We are addicted to coal and oil. Once upon a time the earth’s oil and gas resources may have simply been energy sources that we consumed with care and moderation. Maybe, though the disappearance of the world’s forests doesn’t suggest this. But whatever the case may have been in the past, we have long since become a nation of junkies. Addicts. There are crack heads, and then there’s us: coal heads, oil heads, plastic heads.
We are unwilling to face how much carbon-based energy we are consuming. Even the greenest among us want our electric devices, heedless of the pollution that is being spewed elsewhere on the planet—not to mention the plastic containers, the shipping of all the material goods that we must own, our plane flights, and on and on. Sure, we have the best interests of the planet at heart, and we want our kids to have all the opportunity we had, but right now we need to get across town to WalMart, or Whole Foods.
We are a nation in denial. We know that our climate is already changing due to our profligate consumption of coal and oil. (Even those of us who deny global climate change know, in our hearts, that the worldwide consumption of oil and coal cannot continue unabated. We just can’t bear to agree with Al Gore.) We know that something has to be done. We just don’t want to do it right now.
Like all addicts, we need a little more time. I’ll cut down—really—but I need a little right now. I’ll quit tomorrow, but not today—there’s a party I have to go to! I’ll quit after this week—lots of pressure at work, you see. And anyhow, everyone else is doing it—why should I be singled out?
My beloved father, the Reverend David W. Barry, suffered from alcoholism. In the latter part of his life he was a man on the edge of death, or worse—and there is worse. To keep people off of his back he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and as he drove home, he would reach under his car seat and pull out a pint of vodka to take a little fortifying swig. If you knew my dad then you would have thought there was no hope of him ever being sober again. He had been to rehab, he had grown ill, he had lost the respect of people he loved, and still he drank.
Then, one night after his regular AA meeting, as he gulped down some booze at the stop light near the Greek diner in Bedford Hills, New York, it dawned on him: this is what they are talking about, he thought, looking at the bottle.
Now, lest you think my dad was a stupid man, let me disabuse you of this notion. He was a brilliant and wise man, one to whom many turned for advice. He was not stupid—he was an addict in denial. And at that moment, by the grace of God, as they would say in AA, he got it. The next day he was on his way back to rehab, and in the days and years to come, one day a time, he turned his life around. He was still an alcoholic, but he never drank again.
We are a nation of addicts, a nation drunk on a glut of oil. Other nations point at us and say, “We’re not as bad as them!” But of course they are addicts, too. The whole world is addicted to oil and coal. We are sick, and soon, if we are not careful, it will be too late to turn it around.
But not yet. There is still time. If you want to do something about preserving the health of our planet, one great place to start is 350.org, the organization founded by Bill Mckibben. The number 350 refers to the safe upper limit, measured in parts per million, for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. We are already past that number. 350 PPM is what we must get back to as soon as possible to avoid runaway climate change.
There is still time. One person a time. One village at a time. One state at a time. One nation at a time. One world. One day at a time.