Looking around the horizon, alone 1,000 miles from land, I wasn’t afraid.
Then I looked down.

Carbon pollution in the oceanFor me it was 1977. I was halfway across the Atlantic, squinting into a bucket of seawater. Specs of brown were floating in it, along with microscopic grey things. What is this stuff? And why is this patch of water, so far from humans, so polluted? I emptied it back over the side, sailed a few more days, and pulled up another bucketful. Same specks; same tiny grey things.

Who did this? The pollution made me feel anxious. That seemed silly; the sailing was routine and relaxing. I’d just been reading the very reassuring Soft Energy Paths by Amory Lovins, a pioneering and encouraging view of how to beat the rising price and pollution of energy. Solar and wind, together with energy conservation and efficiency, would make the last quarter of the century safer, cheaper, and less anxious.

When I reached land, I learned the pollutants I’d hauled up across the Atlantic were from petroleum products. The brown specks were tar globules, maybe from a drilling rig, maybe a tanker flushing its tanks illegally. The microscopic gray particles were fragments of plastic bags, torn by the waves into morsels.

Today, well into the first quarter of the next century, pollution from petroleum is not better; it’s lots worse, with impacts on my family’s finances and lifestyle.

That afternoon in 1977 I knew those specks of tar and polyethylene wouldn’t sink my boat, affect my drinking water, make me sick, or cost me a dime. But almost 40 years later, Lovins’ dream has yet to come true and a bigger consequence from petroleum – CO2 pollution – is now sinking our towns, affecting our water supplies, making us sick, and damaging our personal finances.

My anxiety eventually grew to where for years Hilary and I helped organize events promoting energy conservation. These days I’m trying to help families understand the steps we can take and attitudes we can cultivate to protect us from the effects of energy use. Hence my website, my Where-To-Live indicators, and my book, Climate-Proof.

It seems like yesterday I was wondering whom to blame for that bucketful of anxiety. My kids are not going to have to wonder, 40 years hence, who’s to blame for their problems.

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