Orange cones wrapped with No Parking signs dotted the sidewalk, but one car, a gunmetal-grey Jetta, remained in violation. Did I know, asked the middle-aged worker in a beautifully lilting Irish accent, whose car this might be? No, said my wife Elahna, hurrying to the electric vehicle in our driveway, late for another day of nephrological ruminations at the hospital. Go ahead and tow it, I added, ungenerously. I will, said Irish, but I'd rather not. Over my right shoulder, off the side of the porch, flew a flag with a spreading sugar maple -- for Arbor Day, actually, but close enough. I'd forgotten to take it down last night.
The Jetta, by the way, is one of the cars involved in Volkswagen's illegal scheme to hide from detection their vehicles' very high (up to 40 times federal limits) emissions of NOx, which contributes to smog and acid rain. The $2 billion penalty they paid funded the charging network Electrify America, which we've used many times during road trips in our beloved BMW i3, produced at the world's most sustainable car factory in Leipzig. So that's another bad German/good German tale.
You're replacing pipes? I asked. Yes, Irish replied, they're a wee bit leaky. How old? Over a hundred years, he said, adding that we'll all be dead by the time they have to be replaced again. This macabre utterance seemed almost poetic when delivered with his Gaelic flavor. I couldn't agree, however. No, those are the last gas pipes that'll ever be laid here, everything's going electric. As if on cue, Elahna backed our EV onto the street and whooshed away, silent as an empty pint glass. The tree flag flappity-flapped and somewhere Al Gore was smiling. Or having indigestion.
The worker and I continued chatting about EV mileage and charging station availability. What's your electric bill? he asked. I pointed at the solar panels on our roof and made a zero sign with my thumb and forefinger. Meanwhile, the owner of the evil Jetta ran out to move her car. Minutes later, a pavement-cutting machine inched up the road, belching fumes, and I retreated into the house. It's warmed by natural gas on this chilly April morn. We're thinking about switching to an electric heat pump, but haven't gotten around to it yet. So I guess we're no carbon angels, either.
Around the Internet, Buckminster Fuller is given credit for coining the phrase "Spaceship Earth." That honor might also go to development economist Barbara Ward or UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson. Or to Henry George, who referred to the Earth as a ship that sails through space in his 1879 book Progress and Poverty. Fuller did cleverly remark that Spaceship Earth came without an instruction manual, and then he wrote a book called Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth.
But on second glance, Spaceship Earth should perhaps stay in the 1960s with bell bottoms, F Troop and Tang (the breakfast drink of Mercury astronaut John Glenn and NASA fanboy Hal LaCroix). After all, Earth is a spaceship that isn’t going anywhere. Around and around the sun it orbits, plodding along at 66,616 mph, tracing the same sad ellipse over and over again. Granted, the solar system is revolving around the black hole at the center of the galaxy and the galaxy is galloping about and the universe is expanding to God knows where, but all that drifting around doesn't exactly add up to a mission.
Spaceships need missions. To explore this planet or that star. To bring astronauts from this rock to that rock. To discover life outside our sphere. If we are Earthonauts, according to the Spaceship Earth metaphor, what's our mission except to survive the ride until we die? Yes, for a long time, we explored the frontiers of this planet, but that's pretty much done now. So are we throwing a big party now, with endless streams of entertainment, fizzy drinks and crunchy snacks? Are we trying to consume as much as possible -- physical goods, fake and real news, experiences both peak and mundane? Parents strive to make a "better life" for their children, but what does that mean in the Anthropocentric Era of looming climate-change disaster? For all our shiny gadgets, it often seems we're path dependent, stuck, replacing old gas pipes with new gas pipes as the generations roll by.
Without a shared mission -- one of high, unifying purpose -- it's hard to imagine the human species mustering the cooperative spirit to fully combat climate change, no less accomplish the first, difficult step of reducing our emissions halfway. Maybe, to find that purpose, we should consider Earth not as a spaceship, but as a home. Planet Home. Earth-Home. Home, Home on the Milky Way. Most people feel strongly about their homes, especially if they believe they're in peril. Many people are even willing to make sacrifices just to keep their homes beautiful.