What would Mother want?

Thoughts on the Peoples Climate Movement march on Washington

Jeffrey Denny

Let me judge me before you do: I’m horrible to our planet. Forgive me, Mother Earth, for I have sinned:

I drive a 297-horsepower Shell V-Power® NiTRO+ Premium Gasoline-fueled small SUV that gets only 17/24 mpg, city/highway. Sometimes I jump in the car to drive just a few blocks to Whole Foods.

I never bring my own bags to Whole Foods.

I leave lights on at night. I’m scared of the dark.

I never use those gawd-awful LED or CFL bulbs. They make the place look like an autopsy lab and I’m the cadaver.

I fly in a big ol’ jet airliner whenever I want. Even though taking the bus slashes our personal emissions. (Never mind the personal emissions of our fellow passengers.)

I never take public transit, even though a bus stop is virtually outside my door and a metro station is four blocks away (I don’t like going underground).

Sometimes on unseasonably warm and humid spring or autumn days I run the a/c with a few windows open so I get the breezes but keep the place cool. Like now.

I freely consume beef and dairy even though cow gas is killing the penguins.

I likely violate recycling rules because I’m often confused. (Where do I put a glass jar with a plastic lid that’s full of year-old mayonnaise?)

Worst of all, I do not plan to attend the People’s Climate Movement march in Washington on April 29 (or the Community Restorative Yoga Class the next morning). Even though the march starts a 20-minute metro ride away while millions of concerned citizens will take buses and big ol’ jet airliners across the country to join.

My list of enviro-lations goes on. (That’s my portmanteau for “environmental violations.”)

Naturally, given my sins, a close friend who once worked on President Bill Clinton’s White House Climate Change Task Force, and drove a Civic Hybrid, is appalled with me. So is my next door neighbor, the first here to install solar panels on his roof. My oldest and most forgiving friend, a brother from another mother, just looks at me sadly. When he and his spouse visit from Connecticut, they kill all the lights in my house before they turn in, a silent, passive-aggressive admonishment. I get it.

But in spite of declaring my near-criminal disregard for the planet, this is not a piece about scoffing at climate change. Quite the opposite.

I respect and embrace the passion to address this crisis while it unfolds. I definitely could do much better at living green, not just voting green, as I do. And I’m puzzled by Trump Country conservatives who despise the EPA but suffer the most when industry pollutes their air, water, soil and families. People in places like Tulsa-Muskogee-Bartlesville, Oklahoma, high up in the American Lung Association’s Most Polluted Cities list, ozone category, with unusual rates of child and adult asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease.

But when over-chided about not being the not-climate change I want to see, I get defensive and rationalize (“I chose a neighborhood with a high walkability score!” “I don’t commute to work!” “I contribute $10 a year in five-cent bag taxes that go to cleaning the river!” “I upgraded to a more efficient a/c!” “I use low-watt bulbs!”).

When really feeling cornered, I throw my ace card: “Well,” I say, “You have kids. I don’t. You’re creating and perpetuating a bigger carbon footprint and human harm to the planet than I ever could.”

The response is priceless. If dagger looks were real daggers, I’d be the stabbing victim of every Shakespearean tragedy combined into the bloodiest Game of Thrones season ever.

With highest dudgeon, the “yabbut” reactions from the enviro-passionate child-spawners run the gamut. “Yeah, but, that’s different.” “Yeah, but, we’re not China.” “Yeah, but, we’ve always wanted kids.” “Yeah, but, our parents always wanted grandchildren.” “Yeah, but, we’re raising our kids in an Earth-friendly and respecting way.” “Yeah, but, we still need to replace ourselves to perpetuate humanity. Who better than us?” “Yeah, but, while I see your point, you’ll never know the incredible blessings of bearing and raising children, you pathetic lonely narcissist, or experience their love, care, hatred, resentment or neglect when you’re old.”

I don’t bother pointing to the latest thinking, such as Johns Hopkins bioethics professor Travis Rieder’s book, Toward a Small Family Ethic: How Overpopulation and Climate Change Are Affecting the Morality of Procreation. “Here’s a provocative thought,” NPR quotes Rieder telling a classroom, “Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them.”

Then there’s the oft-quoted 2008 Oregon State University study that while we could reduce our “carbon legacy” by 500 tons of CO2 emissions by living green religiously, we could save more than 9,400 tons by having one less kid.

Tell that to your second kid next time he chaps you about not composting your coffee grounds.

(Or, instead of having that second kid, you could leave your Hummer idling 24–7 for 10 years, frack the entire neighborhood, heat it by cranking the thermostat in winter and leaving the doors and windows open, and dump Purdue’s yearly output of chicken guano into the Chesapeake Bay. You’d still — rough estimate — come out greener.)

My point is: Let’s not enviro-shame those who care about climate change for not doing enough. Since nobody wants to be a hypocrite, let’s call bullshit on ourselves before we call bullshit on others. You know, glass house.

Better yet, let’s channel our enviro-concern in a constructive way to the real goal: Challenging the Trump rollback on environmental progress.

It’s mystifying that the Trump administration seems to believe voters delivered a mandate to Make America Dirty Again and picked the Oklahoma Attorney General who famously sued the EPA 14 times for the task of decimating the EPA. Trump voters might despise Washington and government, and certainly not all enviro laws, regs or enforcement make sense or are effective given the cost, however well meaning. But who — left, right or middle — wants asthmatic children in Tulsa to suffer even more from bad air?

Sadly, the environment has become a sharply partisan political issue. It’s really not partisan. We all care. Even the viciously divided in Washington, D.C., can sit down, bib-up and crack claws together at the Chesapeake crab shacks because elected leaders, both Republican and Democrat, scientists, nonprofits, advocates and activists, and the EPA and Maryland’s Department of Environment have worked hard together to clean and protect the bay.

By the way, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and its Save the Bay campaign began in 1967. This year, the campaign’s 50th anniversary, the Maryland blue crab harvest might be among the best ever thanks to a mild winter but also — yep — a cleaner bay. Yet water quality is still far below pristine as the surrounding states are leaching too many pollutants from farms and sewers. Fortunately, the EPA is holding them accountable.

I worry that, unlike the cooperative Chesapeake Bay effort, the People’s Climate Movement march on Washington has struck an angry, bitter, divisive, accusatory tone. “Everything we have struggled for in the United States is in peril,” the website declares. “Our loved ones feel under siege, and those in power in Washington are advancing a dark and dangerous vision of America that we know is untrue.”

I get it: People are concerned about the Trump environmental rollback, and should be. And event organizers know that anger fuels passion and draws crowds. But it’s not only wrong to divide, it’s a bad strategy. A more constructive, less finger-pointing tone that promotes and builds on our common human concern for our planet, climate and kids could engage people we relegate as enemies to be allies, and advance the change we all want to see. Among the Trump voters and other Republicans I know, most are not climate-change deniers but Teddy Roosevelt conservatives with a passion for the old-school sense of conserving all resources, whether our lands or public monies.

We may like it or not, but nearly half the nation voted for Trump. They presumably include millions of people who drive fuel-efficient cars, bring their own bags to the grocery, use gawd-awful LED or CFL light bulbs, and are diligent about recycling because they care about the planet. They are not the enemy.

Call me childlike, but don’t mothers teach us about empathy and conflict resolution when we fought with our siblings? And how to stand up for what’s right, but also what’s best for all? Going into the People’s Climate Movement march, let’s ask, what would Mother Earth want? To attack or engage?

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer

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