How to Help the Planet by Buying a Hummer Cut down those old trees, scrap that organic milk, embrace nuclear power: Wired contributing editor Spencer Reiss explains why winning the war on global warming means slaughtering some of environmentalism's sacred cows.

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How to Help the Planet by Buying a Hummer

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OK, so you might hear a little bit of drilling in this next segment. It's not drilling for oil in Alaska, although we are talking about the environment. There's a little construction going on here in the building where the BPP World Headquarters resides.


There are those who say we should have not have erected this studio atop the DeWalt to power-drill-testing facility.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: To that we said you are fools. This will not be a problem. Well, the chickens have come home to roost.

MARTIN: So, in that spirit, we shall persevere, we shall move forward, and we are going to talk about - what else? - saving the planet. You might think, hey, I'm not supposed to, you know, buy an SUV. I'm supposed to hate nuclear power. I'm supposed to love organic milk. Not necessarily. The good folks at Wired Magazine say there are many old ways that people have thought that we should save the environment, not so true.

The biggest threat to Mother Earth is global warming. Wired dedicates its 15th anniversary issue to the so-called new environmentalism. The article says combating climate change by reducing carbon omissions should be our top green agenda and focusing on other related causes, like saving the polar bear or cleaning up the oceans, this can actually dilute that bigger effort.

And that makes sense, when you consider a study that was out this month from the University of Bern reporting that greenhouse gases are the highest they've been in 800,000 years. Really? We are taking - we are measuring this? Eight hundred thousand years?

PESCA: You just kind of assume with the first 790,000 that that would be the case.

MARTIN: So as Wired says, forget the spotted owl. Go buy a windmill instead. Joining us now to explain why winning the war on global warming means maybe slaughtering some of environmentalism's sacred cows is Spencer Reiss. He's a contributing editor for Wired who worked on June's cover story titled "Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green." Hey, Spencer.

Mr. SPENCER REISS (Contributing Editor, Wired Magazine): Hey, what's going on?

MARTIN: Well, lot's of interesting stuff here.

Mr. REISS: Yeah.

MARTIN: So the overall point of the cover story is that, yes, there are a lot of threats to the environment, but global warming is the biggest. But why does it have to be zero-sum? Which it seems like you are arguing. Why does focusing on climate change mean you can't support spotted owls?

Mr. REISS: Well, because in this world, you can't have everything, I mean, and...

MARTIN: Come on, we're American! We can have everything.

Mr. REISS: Well, I know we want - actually you can. I mean, I think we can, but let me first just run down a couple - I mean, they're really obvious things, you know, for years and years, people have opposed, say, nuclear power plants. Well, we need electricity, so what do the power plant companies do? They went out and built coal plants instead, which were seemingly OK to people. And now as a result, we've got massively more greenhouse gasses than we would have had if we built nukes.

So now everyone's saying, oh, my God, we've got to build nukes. That's a kind of classic example. You know, windmills, for a long time, faced opposition, because, oops, they chop up birds that fly through them. Now, actually, you know, the most recent generation don't do that as badly as they used to, but that resulted in a lot of projects got stopped. Those are the kind of things that, you know, it is sort of zero-sum at that level.

MARTIN: So let's go through a few more of these. The ten tenets that you call the new environmental apostasy kind of break down into things that sound like they're the best things for the planet, but really not so much, and things that seem like the worst for the planet, but really aren't. So let's start with cars, because...

Mr. REISS: Right.

MARTIN: A lot of people get latched on to this idea of SUVs being evil, evil, evil, and you know, what would Jesus drive? Not that, apparently. Maybe he would drive a hybrid, like a Prius or something?

Mr. REISS: Yeah. See, again, I mean, everybody, you know, lots of people like to drive around in a little Prius. You know, a yuppie and his Prius is getting 42 miles to the gallon. A mom in a Hummer with six kids in the back, on a per person basis, which is really the way you've got to look, is actually doing much better. So a lot depends on what you do with the car.

MARTIN: Mm-hm.

Mr. REISS: OK. How many people are in it? Where're you going? Whether it's important? All those kind of things can vastly outweigh, you know, the 10 miles per hour, per gallon, better than a Prius might get, but the problem with the Prius is everybody - you know, the nickname is "the Pious," because everyone thinks, oh, I bought the Prius, end of problem. Well, not exactly.

MARTIN: So, what about used cars?

Mr. REISS: Used cars are great, actually. You want, you know, 52 miles a gallon. The world champ is still about an '84 Honda Civic, you know, it gets way better mileage than a Prius does. It doesn't have an air conditioner. It doesn't have airbags. It doesn't have a lot of things that people have now come to expect in cars, but you know...

MARTIN: So, if I can get my hands on a used Hummer, then that's a better idea.

Mr. REISS: Yeah. I mean, another big factor is, you know, how much carbon goes into building a car? It's a huge amount. And I mean, this - it - a lot of this stuff - I mean, one of the tenets I wanted to put in thing, which we didn't include, was if you start looking at this stuff seriously, you get either a big headache or go crazy.

Because, you know, just trying to figure out, wow, well, maybe we should just not build anymore new cars, and just run around with the old ones. But actually, no, that really isn't a very good idea either, because in the long run, you do want to move to more efficient cars. But just, you know, going out and splashing 40,000 bucks on a brand new car, is not again going to, by itself, really change anything. We're really - I think one of our problems...

MARTIN: It's about behaviors, changing behaviors as well. You can't just buy your way into a better planet.

Mr. REISS: Changing behaviors is really important, and very long-term, big systemic stuff, you know, moving, say, to electric cars, you know, is really a much better solution, because then, you know, you can (unintelligible) of all kinds of ways you can make them go. You can make them go with solar power. You can make them go with wind power. You can make them go with nuclear power. You're not wed to this one fuel, whether its ethanol, gasoline, or whatever it happens to be.

MARTIN: What about organics?

Mr. REISS: Organics again, same kind of thing, you know. People, you know, think, oh, wow, I am going to eat organic lettuce, but then it turns out it was grown in a greenhouse that had to be kept warm through the winter, because you, of course, want to have your lettuce in the middle of January in New York. Well, lettuce doesn't grow in New York in January.

So if you want to have organic lettuce, it either has to be shipped in, you know, a very long distance, or it has to be grown in a greenhouse that's kept warm by probably natural gas. So there you go. From a carbon point of view, you know, you really want to eat what grows locally, which, unfortunately in much of the United States and much of the world, much of the year, the answer is not much. You know, get used to potatoes and turnips.

PESCA: Spencer, I read this story in the New York Times yesterbay (ph) - yesterday, about kids in a college who test each other on taking shorter showers than the one before them. And I said, well, that's great for them, and by great for them, actually I kind of was saying to myself, it's essentially meaningless in the overall picture about our fighting...

Mr. REISS: Yeah. I mean, look, there was a great line that I think David Pogue in the New York Times had a couple of weeks ago. He said, you know, don't think that, you know, that the glaciers on Mount Kilimanjaro are melting because you listen to too much heavy metal music on your iPod. It's - you know, there's limits to that behavior change that we talked about, and you know, it's - it depends, you know - everybody loves to say you've got to do something. Well, it's more important to do something than to do nothing.


Mr. REISS: I think the answer is, to get back to your original point about zero sum, you've got to do both. You know, you've got to both be smart about your own life and what you do, and also smart about the policies that you, you know, either with your vote, or your money, or whatever, encourage.

PESCA: I've always said - I've always said to friends of mine, all that is fine, but the most important thing you can do is get the government to change big policies. If you put - if you have one - if you have two hours a week to work on environmentalism, if you could somehow channel it to that, that's the best thing to do.

Mr. REISS: Yeah, but even there you've got to make smart choices, you know? I mean, I personally - I mean, you know, one of the odd things about this whole exercise - Wired Magazine a technology magazine. We're not really an environmental magazine. And we're basically pretty optimistic about the world. And you know, one of the reasons we're optimistic is that we really believe that there are technological ways to, in effect, have your cake and eat it, too.

OK, you don't have to - you know, I mean, that's what I was hinting at with electric cars. You know, there are ways that, you know, plenty of people sit around and - you know, there are ways to devise a world which is both fun and where you can take half-hour showers if you feel like it and not ruin the planet. But it's just going to require a pretty serious rethink.

Because, again, as we started this project, you know, it - the world isn't engineered right now with carbon reduction in mind. It's engineered with efficiency in mind. It's measured with cost affordability, all those things. In order to have your cake and eat it, too, it's really hard. Engineers have to do a lot of work, but I think we can do it.

And I mean, one of our great advantages right now are things like computers, you know, for instance, Internet, just an obvious thing can help people not commute as much, not take as many business trips. Those kind of things really do have effects. It's just going to take awhile for them to work through the system.

MARTIN: Spencer, what do you think the effect of peer pressure has? I mean, I take Mike's point, that if you have two hours a week, it's good to lobby at a federal level, but also I think setting an example, or - what's the value in, maybe, that - an element of shame, you know, when the whole plastic bags thing, if you walk out of the grocery store...

Mr. REISS: Yeah. You've got to be smart (unintelligible). I mean, you guys are in New York. You're actually in a really green place. I mean, it doesn't look - when you look out the window of New York City, you don't think green, but actually on a per-person basis, New York's one of the greenest - it's a highly concentrated city. People take public transportation. It's easy to heat and cool an apartment house, as opposed to a little - you know, the cute little cabin in the woods that most people would think of as a green ideal.

MARTIN: Uh-huh.

Mr. REISS: And so you've got to, you know, you've got to first start by having your head screwed on right and understanding working through in your head the whole - everything is about systems in this, you know. Not knowing - energy is the classic networked product, and so its effects extend, ripple out backwards and forwards, up and down a kind of a food chain. And every single thing you do has impact on everything else, and you really have to think about it.

MARTIN: Spencer Reiss is a contributing editor for Wired Magazine, and an editor of June's cover story, "Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green." It's an interesting article. Some things you kind of - well, they'll surprise you. They'll surprise you. I encourage everyone to check it out. Spencer, thanks very much.

Mr. REISS: We hope so. Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Thanks for sharing your reporting. We appreciate it.

Mr. REISS: Bye.

PESCA: Rachel, you ever go online and enter one of those personal carbon-footprint calculators?

MARTIN: No. Have you done that?

PESCA: Yeah, and I find that the number one thing that lowers your personal carbon footprint is not having a car. So that's why living in the city...

MARTIN: The city makes sense.

PESCA: Is pretty much the greenest thing you can do. And once you start adding even a small amount of miles, you really see that your personal carbon footprint has gone out of control.

MARTIN: That's true.

PESCA: And then, although I feel a little bad about owning pet, because his carbon paw print is a little larger than you think...

MARTIN: Well, you know, shame really works with the plastic bag thing. As soon as I saw all my neighbors carrying those recycling bags, I was like - I feel embarrassed to carry these plastic bags.

PESCA: Yeah. They whisper about you. Plastic bags in B-Four.

MARTIN: Carrier.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: Coming up on the big show, we strive towards broadcast sustainability and we talk about the rationale behind human irrationality. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

MARTIN: We're so deep.

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