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Shades of green we can live with

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Wednesday, August 2nd, 2006 — Living green is not a new idea, it has just become more pressing ... and more confusing.

In the 1970s and 1980s, we in Palo Alto and surrounding communities recycled, put in bike paths and preserved thousands of acres of open space.

School kids sang along to "Dirt Made My Lunch" at Webb Ranch, and "communed" with their favorite trees thanks to one tree-hugging fourth-grade teacher, Miss Bruce. They brought their peanut butter sandwiches to school wrapped in lettuce leaves.

Living green involved a few simple choices, it seemed, even though the big global issues were certainly there in the background. The byword was "Think globally, act locally."

Now the environment is eroding right before our eyes, and "local" has taken on a more global hue when one thinks of rising sea levels and more violent storms.

When Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," came to town, I was among those who turned out. Gore offered shocking visuals and historic climate trends -- all confirming global warming.

Then came the equally shocking projections, but without the weight of hard facts. For a skeptic like me -- even a committed tree-hugger -- hearing only one side of this story raises a red flag. Is Gore's data defensible? Are his predictions oversimplifications or overstatements?

As one eco-enthusiast said: "I'd rather have the opposition make the overstatements. They're so easy to refute."

Moreover, Gore didn't simplify the choices. Green might be the world's only reasonable future, as Gore says, but the complexity of the solutions can be reason enough to give up trying.

Green is today's buzzword. Eco-prophets have replaced tree-huggers. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger traded in his Hummer, or one of them, for a hybrid. Vanity Fair magazine featured Julia Roberts and other glitterati, including Al Gore, on the cover of a special green issue this month. Hollywood can dress up anything and make it a fad.

Palo Alto is stepping up to the plate (Weekly, June 21), extending its early pioneering of recycling in the 1970s. City officials have implemented fuel efficiency practices and supplemented natural gas with renewable energy contracts. All are concrete steps toward reducing carbon emissions.

The word is getting out. Yet the hard reality is that the overall success of efforts to turn back the tide of global warming relies on the cooperation of ordinary people, like you and me. Green needs to be more than Hollywood hype or a fad for the technically savvy and the elite.

If green lives beyond its fashionable, politically correct status, I believe it will be because it is rooted in a sound respect for the environment, a respect that will motivate people to live with some inconvenience.

The concept of living a more restrained lifestyle is not new, nor is it an idea that knows age boundaries, as the following underscores:

A green lifestyle involves values, "... values that lead to a more simplified and perhaps more enduring style of life in a world of change. There must be a voluntary simplicity of ecology in our economic system. Someone has said that 200 years has been just long enough to have one big materialistic splurge on a new continent.

"We have now the chance to settle down for the long haul, which will involve our learning some frugality and some judgment with respect to the use of our surroundings."

These were the sentiments of Gladys Chute Mears, one of the early settlers in San Mateo County. It was 1978 and she was celebrating her 87th birthday. Silicon Valley was looming in the shadows of the golden hills she called home.

Today there are environmentalists like her who are lobbying for sustainable living practices, spurred by a real pressure from escalating gas prices and the growing conviction that continued dependence on Middle Eastern oil filtered through American oil interests is unacceptable.

Quick and potentially disastrous fixes for these problems would be to produce greater levels of nuclear energy or tap into the Alaskan oil fields. Both options have grave, irreversible consequences for the environment.

If we try to "go green" without a primary commitment to the environment we can easily be derailed. What's more, eco-friendly solutions are often impractical or unaffordable.

I believe Gore when he says, "The need to make big changes is inescapable." But trying to sort out the science of big changes is confusing. What will be a "more enduring style of life" for us?

The boiled-frog syndrome, a gradual build up of greenhouse gasses, got us into this mess. We are told that a gradual reduction in carbon emissions will get us out. That means we can go green one step at a time.

Drive less. Buy local. Recycle, or better yet re-use and use less. Join the groundswell of support for green legislation. Not because it is politically correct, but because our world depends on it.

We don't have to wait until the tides are up around our ankles before we believe that the glaciers are melting. What will happen to Palo Alto's high land values if our lowland city is underwater?

We don't have to calculate our "carbon footprint" before we decide to tread gently across the planet. There have always been reasons to be energy conscious. Those reasons just got more compelling.

We have everything to gain and nothing to lose by opting out of the "one big materialistic splurge."

It's a matter of values, personally, as a community and as a society -- values strong enough to transcend the politics of power, money and left versus right.