Wednesday, July 12, 2006

gore's wager

First. On the Emery-Go-Round today, which is a free shuttle that runs around Emeryville taking people to the shopping centers, IKEA, and BART, I yielded my seat to a very pregnant, fashionably dressed young woman sporting a Hello Kitty watch and tight jeans. Her friend was spilling out of a grey tank top in the way that makes me wonder how there could be anyone who doesn't like women's bodies, a triangular pendant lined with diamonds poking one happy corner into her impressive cleavage. I pretended that my iPod was turned up too high to overhear their conversation, which floated around retail jobs, saving money for a car, and someone they knew who had been foolish enough to pay a month in advance on his cell phone just before going to jail, where he couldn't use it.

"Why does the price of gas have to go up just when we're wanting cars?" asked the one without a bun in the oven. "It's scandalous. It's because we're running out of oil."

"Isn't gas made by men?" asked the other. "Isn't it artificial?"

"Well, they make it with oil somehow. And I was watching Bill Nye the science guy in a show at school a couple years ago, and they showed how much oil there is left. They showed it in a barrel. This is how much we're supposed to have," and here she indicated with a carefully-manicured hand, this much. "And this is how much we really have," with her fingers closer together, like she was squishing a marshmallow. "I was hecka scared when I saw that. It's not just cars, it's everything, airplanes, trucks."

"Is that how much there is in the world, or America?"

"I don't know. Not just America, I think. But maybe not the world."

"The Middle East?"

"I want to say the West Indies, but I don't think that's right. The Middle East."

"Because they're drilling everywhere."

Needless to say, I was dying to yank out my earbuds and clarify some points, but just then we got to the MacArthur BART station, and there was the general crush of people trying to get out of the too-small bus, and their conversation turned to ill-concealed mutterings about people who don't give pregnant women a seat. But I was so struck by the whole thing. Here are these teenagers, dressed to the hoochie-mama nines, talking about peak oil--something I've only heard, well, bearded white people talking about. It was so exciting, but at the same time frustrating as hell: the message is getting out, but the details are not being transmitted well. It's not just the cars and planes and trucks, I wanted to tell them. It's every single thing made out of plastic, unless they get it together with the "plastic from oranges" science soon. It's the potential for serious economic and social collapse. It's freaking Mad Max.

Hours later at home, I read this, about what happened today when an insurance company gave away free gas in Wisconsin. People lined up for hours, four people were arrested for getting into fights. I'm old enough to remember gas rationing in the seventies. We should get used to what this looks like.

Second. In June, I was modeling for three very nice ladies I work for in Marin every couple of months. Marin County, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, is a very wealthy area north of San Francisco. It's where all those car commercials with cars driving around pictureseque cliffs by the ocean are shot, and it is lousy with health food stores and crystal-clutching rich hippies. These artists are my mother's age, mostly; one is a little older. They talk as they work and don't mind if I do too. They give me advice. I ask after their ailments.

So a few weeks ago, I was talking about having just seen An Inconvenient Truth, and how affected I was by it; that although I knew a lot of the parts already, seeing them pulled together the way Gore does has really changed my perspective. I'm babbling on about how glad I am now that I don't have a car and get to use my bike, how we have to keep the polar bears from drowning, and so on. These ladies have always struck me as softly lefty in that way of a) Marin women and b) Marin women who went to women's colleges and c) California artists of any gender or alma mater. I figured I wasn't saying anything that would offend anyone.

Until the oldest spoke up. "I don't believe that global warming is that big a deal," she said, rather frostily. "I am not convinced, and I don't see why we should have to change our way of life."

Third. The single solitary thing I remember from a humanities class I took in college where we were brushed ever so lightly with the Great Thinkers is Pascal's Wager. I'm sure you all know about this, especially folks like Larissa and Odious and Peculiar, who had that fabulous St. John's education. But I'll recap: Blaise Pascal argued that it was safer to believe in the existence of God than his/her absence. If there's not a God and you believe, the gambit goes, you've lost nothing by believing. If there is a God and you don't believe, boy are you in trouble after you die.

I'm not going to touch Pascal's Flaw, or my own beliefs on the God question, or how I think believing in God the way too many of us are taught to leads to rigid and inhumane behavior. Not my point, although I know some of you might like to muck around in decision theory for a while. But here's what strikes me about Pascal's construction: if we behave as if global warming really is a serious problem worth our attention and it turns out not to be, what have we lost? Besides our inefficient vehicles, our outmoded and resource-intensive technology, and our arrogance? Will it kill us to take a moment away from our other pursuits to demand more fuel efficiency, more bike paths, more personal, corporate, and political accountability?

Whereas if global warming is even half the problem Al Gore and his scientist buddies think it is, and we do not behave accordingly, boy are we in trouble while we--you and I, my clients' grandkids, that teenager's unborn son--live.

We are making the wager not only for ourselves, but other beings to whom we are responsible--people and creatures who cannot choose, as we can, to leave the car in the garage more often, or change out the lightbulbs, or vote for candidates who will protect what remains of the wilderness.

Are we choosing wisely?