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Eco-Tizzy

March 11, 2007|Dan Neil

I am still celebrating the Oscar win of Al Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," but then the truth has been inconveniencing me for some time. Actually, I've been freaking out about global warming since the late 1980s. I've also been in a dead panic about: declining bee populations, industrial fishing, the African bush meat crisis, and the desertification of northern Africa and its effects on Caribbean coral. Between one thing and another, I've become quite the eco-weenie.

But nothing winds my stem like global warming. Never mind the "global" part of it. This is retail anxiety for me. I make it a practice to spend at least 20 minutes a day worried sick about crop failures and the collapse of the oceanic food chain. It's like yoga for neurotics.

Naturally, I've done the usual things people do to reduce the size of their "carbon footprint"--the phrase describing the total output of greenhouse gases (due to fossil fuel consumption) for which one is personally responsible. For example, I've replaced the light bulbs in my house with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL's), those swirly deals that produce the same illumination using up to 75% less energy, last 10 times as long (10,000 hours) and save me about $30 apiece on my power bills during their cheery lives. You should too.

If every American household screwed in just one CFL, it would be like taking 800,000 cars off the road, or several Hummers.

In any event, I've got carbon OCD. I can't tell you how many times I've turned off the lights on my wife in the kitchen. I've recycled everything but the cat. I take Navy showers. And still I feel like I've got a Bozo-sized carbon footprint.

That's the trouble with personalizing global warming too much. In other areas of concern, I can take decisive action--I buy almost no African bush meat, for example. But short of vanishing from the planet, I cannot help but cast a carbon shadow, and it's making me just a little nuts. Now I find myself looking at grapes imported from Chile by Whole Foods and calculating the energy--and, ineluctably, the carbon emissions--that brought those succulent fruits to me. Mournfully, I've put those grapes down and pushed on. How many carbon-calories are invested in the calorie-free sparkling water from Germany that I like so much? Too many. Beef? Forget it. Between the methane from cattle production, the razing of forests for grazing land and the stupendous amounts of fossil fuel (and water) it takes to turn Bessie into burger, I can't bear the guilt. The juicy, savory guilt.

Trying to be a better global citizen is making me an awful party host: Please, try the millet. More tap water?

For the carbon-conflicted, there's hope. A company called TerraPass sells what amounts to guilt coupons, the funds for which go toward renewable energy projects. You can buy them at Whole Foods and have your grapes again. Drive 12,000 miles per year? You can offset your car's 20,000 pounds of annual COA² with TerraPass' $79.95 Road Tripper package. This year the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave each of the Oscar presenters and performers a TerraPass. If it's cool enough for Jack Nicholson, it's cool enough for you.

I recently bought two cross-country airline tickets on Expedia.com and ponied up the extra $33.98 for the optional TerraPass. Maybe now I can sleep on the airplane.

Still, if at any point I start to feel content that I've done enough to combat global warming, I need only turn on my 42-inch plasma screen TV, which I bought before I realized it sucked electricity like an arc welder. Oh Jeez. HBO boxing = loss of Alaskan permafrost. Great.

If there's a phrase for all this gnawing guilt, it might be greenhouse remorse: a singular dismay to have lived and luxuriated in an era of cheap, consequence-free energy. What a lucky and decadent generation I belong to. Now, despite all my swirly light bulbs and guilt money, I am fractionally responsible for the diminished world I leave to future generations. Sorry about the mess, kids.

The nice thing is that, at long last and despite the heroic efforts of the Competitive Enterprise Institute and other disinformation mills, the fight against climate change is gaining some traction, politically and culturally. While Leonardo DiCaprio's declaration that the Oscars had "gone green" might have seemed implausible (hair spray is a greenhouse gas too, you know), the best thing that could happen to this issue is that it gets hitched to fashion and celebrity. Let's face it: Everybody wants to be like Oscar-winning electric-car drivers George Clooney and Tom Hanks. Almost nobody wants to be like Grover Norquist.

One day, hopefully, the incandescent bulb will be as sure a sign of social backwardness as missing front teeth and mullets.

I used to think I'd lived too long and that I should have punched out before climate change struck with its full vengeance. These days I'm hoping I live to see the day when we turn the corner on climate change, and I can start worrying about something else, the critically endangered mullet, perhaps. I've gone a bit wonky, it's true, but I'm feeling pretty good about it. I might be compulsively switching off lights, but at least I'm not in the dark.

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