Editor's Note

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, February 15, 2009

It wasn't all that long ago that all you had to do to feel good about yourself, the future, the entire planet, was to get in a big, powerful American automobile, fill the tank with gas that cost less than soda pop, roll down the windows and roar out of the city, disappearing down some two-lane blacktop. Almost instantly, the thundering horses beneath the steel hood transported you into a wind-swept, sweet-scented phantasmagoria of green trees, blue skies and babbling brooks. Ah, to be one with nature, hurtling through the inexhaustible freshness of the countryside.

In retrospect, the depth of the blindness is astonishing. It never crossed most people's minds that the big gas guzzler and the unspoiled countryside were mutually exclusive. It never seemed possible that there could be anything bad about living "the good life." How could a long, hot shower, or an all-electric house, or a coffee table full of new remote controls represent anything but the accelerating benefits of modern life?

Now, we know how. Now, we understand that so many of our comforts and conveniences come at a price, not just in increasing amounts of currency, but in the accumulating burden on our planet. We also see that the consequences of that burden aren't some theoretical threat far in the future but are already being felt, from fouled food supplies to changing weather patterns.

Of course, we can't shoulder the blame individually for all that. As Liza Mundy points out in the story that begins on Page 8, when it comes to some of the human activity that's threatening the earth -- such as the destruction of rain forests -- no one person can do much about it. But, as she also makes clear, there are things each individual can do. Some cost significant money, such as installing insulation or buying more efficient cars and appliances. A few green alternatives require some slight discomfort: shorter showers or, with effusive apologies to former President Jimmy Carter, who was ridiculed when he suggested this in the 1970s, pulling on a sweater instead of turning up the thermostat. But much of what we can do merely requires our attention and some modest effort -- such as changing the kind of light bulbs we use or shopping with reusable bags, instead of paper or plastic.

It's not that if we all make small changes, the problem will be solved and the future secured. It's that if we can't at least make small changes, well, forget about it.

Tom Shroder can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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