Earth Day turns 40 this year, and for those of us who were there at the start, a lot of things have changed. The University of Washington campus was in the full glory of spring that first Earth Day in 1970 — cherry blossoms blazing in the quad, spring fever oozing from every pore. From my vantage point as a college student in Seattle, a native of Puget Sound, and flush with the idealism of a counterculture at full flood, I was eager to sign up. Our mission seemed so obvious back then. We had wilderness to save, and I was part of that first battalion of eco-warriors hell-bent on the preservation of America's wild heritage as a treasure to pass on to future generations.
We did win our share of wilderness fights, and I'm proud to have been part of that effort, especially my work on behalf of wilderness protection in the Tongass National Forest of southeast Alaska. But it's what we didn't know back then that seems most pertinent now. None of us could have imagined the scope of the storm that was already building on the horizon, hidden from view — a storm of our own making far more potent than any wilderness boundary could ever hope to fence out.
It would take another decade after that first Earth Day for the reality of anthropogenic climate change to begin to muscle its way into our scientific discourse as a credible prospect. It has taken three decades more for the astonishing implications of this threat to begin to penetrate the brains we have all inherited from our deep Pleistocene past. It has turned out to be no small assignment for us to comprehend that which our brains do not yet seem fully equipped to imagine.
I need look no further than myself to know that this is true. I have been deeply concerned about climate change since it first surfaced as a serious concern in the 1980s. Yet my own carbon footprint has only grown larger in the ensuing years. The gap between what I know and how I am actually living my life has grown steadily larger. I had my "Oh, shit!" moment after I saw Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, then went home to take my own carbon footprint online. I thought I'd do fairly well. After all, I was driving a hybrid car, recycling most of my garbage, keeping my thermostat low. But I was also flying a lot for work and pleasure, not noticing how thoroughly this jet travel was trumping all my conservation efforts. I was shocked to learn that my carbon footprint was more than twice the national average. That meant I was responsible for 10 times the carbon emissions of the average European, and 20 times the world average. With my cover blown, this was not something I could any longer take sitting down.
Yet fashioning an appropriate response proved surprisingly elusive. I was too enmeshed in my high carbon lifestyle to see a way out of this conundrum. Unable to crack the code on this cultural deadlock, I found myself sliding into depression and despair. I had almost given up finding any solution at all when the genesis of a creative response ambushed me one morning during breakfast with a friend. "What would it be like," I found myself musing to my friend, "if I didn't get into a car for a year? What would it be like if I spent an entire year living car-free within walking distance of home?"
Something in the audacity of this idea grabbed hold of me and wouldn't let me go. I started scheming about places close to home that I could explore under my own power, hidden gems I had neglected in my rush to more distant places. I drew a circle on the map 60 miles in radius with my home at the center — a circle that traced a nearly perfect circumference around the Puget Sound basin. With this map pinned to my office wall, I started planning my "escape." I took a sabbatical from all work and travel that would take me outside this circle and on the winter solstice of 2007 I parked my car in the garage and did not get into a car again until the winter solstice of 2008. Armed with my boots, a bicycle, and a kayak I set off on the adventure of a lifetime.
In the process, I reclaimed some lost parts of myself. I fell in love again with my home geography. I rediscovered the capacity of my own body to transport me to nearly every part of my home circle. Each journey of exploration turned into a pilgrimage of homecoming. I reconnected with my immediate neighbors and found a new wellspring of support within my local community. I learned how to thrive on public transportation for day-to-day work and errands while launching out on longer trips traveling exclusively under my own power. And as my carbon footprint got smaller, the opposite trend was happening to my perception of place. My circumference of home grew steadily larger and more luminous in its scale and complexity.
When I began this adventure, I wanted little more than to bring my own life into greater alignment with my convictions about climate change. I wanted to craft an answer to my future grandchildren when they ask (as they inevitably will), "What did you do, back in 2008, when the climate was first spinning out of control? How did you respond when you finally knew how completely you held our future in your own hands?"
These questions haunt me still. But over the course of this extraordinary year, I did find the genesis of a few answers. And the adventure didn't stop there. Now it has grown into a book.
It seems appropriate that The Circumference of Home: One Man's Yearlong Quest for a Radically Local Life should be arriving in bookstores just in time for Earth Day 2010, on the 40th anniversary of an event that helped shape my destiny in this direction as a young man. My own life has traced a parallel arc alongside the evolution of Earth Day as I have worked to weave those first threads of wilderness advocacy into a more complex understanding of what we now face and what it will take for us to achieve a more durable future on the only planet we can ever call home.