I am generally not a big fan of making New Year’s resolutions, but the more I learn about climate change, the more I’ve been trying to cut back on my carbon footprint. Each year (and not necessarily starting on New Year’s Day) I have focused on just one thing I can do to reduce my environmental footprint. The first thing I focused on after starting my research for The Witness Tree in 2010 was my driving. I teach on Long Island but live in Brooklyn. For the first few years at my job, I commuted 60 miles a day (return-trip), 4 days a week, 9 months out of the year. This equaled driving almost 9000 miles a year – just for my job. Some days I took the LIRR (Long Island Railroad), but getting to and from the campus was problematic and frustrating and this deterred me from taking the train. Early on in my research I had learned that one gallon of gasoline produces 19.64 pounds of carbon dioxide (diesel produces 22.38 lbs.) so I was determined to find a way to cut back on my driving. I bought myself a second, used bike for $25 which I keep at the train station in Long Island. (I keep my other 25-year-old bike in Brooklyn to use for general usage.) It’s not a pretty bike, thus no one bothers to steal it, but it gets me where I need to go. And since global warming has meant milder winters (this year being the exception) I have been able to ride nearly every day.
My commuting now takes longer (about 1:45 hour each way vs 1 hour for driving) but I am much happier knowing I have significantly cut back on my carbon footprint. I actually prefer the train as I can read, answer emails, grade student projects, or just look at the passing landscape. I am also happy to be getting in a little exercise. It’s only about a 15-20 minute ride each way but that’s more exercise than I got sitting in my car. I don’t claim to be a saint. I still have my car which I sometimes use for other purposes – transporting large artwork, getting to sites to photograph for my project or freelance jobs, and occasional weekend escapes. But I have cut back my usage by at least 85%. I feel pretty damn good about that.
An unexpected side-benefit is that I have inspired some of the students. One student saw me bringing my bike into my office one rainy day and asked incredulously, “You rode your bike to school?” I explained how it’s only part of my commute, that I don’t ride all the way from Brooklyn. “That’s cool,” she said. “And you’re a professor?” I nodded. “That’s really cool!” she added. “Thanks. I think it is too.” In the four years I have ridden my bike to school I have noticed more and more bikes locked up along the railing where I often put mine. Although I don’t know if I’ve influenced any of those riders, it’s nice to know more people are joining me. Will you?
It is often said that one person can’t make a difference, but I believe otherwise. Recently I picked up a book of essays about the influence of Rachel Carson. I have enjoyed reading about her life and her influence on the environmental movement but it made me realize I never read her seminal book Silent Spring. Published in 1962, it drew attention to the harmful use of pesticides, primarily DDT. She is often credited with starting the modern environmental movement and although DDT was not banned until 1972, her book and subsequent appearance in Congress clearly brought needed attention to a terrible matter.
Although I am no Rachel Carson, I do have a voice and am also using my camera to draw attention to the critical issue of global climate change. So my first “resolution” or goal of this year is to read Silent Spring. And the second is to start sharing more of what I have learned about climate change on this blog and via more presentations with school and community groups. I want to share more of the stories I’ve collected from the people I have interviewed and photographed. And, as clichéd as it sounds, every journey does begin with a single step. I encourage you to think about what you can do this week, this month, this year to lower your own carbon footprint.
Happy New Year!