Up until some point in the 1960s, people of a certain class routinely belonged to segregated country clubs without giving it much thought--it was "normal." And then, in the space of a few years, those memberships became immoral. As a society, we'd crossed some threshold where the benefits--a good place to play golf, a nice pool for the kids, business contacts, a sense of status and belonging--had to be weighed against the recognition that racial discrimination was evil.
Belonging to Farflung Acres CC wasn't the same as bombing black churches (perfectly sweet and decent people did it), and quitting wasn't going to change the economic or social patterns of the whole society, but it had become an inescapable symbol. Either you cared enough about the issue of race to make a stand or you didn't. If you thought we were all made in God's image, and that Jesus had died to save us all, it was the least you could do.
For the past decade, buying a sport utility vehicle--an Explorer, a Navigator, a CRV, a Suburban, a Rover, and so on down the list--has seemed perfectly normal. Most people of a certain station did it. If you went to a grocery store in suburban Boston, you would think that reaching it required crossing flooded rivers and climbing untracked canyons. In any given parking lot, every other vehicle has four-wheel drive, 18 inches of clearance, step-up bumpers. They come with a lot of other features: leather seats, surround sound, comfort, status. Maybe even some sense of connection with nature, for they've been advertised as a way to commune with creation.
But now we've come to another of those threshold moments. In January, after five years of exhaustive scientific study, the International Panel on Climate Change announced the consensus of the world's leading experts: If we keep burning fossil fuels at anything like our present rate, the planet will warm four or five degrees, and perhaps as much as 11 degrees, before the century is out. Those temperatures would top anything we've seen for hundreds of millions of years.
Already we can guess the effects. The decade we've just come through was the warmest on record in human history: It saw record incidences of floods and drought (both of which you'd expect with higher temperatures). Arctic ice, we now know, has thinned 40 percent in the last 40 years. Sea level is rising steadily.
And what has the SUV to do with all of this? Well, it is mostly a machine for burning gasoline. Say you switched from a normal car to a big sport "ute" and drove it for one year. The extra energy you use would be the equivalent of leaving the door to the fridge open for six years, or your bathroom light on for three decades. Twenty percent of America's carbon dioxide emissions come from automobiles.
Even as we've begun to improve efficiency in factories and power plants, our cars and trucks have grown bigger and more wasteful: average fuel efficiency actually declined in the 1990s, even as engineers came up with one technology after another that could have saved gas. That's a big reason why Americans now produce 12 percent more CO2, the main global warming gas, than they did when Bill Clinton took office.
If you drive an SUV, then you're "driving" global warming, even more than the rest of us.
In Bangladesh people spent three months of 1998 living in the thigh-deep water that covered two-thirds of the nation. The inundation came because the Bay of Bengal was some inches higher than normal (as climate changes, sea level rises because warm water takes up more space). That high water blocked the drainage of the normal summer floods, turning the nation into a vast lake. No one can say exactly how much higher that water was because of our recent fondness for semi-military transport in the suburbs. Maybe an inch, who knows?
But the connection is clear. If you care about the people in this world living closest to the margins, then you need to do everything in your power to slow the rate at which the planet warms, for they are the most vulnerable. I was naked and you did not clothe me. I was hungry and you drowned me with your Ford Explorer.
Here's more: Coral reefs the world over are dying as warmer sea water bleaches them to death--by some estimates, this whole amazing ecosystem, this whole lovely corner of God's brain, may be extinct by mid-century. In the far north, scientists recently found that polar bears were 20 percent scrawnier than they'd been just a few years before. As pack ice disappears, they can't hunt the seals that form the basis of their diet.
And on and on--according to many experts, the extinction spasm caused by climate change and other environmental degradation in this century will equal or surpass those caused by crashing asteroids in geological times. But this time it's us doing the crashing.