Slate is pleased to launch "The Green Lantern," a weekly Q&A about climate change, pollution, and whatever other environmental bogeymen are robbing you of sleep. The column kicks off in earnest next Tuesday, with a primer on how to identify the greenest airlines—or, at the very least, the carriers that are starting to realize they can't stand pat on emissions. But before we get down to the nitty-gritty, please indulge The Lantern as he offers up a mission statement.
Given the glut of earnest save-the-planet advice, it's all too tempting to declare apathy and embrace our broiling, smog-choked future. One's eyes tend to glaze over after hearing the phrase "carbon footprint" for the umpteenth time, amid the eternal bickering over what's truly green and what's just feel-good pap. For every Ph.D. touting, say, sugar-cane ethanol as a silver bullet, there's another who stoutly believes the solution is bunk; both experts, of course, can marshal copious, mind-numbing statistics to prove their respective points.
Rest assured, however, The Lantern isn't here to add to your frustration by endlessly touting Energy Star appliances or by becoming irrationally exuberant over organic cheese doodles and solar-powered laptops. The aim of this column is to bluntly assess what can realistically be done to protect the environment—and, perhaps more importantly, what cannot.
So, expect plenty of hard-core number crunching as The Lantern fields whatever vexing questions come his way. Are you hastening the apocalypse by flying budget airlines? Is it better to go vegetarian or stick with eating pigs, albeit ones that were slaughtered within a 10-mile radius? Should you feel guilty about preferring NASCAR over tennis? Does hiring a firm to plant trees in Zambia justify your addiction to air conditioning? And can you really become part of the solution by gassing up on Willie Nelson's biofuel?
The Lantern shall strive to answer all of the above in the coming weeks and months while hewing to three main tenets of green guruism:
Skepticism, not pessimism. As polar bears and residents of Linfen, China, can attest, the environment is in such dire shape that even drastic action might not set things right. This is particularly true when it comes to global warming, which can seem hopelessly irreversible, barring a sudden decision by mankind to abandon modern civilization. In The Weather Makers, for example, biologist Tim Flannery states that even if we reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 70 percent over the next three decades—a tall order—we're still in for a massive temperature spike by 2100.
So, should we just gorge on Hummer limousines and Styrofoam packing peanuts while we can and hope that someone develops a workaround over the next century? Heavens, no. For starters, the assumption that technological wizardry can save us strikes The Lantern as hubristic; just because mankind has in the past devised clever methods for improving agricultural yield and finding oil doesn't guarantee that we'll also eventually figure out a way to stave off environmental catastrophe. More importantly, while making eco-friendly personal decisions may not yield many perceptible benefits right now, it's the long term that counts. Any campaign worth pursuing can take decades to bear fruit, but it has to start somewhere. Imagine if 19th-century crusaders against child labor had given up after a year or two, convinced that economic growth would halt if 8-year-olds were forced to give up iron smelting.