Thursday, October 4, 2007

A small, colored frog is about to become extinct. Do I care?



I would have included an original shot of a polar bear or endangered tree frog, but I decided to save the fossil fuel. This old shot is from the seat of my bicycle.

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Last Monday night I made a pilgrimage back to the NY Explorer's Club, the 103 year-old "international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore."

It's not a place to see lightweight travelogues (like biking across Italy, Peru or Cuba) unless you're making a scholarly, scientific contribution, or you've an angle the club deems worthy of sharing. Of course, if you're a Sir Edmund or Buzz Aldrin in your chosen field, you'll be eagerly summoned to the lectern in the club's riotously gothic, time-capsule of an edifice, addressing an appreciative audience of both real and armchair explorers – perhaps even honorary chair Sir Edmund himself.

And what more real and worthy a topic now than that of global warming.

Although scientists have been shaking their heads at our flagrant consumption for years, it was Al Gore's movie that stirred the sleeping, double-parked giant, even if some cynics resented him flying about when the electric telephone might have gotten him perfectly citable, second hand scientific opinions.

Then came Leonardo DiCaprio's new movie Eleventh Hour* and reports of his private jet ride to the screening (now I'm not going to beat up on poor Leo, but using the olde worlde technology of live video telecasting would have been a pretty classy move on his part).

There are books and bloggers galore on this topic, and as Bill Moyes
reported
, it's the new weapon of mass conversion for entrepreneurial evangelists.

Even my fiscal overlord Bike Friday has, at great expense, shifted gears from making a bike for tooling around Tuscany to one for tooling that few blocks to the store or train station instead of driving.

Adding to the mix was Monday night's presentation," EARTH UNDER FIRE: How Global Warming Is Changing the World", a new book by distinguished Time Life photographer Gary Braasch. The book further corroborates what scientists already know and the public is finally picking up on: global warming is affecting our planet.

How is it affecting our planet? Examples from Gary's book:

Polar bears are losing their habitat to dirt instead of ice. Monolithic glaciers are now little more than dirty streams. A certain, small colorful frog in Costa Rica has gone AWOL. Legions of penguins are joining the forlorn, eggless bachelors and spinsters we saw shuffling around the fringes of their society in March of the Penguins. Whole nations like Tuvalu might disappear as sea water rises and flood their crops. The Northwest passage was actually passable over
summer, meaning the North Sea will soon become a free for all, leading certain territorial angst - and the last thing this world needs is another war. And so on.

It's a convincing argument, but my question is, does the majority, meaning the average Ambivalent Al, actually care about all the above? (Apologies to all the aware Al's in the world – this is not about you).

After all, it's not in my backyard. It's about some small spotted frog I never met and frankly won't lose sleep over. What about the dinosaurs? Did anyone step up a campaign to save them? Who's to say things
aren't going precisely as the universe intended, as it has always done, we'll just kill ourselves
off like we've done so many times in the past and, like a desert flower after the drought, we'll
just repopulate the earth …

All right, that tangent is a whole done-to-death dinner table convo in of itself, but continuing to wear that Ambivalent Al cap …

So the temperature is rising … great, better beach weather! Save me from S.A.D., Prozac,
expensive holidays to Florida, not to mention my real estate assets in the currently
drizzly northwest looking up … , bring it on! By the way Iran/Iraq – are they the same place?

Now this is not to take anything away from Gary's fine work; it would be unfair to expect the book to be anything other than it is – well documented, well illustrated evidence - to build upon. (A couple of readers expressed dismay that my 'is what it is' account of loitering in Cuba wasn't also a political rant addressing the embargo - what embargo? Australia doesn’t have an embargo with Cuba).

My problem all this frog and polar bear factual reporting, is that it's too removed far from most people's backyards - for every nodding, aware, train commuting, reuseable-baggist there are thousands who have bigger burgers to fry for dinner.

When I first went to Gore's movie I put on an imaginary cap labeled "Environmental Ambivalent" and T-shirt saying "Climate Change Curmudgeon", drove my imaginary Hummer a couple of blocks to the drive thru, collected my Big Gulp and sat down to watch the movie. I primed myself to be inspired, moved, converted. I
better explain myself here: if you've spent any time in the field of advertising, where you live
and die depending on your ability to jazz someone around in the first three seconds, you'll know that it's how we approach things, sad as it sounds.

With that cap on, I experienced a nice Powerpoint presentation, made into a movie. I walked out thinking that eventually, the Northwest wouldn't be such a bad place in winter after all.

It reminded me of when I was invited to participate in a Racism Study Circle in Eugene, Oregon, where organic food is excellent and political correctness runs rampant. It wasn't long before I decided that a black, Asian, Latino and a couple of well meaning whites all nodding and scribbling down definitions of 'diversity' on butcher's paper and congratulating ourselves on how diverse we were was a complete and utter waste of time. Where were the neo-Nazis on the panel for us to confront?

In fairness, what I call "good intellectual efforts", at least make people talk about it even if they don't quite buy into it. We all know that sheep mentality alone can change the world and most people are sheep. And even if world leaders only act in order to get votes, it's the end result that matters. "Keep your eyes on the prize".

I'd like to see someone get up and say something that really makes us act.

Whenever you want to appeal to someone, you can enroll, or threaten. Either might work depending on who you're trying to convince of what. Some examples of both:

Threaten:

- You steal, you got your hand cut off. Very effective, but pretty uncivilized.
- A better example: The NYT reported that Ireland imposed a stiff tax on plastic bags, and consumption dropped by 90%. That works.
- Another example: Critical Mass, a bicycle rally that takes over the streets on certain Friday nights in many cities, has mixed results – in my opinion you're playing with fire when you stop someone in a big car who's had a bad week from getting home on a Friday night.
- A recent meth ad showed a young face with rotten teeth and skin. It brings to mind that TV ad
of a former society woman smoking and talking through a hole in her throat.

Enroll:

- I hear Trader Joe's offers prizes and other incentives for reusable bag use. Hey, give me a LaraBar for using my bag and I'll use one every time!
- Carbon offsets, where you actually elect to pay more to help the environment. While it does appeal to the better nature of human beings, it's ripe for fraud and wastage. And the reality is that great hump in the bell curve is not going to give away their hard earned dollars so easily. How many will really curb their consumption knowing that 1 American makes the same sized carbon footprint as 85 Bangladeshis (or was that 185, Gary?).

So what communications about global warming might really make the average ambivalent Al change his habits? Rather than a penguin having to swim further or a little frog disappearing what if we show…

A picture of an apple with the price tag, $25 and the date: 2009.
A tax on cars brought into the city of $100 a day.
Empty shelves in Safeway on a Monday and lines, dated 2010.
The price of McMansions on a hill plummeting because of the price of gas to get up and down
(in fact, Mexico, I noted the towns were concentrated at the base of the hills. Who wants to
schlep?

I'm just pulling these absurd examples out of the air, as I have not researched any of the projections, but will these realities make people change?

During the lecture, Gary made it clear he wanted to offer up more than a nice photo essay on Global Warming. He really does want to take it to the highest level, to get governments to change. Commendable, but his work will be just another nice coffee table book if he doesn't get help from the right messengers.

During Q&A, the AMC's Eleanor Sasso, citing Ken Burns' current PBS documentary on WWII,
asked Gary if we're likely to see the kind of post-war rallying together of a nation trying to get the country back on its feet. We can only hope, said Gary, who showed a slide of a cheering crowd where signs saying PEACE signs had been photoshopped to read COOL.

Someone else raised the question of the population explosion, to some disgrunutled harumphings in the audience. Gary said his research showed the population had been mitigated in various ways; perhaps people are adopting instead of procreating after reading my FastCompany post about it.

I got up and put the essence of this blog to Gary – is his message strong enough to make a difference?

I talked about my 2 years spent in Costa Rica, I saw plenty of lip-service environmentalism, locally known as eco-blah. That is, someone collects $15 at the entrance to a park but that's about it. That country is being denuded, stripmalled, plundered with gated communities, marinas, SUV's and all the awfuldom of modern gimme generation. We just can't help ourselves.

There were more harumphings from the stalls when I raised my question. I call it a Ralph Nader moment, making yourself instantly unpopular by raising a truth when everyone else is fawning, skirting and congratulating. Rather than confront you for spirited and well meaning debate they'll usually file past you and pretend you were never there. However, you'll always find a couple of people drawing you aside outside the restroom and concurring. These are your new friends, these people are part of the change.

I reiterate my opinion no way reflects on his good work; it unfair to expect
his book to be anything other than it is - a good solid piece of evidence on which to build a plan of action. To demand otherwise would be a bit like the couple of readers who expected my Cuba
book
to be yet another treatise on the embargo (what embargo? Australians don't have an embargo with Cuba, and I would never claim to have the creds to go there).

The biggest problem with finding a solution to global warming, as with anything, is not that a frog has disappeared, but that we are still largely preaching to the converted, and it's not important enough to that part hump in the bell curve. If everyone could be convinced to use 1 less plastic bag every day and turn off one more light, it would make a big difference in terms of barrels of oil squandered.

We came out from the lecture to see a confirmation of one of Gary's panoramic slides: NYC lit up every night, lights on in buildings, with no one home. We use to sleep by the light of the moon under a skin, and the moon is still burning as bright as it ever did, why are all these lights still on?

Afterword: A friend pointed out that in her opinion, if push came to shove, we humans will get by OK, much as we have done in the worst of times, but it's the polar bears and frogs that won't stand a chance. Therefore, the challenge is to work out how to make people care about those animals going extinct, even if we don't care that we'll have to pay $10 for an apple and $100 for gas ...

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