The carbon thing

I take the train down to Harrisburg for a wedding, three hours or so via Philadelphia. My hotel is within walking distance of the train station downtown, but to get just about anywhere else in Harrisburg you need to drive. I end up chauffeuring the bride’s mother and two cousins across the river to the wedding site, a park overlooking the city, in a car belonging to one of the maids of honor.

Between the ceremony and the reception, someone hands the groom an Obama button, which he pins as a clasp over his boutonniere.

That night, out on the terrace of the hotel suite where a sort of after-party is being held, a middle-aged couple are discussing something.

“Does it look to you like anyone’s in that office building across the way?” they ask. It doesn’t.

“We were wondering why they left all those lights on.” We agree that far too many lights get left on.

“We eat dinner by candlelight,” the wife says, “and J— is very strict about running around the apartment making sure all the lights are off.”

“Still,” the husband says, “you wonder if the carbon emissions from the candles are worse than using electric lights.”

“My roommates are terrible about leaving lights on,” I offer. “They’ll go to bed with two or three lights on all over the apartment. It must be how they were raised. My parents really drilled it into us to turn off lights.” We discuss the viability of motion sensors.

The next day, at a wedding brunch at the bride’s uncle’s sprawling suburban house, the talk turns to SUVs. A—, a friend of the bride, says, “You know those people who can’t imagine having any other kind of car? They’re so proud of their new SUV. They’re all, ‘Let me show you my beautiful new Escalade.’ I mean, they haven’t even learned to be ashamed of it.”

“Sure, we all enjoy luxury,” someone pipes in. “But let’s call it what it is. We all enjoy riding around in a luxury SUV.”

A— continues, “And then they say, ‘I just love to be high up off the ground.’ Seriously, if you fell like that about traffic, you shouldn’t even be driving.”

I catch the train back to New York. A friend of the groom’s, C—, is spending the summer in Brooklyn and is on the same train. She teaches at a public college in Houston and pulls out a stack of papers to grade.

“I gave my students an open research paper assignment, and a lot of them decided to write about the high price of gas,” she says. “And they wrote some of the best papers I’ve ever graded. These kids are poor, working hard for a living, and you can’t get anywhere without a car. And some of them are paying, they told me, a hundred and fifty dollars a week for gas. The class average was like fifty dollars.

“So these kids, I should call them students, young adults, were really questioning why gas was so high. And they did the research and started coming up with some answers. Not really deep, but still the most radical stuff I’ve read from students in, well, forever. They’re getting really pissed off about the people who put us in this situation.”

We talk about how you can’t get around in most of the country without a car. Houston is a nightmare, C— says. She tries to bike a lot but the streets are unfriendly; public services are so pared back that central streets don’t even have streetlights. I tell her about visiting my brother in central Florida last year, how I suddenly realized that if you were poor you still had to drive everywhere and could basically lose your job if your car broke down and you couldn’t figure out an alternative.

Last week, talking to some friends from California, they, too, complain about the cost of gas.

“It’s not going to go down,” I say.

“Thanks a lot,” they say.

“I’m just letting you know. There’s basically no excess production capacity, and global demand is rising, so it’s just economics — the price is going to keep going up.”

My friends say they couldn’t take public transit even if they wanted to because their jobs require them to be in various locations from day to day. I suggest they should support public subsidies for mass transit anyway, because if fewer other people are driving there will be less traffic and less pollution. “Yeah,” they say, “but if the government took our tax money for mass transit, we’d never know where it really went. They’d probably just use it to send illegal immigrants to college.”

Back home, I read a piece by James Hansen (of NASA! not quite an astronaut, but still) about evidence the carbon thing being more serious and requiring more immediate action than we’ve thought. I wonder if, in ten or fifteen years, we’ll look back on this time and shake our heads. “We thought that could save us,” we’ll say, referring to compact-fluorescent bulbs or electing a particular presidential candidate. “Can you believe it?”

23 responses to “The carbon thing”

  1. they haven’t even learned to be ashamed of it

    Funny, in a very dark way.

    Not ten minutes ago as I was driving to work and thinking about Martha‘s post yesterday and whether I should buy a motor for my bicycle to make bike commuting feasible, and whether I would actually do it if I had the motor — roads around here are not particularly friendly to bikes — I had this image of myself driving along the road every morning and afternoon for the next several years, and of the soot coming out of my exhaust pipe. Not a pleasant picture.

  2. PB says:

    I can see the turtle singing –
    “Duck and cover! Hey kids, where would we go if the nuclear bomb hit this side of the classroom!”

    We never learn.

  3. Rogan says:

    Whether this current wave of environmentalism will ‘save’ the planet or not, it should improve things locally. There will be more days that I can see the San Gabriel mountains from my home. There will be fewer cases of asthma. There will be less garbage in the streets. Our reactions to global warming may be too little too late, but we may as well tidy up before we head to our collective funeral.

  4. Marleyfan says:

    So, do ya’ll think I should sell my Hummer H1? If I do, someone else is going to drive it, and use the gas…

    By the way, SSW is in Wenatchee, and learned to shoot a shotgun yesterday. If it ever gets to be as bad as Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, she’ll be ready!

  5. Godfree says:

    they haven’t even learned to be ashamed of it

    One of the things that I really dislike about the tone of so many global warming discussions is the finger wagging that often occurs. We look for anyone who’s worse than we are so we can feel better about ourselves. This will climax with the US pointing the finger at China and India (which we already do to an extent) even though the US emitts more green house gasses in real and per capita terms.

    Until we address the larger system, we are fucked — period. SSW, I’d love to join you on the range.

    Sorry so bleak (SSB).

  6. Tim says:

    Check out a recent effort to raise awareness for biking in LA. It’s bike-to-work week, everybody! I don’t think I’ll be doing *this* any time soon, though.

    In fact, while it’s thrilling to watch this video and it makes quite a statement, I’m not sure how much good a stunt like this could do.

  7. Godfree says:

    White people do the dumbest shit.

  8. Dave says:


    I’m totally in favor of other people pulling stunts like that. Not me.

    Last year I biked to work a dozen or so times on my lovable foldy bike, but I have a hard time facing Brooklyn traffic before I’m fully awake. It took about the same time as my subway commute, though, and I felt great by the time I got to the office.

    I concur with #5.

  9. Biking to work instead of taking the subway can be fun, but you don’t really need to worry that you are contributing environmental destruction by failing to do it — I think the choice between bike and mass transit is pretty carbon-neutral.

  10. bw says:

    yeah, but biking makes your body feel better.

  11. Agreed: I’m totally in favor of it.

  12. trixie says:

    arrgh those critical mass people drive me nuts.
    people that are in cars are only pissed off by these shenanigans, and then they take it out on hapless bike commuters. (like me).
    though in that video, it didn’t appear that the kids were actually cutting off traffic and interfering with the flow- that’s what they do here during their demonstrations.

  13. Scotty says:

    That hit me like a kick in the gut.

  14. swells says:

    My heart is broken. I have been preparing a lecture on him all last night and this morning for tonight. I can hardly bear to give it now. I can’t even stand it.

  15. Rachel says:

    Wow. I recently watched this documentary about him and was blown away. The 2 Furlong Piece was just extraordinary. r.i.p. indeed.

  16. I didn’t know much about Mr. Rauschenberg prior to reading his obit; I really like this observation of his: “Screwing things up is a virtue. Being correct is never the point.”

  17. Scotty says:

    Bob’s, Erased de Kooning Drawing, is my favorite work of all time.

  18. bw says:

    swells — can you turn it into an appreciation for W Coast Wednesday? i’d love to hear what you have to say.

    Rausch is the subject of one of my favorite NYC biographies, Calvin Tompkins’ Off the Wall, for anyone who wishes they knew him a little better.

  19. bw says:

    ps thanks, scott, for that link — cool site design. and i agree, pure genius from mr. r.

  20. swells says:

    already thinking about it, bw, and will see if i can work it in (I won’t be home from school till 11 or so, so maybe not). but i’m feelin it deeply.

  21. brooke says:

    #12: I’m right there with you. I appreciate and encourage the need for greater awareness of bicyclists and pedestrians on the roads and in urban centers, but Critical Mass has long since given up that mantle in favor of being an annoying and counter-productive production.

    Not only do they infuriate drivers, they frustrate and intimidate public transportation users, pedestrians, and even other cyclists who don’t share their misguided activism. And secondly, they lack a sense of humor. Critical mass can still kiss my pedestrian ass.

  22. David Byrne has written a lovely memoir of his interactions with Rauschenberg in today’s NY Times.