The Next Steps Toward a Sustainable Planet

Environmental activist Laurie David gives a state of the union on the environment.


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DISCOVER asked Laurie David, a climate activist who co-produced "An Incon­venient Truth" and rallied more than a million people at StopGlobal­ Warming.org, to introduce the Better Planet special section of the May 2008 issue.

A couple of years ago, I had dinner with Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan woman who became the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She has spent the past three decades, with limited resources, inspiring the planting of 40 million trees across Africa and spreading the message that protecting the environment protects democracy. She explained her “lightbulb moment” (the spark that set her on her journey as an activist) to me this way: “Passion begins with a burden and a split-second moment when you understand something like never before. That burden is on those who know. Those who don’t know are at peace. Those of us who do know get disturbed and are forced to take action.”

A simple observation sparked my own journey as a global warming activist. While pushing my kids in their stroller around my neighborhood in Los Angeles 13 years ago, I noticed the enormous number of SUVs on the roads. My friends had them; they clogged the school parking lot and filled the spaces at the grocery store. They were everywhere, it seemed. I picked up Keith Bradsher’s book, High and Mighty, about the proliferation of SUVs and how they were harming America. It dawned on me then what SUVs must be doing to the climate. That was my lightbulb moment, the one that led me to devote countless hours working to get these issues into the popular culture. The world’s best scientists had been talking about the threat of global warming for about 30 years, but during much of that time the idea was understood by only a handful of people. My role was straightforward: to de-wonkify global warming so every American could understand our collective fate and do something about it.

Since that day, I’ve learned a whole lot more about the tough challenges we face as a society. I now know that global warming is about simple choices we make—what kind of car we drive and what kind of lightbulbs we use—but that is just the beginning. The place we need to get to has to include a complete shift in consciousness. We need to fundamentally rethink our whole relationship with the planet. We’re tearing through a finite supply of natural resources. We’re polluting the dwindling supply of freshwater. We’re wrecking the soil necessary to feed the world. We have a lot of work to do.

Now that the public comprehends global warming and demands swift action, deeper questions about our legacy are being posed in living rooms and boardrooms around the world. Even if we rise to meet the challenge of averting catastrophic climate change, how can we be seen as heroes in the eyes of our grandchildren if we fail to become a more sustainable society in all respects?

Presently the magnitude of the response isn’t equivalent to that of the problem. As we approach—and perhaps careen past—a critical tipping point in climate disruption, our options for correcting the balance will become increasingly urgent, perhaps controversial. Proposed solutions will no doubt generate spirited discussion; some will be political minefields, and not one will be a silver bullet.

Several of the strategies that might have helped a decade or two ago may now be just marginally worth pursuing or a complete waste of time and effort, like coal-to-liquid technologies and the ever-elusive “hydrogen economy” touted by President Bush. These ideas sound too good to be true, and many experts have written them off. We’re learning now that not all ethanol is the same and that there may be better uses for corn than fueling cars.

Other strategies that should have been ramped up long ago are just starting to get the recognition they deserve. We should be much further along in developing solar power, for instance, but there was no system in place to nurture its growth. The one in place now is still inadequate.

It is encouraging to see individuals and business leaders thinking creatively and using their entrepreneurial senses to explore all the potential—almost certainly lucrative—clean-energy solutions. From capturing wind and wave energy off our shores to harnessing human energy from the floors of Grand Central Terminal or tapping heat under the earth’s crust, there are exciting developments on the outer reaches of our imagination.

There are going to be tough calls, and many proposed ideas will be distasteful to large numbers of people. Each technology has its champions and detractors. There is no global governing body or clear market signal emerging to pick the winners. Champions and detractors will have to compromise, but all can trust that we are headed toward stabilizing and lowering atmospheric carbon dioxide and restoring a sustainable relationship with the planet.

If we remain timid and hold back the engine of ingenuity, we could experience unimaginable and irreversible consequences. Dave Hawkins, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Climate Center, put it to me this way: “If you had a choice to be in a car crash going 5 miles an hour or one going 50 miles an hour, which would you choose?” Will we do what is necessary to avert the larger collision ahead?

We can still curb global warming and achieve sustainability, but it will require hard work, ingenuity, and a strong public mandate, combined with personal change—perhaps, dare I say it, even some level of sacrifice.

Of course the true sacrifice will come only if we do nothing.

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