How Much is Enough?

Rainy Duck

Rain falling, wind blowing, I enjoy a morning of sitting in a condo at one of the highest points in Duck, North Carolina.  Almost eleven years ago, in the face of my aggressive cancer that forced my husband and me to reevaluate our plans for the future, we made one of the boldest decisions we’ve ever made:  We decided to freeze the amount of money we were saving for retirement and invest in something we could enjoy no matter what the future held.  It hasn’t proven to be the wisest of financial investments, but it has definitely been an investment in our souls.  We’ve learned to love May and October most of all, when the weather is warm, but the beach is peaceful and the sunsets are stunning.

This morning I looked out toward the ocean, a quarter of a mile from our second floor condo, and thought about a news article in the Washington Postthis week, titled, “Collapse of Antarctic ice sheet is underway and unstoppable but will take centuries.”  In part, it said this:

Scientists said the rise in sea level, up to 12 feet, will take centuries to reach its peak and cannot be reversed.  But they said a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions could slow the melt, while an increase could speed it slightly.

Our condo is 13.946 feet above sea level.  My husband, who often uses humor to diffuse my anxiety, ruefully laughed that our descendants could one day inherit oceanfront property.  But considering the terrain of the Outer Banks, we both know that that kind of rise in the sea level would mean that this place we love would no longer exist.

Reading the article, I felt overwhelmed.  What could I, one person, do in the face of such a force?  I try to conserve energy at both our home in Maryland and at our condo.  I turn off the lights.  I leave the heat and the air as low as I can.  I recycle.  I recently bought a more fuel-efficient car.  But I know that I can never do enough.  And I understood for a moment why so many people ignore warnings of a disaster that is a lifetime away.

At work on Monday, I decided that I’d take another tiny step to do more to reduce my carbon footprint and to try to encourage others to do the same.  In the seven years I’ve been in my current job, I’ve tried to use the recycling bins available to me—an open bin for paper and a bin for bottles and cans.  The lid on the second bin has circular holes that allow for no other plastics or metals.  When I first came to the office, I disposed of carry-out containers as most people did, throwing into the trash what I could have recycled at home.  Then, a few years ago, I started bringing those containers home to recycle on the days when I didn’t take my lunch in reusable containers.

But on Monday, I wrote to my two supervisors and asked if we could get bins to recycle other plastics.  I hesitated to bring up the topic, since I’m by no means the Queen of Green.  Knowing the bureaucracy of the large school system where I work, my husband teased me that if I brought it up, I’d probably be invited to dress in green and form a committee.  As I wrote the email, I felt a little like an ant must feel, carrying a single crumb.  But to my surprise, I started a small trail of ants in the right direction.  One of my supervisors commented that he, too, had wondered why we didn’t have more opportunities to recycle.  And when he approached the facilities office, the woman who responded told him that she had noticed, too.  And now we’re going to get all the recycling bins available to us.

I’m embarrassed to admit that we have all been so caught up in the busy-ness of our days that none of us had addressed something that had been bothering all of us.  While I feel guilty that I haven’t done more and that I don’t do enough, I know that I can only look forward.  Now more ants will carry a few more crumbs.

And then, in one of those “coincidences” that I’ll never understand, the conversation continued in a very different arena when, quite unexpectedly, I had an opportunity that I didn’t particularly welcome.  At the same time the mine disaster in Turkey was unfolding, two coal miners in West Virginia were killed.  The loss of life in my home state never made the national news; I knew of it only because I follow the Charleston Gazette on Twitter, and my brother, who is a miner, knew one of the men.

I felt overwhelmed again and posted my angst on Facebook, wondering when we were going to find cleaner, healthier energies.  A friend who works for a company that sells mining equipment berated me in a series of comments, starting with, “You don’t know what you are talking about.”  When I responded with facts and statistics, he attacked the findings of the scientists and the credibility of the government statistics.

He was angry from the first post, resorting to labeling me and railing against President Obama.  I got angry, and he taunted me, but I continued to try reason in the face of his faulty logic.  One of my most liberal friends cheered me on, but most of my friends remained quiet.  Again, I imagined myself an ant, the burden of the crumb weighing me down.  And as usual, one friend asked me privately why I keep trying to reason with people who are never going to hear me.

But then a friend from West Virginia contacted me privately to say that she was concerned about wind power because it endangers the bald eagle and other birds.  We had a separate but private conversation that helped me better understand the voices that are seldom heard above the clamor of the friend who went so far as to say, “I could have retired years ago. I’ve made my millions.”  He implied that he cares more than I do about people like my brother, a coal miner, who will have “no where to go once his high paying mining job is over.”

My brother called me today.  A few years ago he left a job in a non-union mine for a much safer job at a significantly lower salary in a union mine, saying that there’s no point in making money if you aren’t around to enjoy it.

While my family and friends in coal country and I don’t always agree, many of them are rational and thoughtful, and they care deeply for the mountains they love.  Theirs are not the voices we hear.  Instead, we hear the very vocal people who have made millions while the vast majority of the people in the state struggle to earn a living wage.

We don’t have a perfect energy right now.  Wind power endangers wildlife.  Nuclear power carries the fear of meltdown and contamination.  Solar power has promise, but it isn’t enough.  We have to continue to use fossil fuels until we can find something better.  We’re a nation of smart and talented and resourceful people.  But we will never be able to find solutions until wealthy people who have made millions stop using money and fear to shut down reasonable discussions of alternatives.

But I feel better today for hearing from my brother and from my friend who worries about the bald eagles.  Those are the voices we need to hear.  So while I’ll try to keep reasoning with people who rant so loudly, because I feel it’s dangerous to let them go unchecked, I think our better hope is to encourage the quiet ones to come forward.  I suspect that their combined whispers could form a beautiful chorus that would render the cacophony of the loud ones mute.

Are you one of the quiet ones?  Please speak your music.  The world needs you.