My friend Bob and his family had just returned from two weeks in China and I from a 25th-anniversary trip with my wife to Italy. On a July summer evening, we were sitting in an ice-cream shop on the main street in San Clemente, with a sweet chill in the darkening California air, and talking cars.
Mei Lin, Bob’s beautiful, precocious 7-year-old daughter, fastidiously edged into a cup of Nestle Crunch folded into vanilla, trying not to miss a word.
In China’s cities, Bob tells me, the explosion of car ownership is breathtaking. Thirty years ago, I visited communist China, and an enduring memory is the morning commute of an ocean of humanity moving to work on bicycles, silently.
Among the questions Bob and I tossed back and forth between spoons of homemade ice cream: What does it mean to global warming for the world’s most populous nation to have changed from bicycles to cars in only a few decades?
How do you reckon the handing from one generation to the next a planet whose fate is tied to population growth and energy consumption, when that cup is overflowing with the pollution caused by release of the cumulative energy stored in hydrocarbons through billions of years of evolution?
Of my California memories, one that animated me was the story of the La Brea tar pits where dinosaurs trapped in primordial muck eventually, over tens of millions of years, yielded fossils from the viscous goo. The tar pits coincided with one of the first great oil finds of the 20th century. It is all used up now, paved over with Jack N The Boxes.
Bob and I were talking about oil, coal and its byproducts: a subject as transparent as Mei Lin’s small features working out whether or not she had taken enough bites.
Are humans really any different from the last top predator who roamed the Earth, Tyrannosaurus Rex? Credible scientists maintain that global climate change has triggered the biggest extinction of species since the king of terror strode the Earth.
For Mei Lin, it turned out that a few spoonfuls were enough. The whole cup was too big and passed to her father to finish through an effortless transaction.
San Clemente retains a magical air of the 1960s, when the surfing culture went hand in hand with beaches so uncongested that when daddy took the T-Bird away, the emptiness was haunting.
Today the streets of European capitals are filled with a whole class of new compact automobiles smaller than any in the United States. Our allies there are not just mad at us about Iraq; they are mad about the choices we have made as the most prolific consumer of energy, putting the entire planet at risk. I tell Bob that I am on the waiting list for a new hybrid.
Bob tells me he is not convinced. He’s done the research, and it is not clear that hybrids, even with much higher gas mileage, are less costly to the planet—what about mining nickel for the battery?
Minimizing the use of gasoline is one of the easiest ways to ensure that our legacy to Mei Lin and the unborn generations isn’t a quality of life that looks like a Mad Max movie.
The worst of it is, I tell Bob, that the world’s largest energy producers know the game is up. Read Paul Roberts’ sober and informative account, The End of Oil.
That is what the news means, when Shell Oil vastly overstates its proven reserves, and what Lord Oxburgh, its chairman, means when he states that he is “really very worried for the future of the planet”—because of accumulating carbon emissions into the atmosphere, and what the British government’s chief science adviser means when he recently said that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism.
I am filled, on this calm night, with other memories: of teenage boys lost in Vietnam who would rather have been paddling into a sunset surf at San Onofre or wondering what flavor ice cream their grandchildren would prefer. I know they are nearby, at Camp Pendelton and in National Guard units in Florida and across the nation—teenagers bursting with life and energy and proud parents twined together in love, and hope, and dreams for a better future.
Americans are worried about the price of gasoline at the pump. It is the wrong price to be worried about. But by all means, worry.
The Bush White House continues to minimize the role of human activity in global climate change, holding EPA to a soft line consistent with America’s biggest oil interests. And today, the automobile industry is relentless pushing against California’s progressive policies on clean air and greenhouse-gas emissions from cars.
I would have liked to have helped Mei Lin finish her ice cream, too, but I had enough. I left Bob with a parting thought: What passes for energy policy in America today is a form of taxation without representation as toxic to liberty and freedom as any foisted on us, since our independence from tyranny.
We shook hands. We will stay in touch.