Day. I immediately flashed back to 1996, the day that the Internet went dark, and reasoned that this must be some sort of similar, social activism thing. Sort of... unlike the previous mass movement, this is using technology in one medium (the Internet) to draw attention to an issue in another area (the environment). There really aren't any rules - anyone can post about anything - so I figured, why not? I'll warn you ahead of time that I'm not coming into this post with any real thesis, so be prepared for a fuzzy and very possibly pointless post.

I'll be honest with you: the environment tends to land really low on my personal list of political priorities, below issues such as censorship, civil liberties and social justice. In my personal life, it's something that I try to be sensitive to when it's convenient... I'm really good about recycling (fortunately, San Jose goes out of its way to make this easy for me), I use very little energy and gasoline (these are arguably byproducts of my tendency to be cheap), and I buy local, organic food. Still, I just don't spend much time thinking about it. I don't get teary about the rainforests, I can't get worked up about China's coal industry, and I'm more interested in the science of fuel cells than their impact on emissions.

That said, I recognize that my life today is far better than it would have been if we hadn't had an environmental movement. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I benefit greatly from the foresight and hard work of my predecessors. A while ago I saw a side-by-side photo contrasting the view from downtown San Jose in 1976 with that of 2006. Those thirty years made an incredible difference: in the 1970's, you couldn't even see the mountains, and the landscape faded away into a sickly haze. These days, though, you can see for miles and miles around, and I can attest that from the mountains in the South Bay you can see all the way up to San Francisco, or even east to the Sierra Nevadas on a clear day.

So why was there a change? It was the result of political will, individual sacrifice, hard work, and much enforcement and expense. At a national level, we removed leaded fuels from our cars and started installing catalytic converters. California, which is hurt by smog more than most areas due to its large populations in confined valleys, went even further. They demanded even higher standards of fuel efficiency from autos, required a special blend of clean-burning gasoline be sold during the smog-intense summer months, and most radically of all, require every vehicle in the state to receive a smog certification every two years before a license will be issued or renewed. Why go to all this expense and effort? Everything is done for the specific purpose of eliminating smog from our air, and that means tracking down the so-called "Gross Polluters" - the 10% of vehicles that produce over 50% of the smog in our state.

As you can imagine, there has been plenty of grumbling about all this. Some are upset at the expense, others at the inconvenience, still others at the idea of living in a nanny state. It has produced a specific and valuable benefit, though. I can see the mountains, I can deeply breathe the fresh air, I can spend hours cycling or hiking without getting short of breath, and I don't cringe when it rains. This past year, the Bay Area had only a single day when it exceeded the federal clean air guidelines. That value goes up and down from year to year, but the past decade has been quite good compared to the pre-environmental-activism era.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that these problems aren't intractable. Global warming is a huge issue, and one that could potentially have catastrophic long-term effects on our way of life, but that does not mean it is hopeless. We've seen in the past that by carefully passing laws, examining the science and sociology of human behavior, incenting different behaviors, and enforcing standards, we can deal with changes in our environment, and even roll back the clock and undo some of the damage we've done.

I'm not saying that this will be an easy thing to do. We've been dumping carbon into the air since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and we won't be able to change our societies overnight, nor turn some magic spigot and drain all the offending gases from our atmosphere. But I think this is a solvable problem, and we won't know how hard it will be until we start trying to do something about it.

For myself, I'll continue doing the little things in my own life to act as a better global citizen, and will listen with interest to any big ideas about how we can best deal with this situation. It may be a technologically-driven change; I'm intrigued by Richard Branson's challenge, and encouraged by some work being done here in Silicon Valley to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It may be a politically-driven change; greater regulation of industry and better support of mass transit could have a big, positive impact on the environment and our nation. My feeling is that it will be some combination, with technology pointing us towards a less painful solution and laws encouraging people to take advantage of it. We'll see what happens. There will probably be bumps ahead, but a century from now, we'll be glad we started when we did.

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