Be passionate (right now, please)

Sena: Eco Warrior Princess hates waiting for humans to do the right thing

SN&R buys a building, wants to make it green and pays Sena: Eco Warrior Princess to write a weekly column about it.

They tell us in journalism to state the most important thing at the beginning, to draw people in immediately. That’s a hard thing to do with environmental reporting because all the angles seem critical and nothing inconsequential. So I will begin here, on a Monday morning in October, with a peek at our future only 28 years from now. Scientists agree that at 450 parts of carbon-per-million in the atmosphere, climate change will be irreversible. We now have 385 parts with an expected increase of 2.2 parts a year, which means by about 2035, we’ll hit that magic number. NASA even has a phrase for this moment in time when global warming reaches that point of no return, when it is “out of humanity’s control.”

Three weeks ago, I was sitting in Bill Graham Civic Auditorium at the West Coast Green Building Conference held in San Francisco, listening to Ed Mazria, author of The Passive Solar Energy Book and founder of Architecture 2030, speak. As he spoke of climate change’s rapid pace, he showed slides of what will happen with just one meter sea-level rise on U.S. coastal cities and towns, where 53 percent of Americans live. To sum it up: a whole lot of flooding.

But the good news is that there is a silver bullet to stopping climate change, he said: “If you can stop coal, you can stop global warming. End of story.”

All the sudden, I was standing on my feet applauding with everyone else. But there is bad news, too. Last month, the Bush administration issued proposed new rules for coal mining that sanction mountaintop removal, allowing for the tops of mountains to be blasted off, filling streams with poison and turning beautiful mountains into ruins. Currently, 151 new conventional coal-fired power plants are being developed in this country. If all 110 million households in the United States change a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to an eco-friendly compact fluorescent, the CO2 emissions from two medium-sized coal-fired power plants in one year would negate this entire effort. That’s pretty demoralizing.

“If they keep building the coal plants, it’s over,” Mazria said. “Do whatever you can to get the message across that we need to stop coal.”

For Mazria, there is also a silver bullet to stopping our dependence on coal: passion.

Maybe the 270 vendors in the exhibit hall displaying their green products saw an economic opportunity to exploit. But as I struck up conversations with guys selling sustainably harvested lumber and petroleum-free natural resin pavement, I came to believe it is passion to do the right thing that motivates them more than money.

Patience is not one my strong suits. I have a hard time accepting the current state of the environment, especially with reports telling us that West Antarctic is shrinking, most polar bears will be gone by 2050 and the last time the polar region was this warm was 125,000 years ago, which is a timeframe so incomprehensibly big my brain can’t even make sense of it. At the conference, I was not alone with my impatience. I sensed despair underneath the optimism. How do we make 450 parts of carbon-per-million translate to practical, immediate knowledge that compels people to action? How do we make the phrase, “Out of humanity’s control” actually mean something? How do we get enough people to care?

For his part, Mazria asked the audience to meet the “Architecture 2030” challenge to reduce building energy use by a minimum of 50 percent by 2030 by using energy-efficient designs, adding updated technology and purchasing renewable energy. He noted that buildings use 76 percent of all the energy produced at coal plants.

During her speech, Erin Brockovich offered another idea. She had us close our eyes and picture the place where we wished we were instead, where we would find peace and comfort. Nearly everyone raised their hands when she asked if we envisioned nature. We need to dream of something before it becomes a reality, she said.

This is the Erin Brockovich you’re thinking of, the one who exposed that the citizens of Hinkley, Calif., were being poisoned by contaminated drinking water while PG&E looked the other way. She quoted L. Frank Baum, the author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book written during the height of the Industrial Revolution, to teach children the value of individual thought. She told us that we all had the courage, intellect and heart to do what’s right when it comes to the environment.

She told us not to let setbacks bring us down, ending with a lesson from her own life. “Along the way,” she said, “I learned that I was not afraid of a wicked witch or a flying monkey, either.”