Seeing the light in 2008

by Matt Jenkins




Two days ago, enlightenment arrived on my doorstep. It came tucked inside a plain little box that looked like it was sized to fit some fancy soaps, and bore a return address for Aspen Ski Co., the Colorado ski-resort giant.

For years, a ski-patroller-turned-chef named Bob and I spent our winters skiing Aspen. Each time we stepped into our bindings, we reverted to a juvenile innocence in which clean turns were the only thing that mattered. On powder days, Bob would lapse into snowboarderese, and deliver a sing-song “Powww do you do?” as he launched past me to steal the best line through the untracked snow. It was a simple world, and a bad day of skiing seemed a flat-out impossibility.

But the winters were changing. Snowpack was melting ever earlier, and unprecedented high springtime temperatures were causing the snow to sublimate straight back into the sky. The dream was evaporating before us.

Two years ago, I left Colorado, but the ski-pass renewal notices kept following me, bittersweet reminders of the Old Country. And this year brought the arrival of the little box.

It turned out to be like a set of Russian nesting dolls. I pried open the outer box to find another one inside, printed with a snowy, alpine panorama and an epigraph about “choices” from eco-guru David Suzuki. The lid of that box lifted to reveal a glossy cardboard jacket that said SAVE SNOW. And nestled inside was what looked like a frosted curlicue: a 14-watt, super-efficient compact fluorescent light bulb. The bulb came with a call to action: “If every household in America swapped just one bulb for [a] compact fluorescent light bulb, it would prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars. By using this compact fluorescent bulb, you are part of the solution to help slow global warming.”

For a while, the bulb sat on my desk like some sort of mystic charm. The sensible-seeming thing to do was write about it: As it happened, I was already working on a story about climate change. The week before my little bulb arrived, I had nearly gone blind reading several hundred pages of scientific reports, many from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Stabilizing carbon dioxide concentrations at non-disastrous levels will require halting the growth of greenhouse gas emissions within 10 years — and then cutting them in half by the middle of the century. That would be a tall order even if global energy use were to hold constant out to 2050. It’s projected to grow another 65 percent by 2030 alone.

Climate literature is laced with unknowns. How much oil is left on the planet? Does China build one, or two, new power plants every week? Which really is cheaper: wind energy or coal? Each of those questions leads to others, which lead to still more questions that open inside-out into new ones. Unlike the box the light bulb came in, these questions go on forever, a Zen koan whose answer may be unknowable. What is the sound of one hand clapping? And just how much carbon dioxide can be sequestered beneath the crust of the earth?

At some point, it dawned on me to just go screw in the light bulb. The light it casts is pallid and funereal. It is not the sort of light a person wants to read reports under. Yet the bulb uses 77 percent less energy than a standard 60-watt one. And while its glow may be a little thin, the bulb did provide illumination of a more profound sort.

That compact fluorescent light may be just a token gesture in the gigantic effort it will take to rein in global warming, but it is a start. If that bulb buys someone, somewhere, a few extra turns, it’s worth it to me. And if it’s going to take more than one compact fluorescent in my life to save some snow, I’m for that, too. I can’t think of a more satisfying payoff than one more chance to poach Bob’s line through the powder.

Matt Jenkins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a contributing editor to the paper, based in Berkeley, California. © High Country News