Dr. Steven A Leibo is the Sage College’s Professor of International History & Politics
“Starting the Carbon Conversation”
Last week, I found myself, within days in two very different environments. On the 17th I was with something over 40,000 Americans, young and old, people who had traveled from across the country, from California to Vermont, teachers like myself and people who worked the land.
Indeed for a time I walked with Vivian Groves Fulk, a former southern Tobacco farmer and more recently wine grape grower, who’d been forced to give up her vines, because our emerging erratic weather had simply made accomplishing what farmers have done for millennia impossibly difficult.
Somewhat earlier I’d walked with Doug Grandt, a retired engineer, indeed a trained petroleum engineer who formerly worked for Exon Mobile, who spends his retirement traveling the country educating people about the dangers of fossil fuels and the importance of embracing greener, cleaner energy technologies.
Yes, all standing in front of the White House, urging President Obama to build on his remarkable record of accomplishment in nurturing green energy and live up to the promises of his Inaugural address and State of the Union that he would take on the challenge of the Climate Crisis.
Sure, it was a bit cold out there on the Washington mall. But it was not that hard to keep warm. It was after all a huge crowd with lots of energy and very loud voices. While only a few days later my environment could not have been more different, sitting in a seminar room at Harvard University. Yes, a room mostly full of academics, lots of ties and laptops, and quite frankly only one or two, who looked likely to have also been on the mall in front of the White House.
But amazingly they were talking almost about the same thing. In fact both groups had one thing very much in common, a deep and committed sense that we needed to reflect harder about that core element of our lives the question of the sorts of energy that powers us. At Harvard, the question was, should the field of historical studies include a new focus specifically on how energy, its use and development has played out in human history.
While in front of the White House, the altogether more unruly crowd was demanding that we challenge the fossil fuel regime of the past and rethink energy priorities of the future. Yes, rethink whether we want to tie ourselves even more tightly to one of the dirtiest most climate transforming fossil fuels ever dragged from of the ground, the infamous Canadian Tar Sands or embrace with even more enthusiasm the hydrofracking process to pull more natural gas from deep within the earth.
When, the development of either will make more and more droughts like our current one national one or super storms like Sandy more likely in the future.
And while the conversation and participants of the two gatherings, Harvard’s seminar room and the windy and cold White House demonstration could not have been more different they are both indicative of the momentum that is building, a momentum that absolutely demands that humanity reflect more seriously on our relationship to energy, in a way we have not really done since the fossil fuel revolution of two centuries ago.
That the modern era’s dependence on the energy of the dead, the carbon revolution that fueled the modern era’s fossil fuel civilization, the advantages and the challenges that enormous power fossil fuels, from coal and oil to natural gas have given us, billions of us each with more power than an ancient Egyptian pharaoh could have employed. And yet which has also seen our lungs destroyed by horrific air pollution, weakened by everything from asthma to pulmonary disease, our cities devastated by more and more powerful storms, our farms dried up by the moisture sucking nature of warmer air and our crops withering.
Literally a cornucopia of blessings and penalties that absolutely demand the beginnings of a real Carbon Conversation that Harvard and last week’s White House crowd, each in their own different ways are forcing us to take on.