By John Berge
There is a Joe Heller cartoon on our bulletin board at home showing a couple taking a walk through the neighborhood. In the first panel, she says, “I just love the sound of rustling leaves crunching under my feet.” In the second, she is surrounded by neighbors with leaf blowers and she says, “I just wish I could hear it!”
It may not be the point he wanted to make, but I see that as an example of our increased use of fossil fuels, an increase in our carbon footprint. We have replaced human energy with fossil fuel energy. I am older – much older – than most of you readers, so I can remember when just about every family used a rake on the leaves and a shovel on the snow. The lawnmower was propelled by people power, usually a teenager, and didn’t weigh as much as Ford’s Model T. Today that riding mower has much the same horsepower as that Model T and pollutes even more.
I used a hoe or a one-wheel (people-powered) cultivator on my Victory Garden and at my first job with the University of Wisconsin’s Agronomy Department. (We joked that we were all members of the Alfalfa Grabba Hoe fraternity.) Errands were often run on foot or bicycle. Inside the house our mothers got by with many fewer “energy saving” devices that are now based on plenty of electrical energy. Remember, unless you have changed your electricity supplier as I have, that electricity is produced from coal, the dirtiest of the fossil fuels.
I am not trying to be nostalgic, although there is some of that here, but I am trying to show how we have gradually increased our carbon footprint without hardly noticing it. We have replaced people power with fossil fuel power and then made up for the lack of exercise by hopping into our ton, or ton and a half, vehicle to drive to the gym. Did you notice that one of our largest automobile manufacturers recently shut down the third shifts of two plants making smaller cars because bigger cars and trucks were what people are buying? Or did you notice that atmospheric levels of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels has reached 400 parts per million, a level not exceeded in the last 3 million years!?
So just as we drifted into this greater use of fossil fuels, the major cause of climate change and global warming, we can consciously move to reduce our use of fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – our carbon footprint. Get out the rake and the snow shovel, the bike and the walking shoes. Make sure that the next car you buy is smaller, more energy efficient than your current one or maybe a plug-in electric or hybrid (and get your electricity from wind or solar). Does your yard really need that much horsepower to keep it looking acceptable? Maybe more of it can be put into natural plantings, rain and butterfly gardens which don’t have to be mowed.
What I am writing about is an examination and alteration of our life styles and priorities. To utilize a more literary leaf metaphor than that with which I started, Victor Hugo wrote, “Change your opinions, keep to your principles; Change your leaves, keep intact your roots.”