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Marty Nathan: One grandmother’s carbon-based life choice



Wednesday, February 05, 2014
NORTHAMPTON — Our first granddaughter, Misha Ford, was born Dec. 1. I can’t tell you the joy that filled my heart. Anyone who has become a grandparent can relate to the excitement and expectation that grabbed my husband and me.

But there was a problem. My daughter Leah is living in Cambodia with her husband, a Navy physician.

We did the expected. We bought round-trip tickets to visit them in March. The flight, though certainly not cheap, was affordable for a doctor and a professor. I dreamed of holding 3-month-old Misha in my arms, playing with her fingers and toes, feeling her breathe against my chest as she slept, taking the burden off Leah of walking her when she cried.

And in Cambodia, a place we’ve never visited, with beautiful beaches and rain forests and ancient ruins. Our family has flown many places, most recently to Ethiopia where my husband and I had Fulbright grants to teach. We went to China for a week to a conference and I flew to Bolivia and Gaza on fact-finding tours.

Yet now, in 2014, neither he nor I could ignore the conflicting unease associated with flying halfway around the world for two weeks. Over the last several years we have learned more and more about climate change and now we cannot claim ignorance at what we would be contributing to global warming just by that one trip.

You see, flying puts in the atmosphere 100 times the gram carbon/weight carried of truck travel and up to 1,000 times the carbon of rail travel. Furthermore, because they are emitted at high altitude, those same carbon molecules have two to four times the warming impact on the earth as they would were they spewed out closer to ground, according to calculations by the David Suzuki Foundation.

Here is the math: Two to four times the 2.8 million grams of carbon that the two of us would be burning is equivalent to 8.4 metric tons of carbon.

It gnawed at us. Was this two-week trip to see my 3-month-old granddaughter really a gift for her? Or was it one more small bit sealing her doom? I woke up one morning realizing that I had to face the real impact of our plans.

I hesitantly told my husband my thinking and, amazingly, he agreed. Then I told Leah. Actually, and less amazingly because she ponders the climate dilemma all the time, she agreed. We are not going. We are cashing in our tickets.

Since then many friends have asked us when we are going and we have explained our decision: that we will wait until Misha is 9 months old and take trains to visit her in Washington when her parents return. More than once those progressive friends have answered, “You’re kidding, aren’t you?”

It seems that jet flight for vacations is one of the sacred cows that many of us have a hard time examining. We see it as a right, compensation for working hard, to leave our homes and problems far behind to visit the exotic and the wild. What irony that that flight itself is a major threat to many of those same exotic and wild beaches, tropical forests and mountaintops degraded and destroyed by global warming.

I do not believe that voluntary lifestyle changes by the privileged alone will stop climate change and prevent the horrors that will be visited on Misha but even more heavily on the poor of our world.

There must be a massive political struggle, worldwide but starting in the industrialized countries, to eliminate the burning of carbon — stop building fossil fuel-burning plants; invest in lower-energy public transportation, conservation, efficiency and renewables; and levy a carbon tax that begins to reflect the real cost of our use of the energy resources that have been sitting in our earth for hundreds of millions of years.

If we had to pay the real price of jet travel, few of us would or could climb aboard. Our major task must be to engage in that struggle.

However, those who advocate for this now must “walk the walk.” We must try to live the life we are working for, make decisions that reflect our ethics, no matter how difficult those decisions are. Otherwise, our movement lacks moral force and will be seen by many as hypocritical.

I hesitated for weeks to write this piece, feeling that many could read it as moralizing. But my heart tells me it is past time that each of us look at our children and grandchildren and ask ourselves if there are not things that we can and must do out of love for them to end our poisoning of the atmosphere. It is in their name that we must learn and act according to that knowledge.

Marty Nathan, M.D., lives in Northampton.