Rebekah and I are currently entering the second half of our train-travel book tour around the country, speaking at independent bookstores, libraries, food co-ops, and green building stores. I started out from North Carolina in the middle of June, working my way solo through the Midwest for two weeks to meet up with Bekah, who was teaching a class on photovoltaic installations at Solar Energy International's education campus in Paonia, Co. From our meeting point in Denver, we headed out to San Francisco, down to Los Angeles, and we're now in Albuquerque, scooting along the bottom section of the country on our way back home.
We don't have the same opportunities on the road to be as energy conscious as at home. A lot of travel is inherently unsustainable, since mobility as a rule requires energy.
But trains are substantially more efficient than planes, and I've noticed a certain smug schadenfreude in the smirks of the Amtrak staff (and many of the travelers, too) whenever the subject of high oil prices and the hell of airplane travel comes up. No doubt we've sorely neglected train travel as a nation over the past few decades. The federal government spends hundreds of billions of dollars on roads each year, tens of billions on airplanes, but only a billion or two on trains.
Nevertheless, for a man who bleeds green like myself, even train travel can infuriate. Amtrak apparently makes no attempt at recycling, tossing cans and bottles into the trash even in states with substantial return deposits like California. The snack bar attendants refuse to fill our personal coffee cups without tossing a paper cup in the garbage "to keep count."
My dumpster diving tendencies are barely held in check when I see precious items piled high in the garbage as I exit the train. I want to just pick up the whole bag and take it to the nearest recycling center, stale beer smell and all, earning myself a few dollars in the process. Fortunately for my wife and the other passengers, I've already loaded myself down with too much else ? books, mostly ? to manage any more weight. I still haven't learned a lesson from when I was 18 and rode my bike across the country carrying all of the Vintage translation of Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. By the time I got back to North Carolina from Portland, I had read only a measly thirty pages (probably somewhere around a page read for pound carried).
I try to view each city we visit as a sustainability challenge. How can these fossil fuel sinkholes be converted to Ecocities, a la Richard Register? As we jostle along on city buses, I mentally transform asphalt shingles into solar water heaters and green roofs, car-choked avenues into pedestrian-friendly woonerfs, and abandoned lots into community gardens. I must admit to feeling particularly overwhelmed when applying this activity to Los Angeles, however. On the face of it, no city holds more potential to being converted into a fossil fuel-free haven. Now, don't laugh until you hear me out. Start with the beautiful temperate weather. Add on access to plenty of water. The sprawl means plenty of space for most households to grow substantial quantities of food year round, and few tall trees or buildings in residential areas means great solar access for solar hot water and solar electricity.
The reality on the ground, however, remains much different. Los Angeles is the paragon of American individualism, to its ultimate demise, I'm afraid. Maybe Angelenos will prove me wrong and come together to dramatically reduce their fossil energy use. I hope so, because there's much to be admired there: a sense of creativity and racial equality unmatched nearly anywhere else I've been, for instance. In the physical sense, conversion to carbon-freedom would be easier to do here than in a great majority of other American cities. But as Jared Diamond elucidates in the subtitle to his book Collapse, societies choose to fail based on their day-to-day decisions and actions. Societies live for today, stay stuck in their outmoded ways, and eventually the physical reality of the earth catches up with them and busts their collective ass. I hope time and the people of Los Angeles prove me wrong: it would be one of the more inspiring stories our species has spun.