As I rode my bike north out of Fort Collins, Colo., the houses thinned out, replaced by cows and horses. In one field between me and the foothills, several pronghorn antelope ran from me in a short leaping spurt, turned and looked back, then resumed their grazing. A string of steel power line structures, which always looked to me like dressmaker dummies, crossed overhead. I was pedaling my 18-speed towards electricity, or towards an understanding of it, anyway.
A few weeks earlier, I'd wakened, as always, to the burbling of my coffeepot. I'd made my way to the kitchen, turned on the light, poured myself a cup of coffee and sat down at the computer. As always, something about a celebrity being naked, pregnant or arrested was on my home page. Sports highlights, sports lowlights, weather and the Dow Jones. And, inevitably, something about polar bears or green energy, or new pictures of chunks of ice floating in vast blue seas. I yawned and got up to refill my coffee cup.
Global warming just felt so ... global. I was relatively secure with my level of eco-consciousness. I rode my bike to school, I had one of those little knit grocery bags I used when I remembered to bring it into the store, I'd gotten my recycling system pretty much down pat - wasn't that enough? I couldn't really get myself worked up about climate change because I couldn't link my utility bills and road trips to the mountains - let alone my coffeepot - to melting ice and stranded polar bears, to hurricanes and extinction.
My apathy was based on my ignorance. And eventually, perhaps because I've been immersed in academia for some time, collecting college degrees like knickknacks, I started to feel ashamed of the not knowing and the not caring. So I decided to figure out how this 35-year-old writer-cyclist-student-teacher's daily caffeine intake affected the glaciers, the polar bears and the climate.
When I arrived at the Rawhide Energy Plant on my bike, I expected to find something menacing, like Batman's Gotham City. Instead, I saw a small cluster of windowless beige buildings with one tall smokestack puffing a polite plume of smoke. The main entrance was blocked off, so I rode in on a winding packed-dirt road past signs saying "Controlled Access"and "No Public Admittance."
At a small brick security checkpoint, a burly guy in a uniform came busting out as if he thought some sweaty chick in Spandex was going to blow the place up. I asked conversationally, my hands in plain view, "Have I done anything illegal yet?"and he mumbled that I shouldn't be up here. He gave me the number of a PR person, and grudgingly agreed to let me go up to the blocked-off area, where there were information boards for the curious-minded.
There were a bunch of facts about the power plant, about how much coal it goes through and where it comes from and how it all turns into electricity. I was trying to copy the notes and diagrams into my journal, but my brain kept trying to bound away like the pronghorn antelopes, much as it does when someone uses words like "catalytic converter"or "hypotenuse"or "escrow."
But I added the information to my growing collection of notes, and when I sorted it all out I found that I was beginning to understand. When my coffeepot turned itself on, the energy arrived via a hilly and scrub-covered route that began at the Powder River Basin Coal Mine in Wyoming. I did a lot of math and found that every time I brewed a pot of coffee, I burned a lump of coal the size of a ping-pong ball. I discovered that it took about 25 pounds of coal just to keep myself caffeinated over the course of a year. That amount of coal puts about 37 pounds of CO2 into the air. I understood, finally, how what I did every day affected the climate, the polar bears and, of course, us humans.
So I switched my light bulbs to fluorescent, signed up to pay a penny a kwh more to get renewable energy, bought a TerraPass, and started paying more attention, knowing that it wasn't enough. But it costs less to use fluorescent. It costs less to drive less. These things make less noise, take up less space, and help me understand, and sever, some of the ties I have to global warming.
One unseasonably warm evening I drove (guiltily, I'll admit!) up to the Colorado/Wyoming border, where there's a small wind farm. It's on private property, surrounded by fields that were growing dark under the sunset and rising moon. There's a small diner up on a hill, and I went inside and asked two old men playing Lotto whether they thought I'd be shot if I headed across the fields to the wind farm. One said someone might call the cops, but he doubted that anyone would shoot at me. So I ran across the field in my sandals, towards these great gracefully spinning towers silhouetted against a purple sky, wondering if some of the electricity being generated while I watched would be brewing my coffee in the morning. I stopped every minute or so to catch my breath and pull tiny cactus spikes from my toes. Finally I stood still, listening to the barely audible whoosh-whoosh-whoosh from the propellers, watching small birds flitting over the scrub and cacti in the last of the light.
Shane Bondi writes, bikes, reads and hikes in and around Fort Collins, Colorado.