Don’t be like Carl Sagan

Don’t be like Dean Martin, or Carl Sagan, or Benazir Bhutto. Don’t die in the last weeks of the year. You will have already missed the deadline for the Year In Review retrospectives, and you won’t be in them next year, either. History forgets you in a hurry without publicity.

Sagan was just 62 when he died in 1996, four years younger than Tom Petty, whose recent passing seems so premature. I am a member of the Planetary Society, which Sagan co-founded in 1980 (with Bruce Morgan and Louis Friedman) to advocate for space exploration and space science. Sagan was among the first scientists to warn us about the dangers of carbon emissions from motor vehicles and industry, pointing to Venus, where surface temperatures are hot enough to melt lead, as an example of a “runaway greenhouse effect.”

Stephen Jay Gould was only sixty when he checked out, leaving behind a lifetime of paleontological research, provocative theories, and a trove of extraordinary essays for general audiences. To my everlasting regret, I did not discover the bulk of his writing until after his death in 2002. I could have been one of the thousands of his readers who sent him letters on the astonishing varieties of topics he addressed. These letters, Gould wrote in the introduction to Bully For Brontosaurus, his last published essay collection, gave him faith in the intellectual curiosity of the ordinary citizen.

Like Sagan, Gould had the facility to convey complex concepts in ordinary English. Also like Sagan, he delighted in making connections between seemingly disparate topics. Sagan’s interest in the possibility of extraterrestrial life took him deep into anthropology and geopolitics. Gould turned Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak into a meditation on “statistics and mythology,” and the human tendency to impart meaning to random patterns, much as we conjure constellations from the stars in the night sky.

Gould was fond of skewering popular perceptions, especially those with which he had some sympathy. For example, he took the environmental movement to task for the exaggeration that Earth is a fragile planet, threatened by human activity. It is our civilization, he wrote, not the Earth itself, that we endanger:

“We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on Earth right from the start, and probably will be until the sun explodes); I doubt we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves – and our well-buffered Earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patterns to the severe detriment of millions.

“Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism – because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly.”*

I’ve always hated the movie Waterworld, because it’s preposterous: if all the ice on Earth melted, sea level would rise by about 250 feet. When Kevin Costner dives on submerged Los Angeles, he would see the San Gabriel Mountains and the foothills from the deck of his ship.

The world’s population of motor vehicles now numbers approximately 1.2 billion. The United States is by far the worst offender, with five vehicles for every six people. If the Chinese owned cars in the same proportion as we do, they would need a billion vehicles just for themselves.

The average weight of a car or light truck is 4,079 pounds. A gas-powered vehicle spews its weight in carbon compounds into the atmosphere each year. That means that our automotive infrastructure is annually pumping 4,894,800,000,000 (4.9 trillion) pounds of greenhouse gases into the clear blue sky. (And that’s not even counting the impact of the trucking industry, the byproducts of road construction, and vehicle manufacturing and disposal.) While these gases won’t turn our planet into Venus, they will continue to contribute to rising sea levels, acidification of the oceans, disruption of food supplies, and other life-threatening challenges.

This January marks eleven years since I last owned a car. I am under no delusion that I’m changing the world. But the world is changing, nonetheless.


* from Bully For Brontosaurus, copyright 1991 by Stephen Jay Gould.

I hear that train a-coming…

Amtrak will soon begin test runs to determine the feasibility of seasonal passenger train service to Rockland on the Downeaster, which now has its northern terminus in Brunswick. This is good news for anyone who has ever driven coastal Route 1 in the summer. It’s good news for all of us, really: a small sign that the Late Automobile Age is beginning to morph, however slowly, into something else.

No small city in Maine stands to benefit more from alternatives to the automobile than Rockland. It’s equidistant from almost everywhere. You can get there by car, bus, boat, plane, and until recently, train. If you don’t drive there, you can enjoy the city on foot without having to find a parking place.

The naysayers, predictably, will claim that it costs too much, that train service to Rockland is nothing more than a romantic pipe dream, subsidized by all for the enjoyment of a few. But trains, once established, have proven popular in many parts of the country. Of course trains are subsidized. So is every other form of transportation – cars, trucks, and highways most of all. I wish I didn’t have to keep pointing this out.

Most people drive because the market is rigged in favor of cars and drivers. There is money for parking lots but not train stations, road construction but not additional bus routes. Those of us who seek alternatives to owning a car face a phalanx of obstacles, not the least of which is the misguided view that public transportation is charity, or worse, welfare.

I’ve never seen this as a partisan issue, by the way. I know conservatives who love trains and liberals who love cars. Writers like trains, because you can write on them. The scenery changes every minute, and you can look at it instead of at the car in front of you. It’s a contemplative way to travel. Musicians tend to favor cars, with stereo systems and space for bulky instruments. And how else are you going to get to that Friday night gig in East Podunkville?

But those of us who want to ride a train to Rockland (or Bangor, or Bar Harbor, in the not-too-distant future) aren’t calling for the elimination of cars (except, perhaps, in parts of Acadia National Park, but that’s another argument for another time). Opponents of alternative transportation would force us all into cars. Studies in disparate places around the U.S. and the world have shown that a mixed-use transportation system, rather than a monolithic car-centric approach, is the most functional and cost-effective.

And what’s not to love about a train? Where would country music or American cinema be without trains? They’re woven into our national DNA.

Still, some people will find reasons to oppose just about anything. There were Americans who opposed the moon landing, the greatest thing this country has ever done, because they deemed it too expensive. How could we go to the moon when kids were starving and our cities were in flames and young men were dying in Vietnam? All those concerns were valid, and yet today I’m proud to be part of a civilization that landed on the moon. My parents were proud that their taxes helped pay for it. (If you’re gullible enough to believe the conspiracy theory that all the lunar missions were faked, don’t even talk to me.)

Expanding passenger rail service in Maine, while not on the scale of reaching for the moon, is nonetheless a worthy and doable investment. I don’t expect it to happen all at once, or everywhere I want it to, but Rockland, in both the short and long term, is realistic. I’ll ride that train, and so will a lot of other people. If they build it, we will come.