Going car-free in Los Angeles

The experiment begins. Yesterday I gave my car to Maz and will try to live car-free in Los Angeles for the next six months.

Inspired by Bill McKibben’s article, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, I want to reduce my production of CO2. McKibben’s article makes a compelling case for a particular focus: reducing our consumption of gasoline. My first step: use bikes and public transit instead of driving for personal use.

Here is the terrifying math McKibben cites.

  • A global temperature increase of 2 degrees is the current scientific consensus of the maximum increase before humans face dire consequences.
  • Humans have already increased the temperature 0.8 degrees.
  • The remaining 1.2 degrees represents a “carbon budget” of 565 gigatons between now and 2050.
  • Energy companies (oil, gas, coal, etc) have an estimated 2795 gigatons of fossil fuel in the land they currently own.

This means that if Shell, Chevron, and other energy companies tap and sell the oil, gas, and coal currently in their reserves, we will release 5 times more carbon into the atmosphere than scientists think the climate can withstand. Yikes.

McKibben’s article also explains how frustratingly ineffective the US government has been in tackling the problem. Scientists have been shouting about global warming for decades and yet no substantial regulation has been accomplished. Obama campaigned aggressively on climate change but has since allowed increased coal extraction in Wyoming, with reserves that represent 10 percent of the earth’s remaining carbon budget. The administration has indicated that it will allow Shell to start drilling in the Arctic, in areas made accessible by the very warming we should be reversing. I see signs this trend is changing and that the public and our officials are finally getting the message, but the actions we need are dramatic and urgent. At our current rate of CO2 production, we’ll pass the 565 gigaton carbon budget in 16 years. This means that by the time Shoji’s daughter, Izumi, is in high-school, we will have likely determined the course of our earth’s temperature. 16 years is far less than required for the US government to come around.

My reaction to the article and these calculations is a profound inspiration to change my own living. According to my calculations and research, the 565 gigaton budget equates to about 2 tons per person per year. (My math: 565 gigatons / 38 years / 7 billion people = 2.124 tons). I’m guessing I currently produce something like 15 tons per year. Although I do a few things to reduce my impact (eating vegan, for example, is estimated to reduce CO2 production by about 1.5 tons), my use of car and plane transportation is by far my most significant contribution of CO2. My recent tour to Ohio and Hawaii with On Ensemble, for example, produced over 6 tons of CO2. This is more than triple my per-capita annual budget in 3 weeks. I have plans to travel to Japan twice in 2013, each time producing over 2.5 tons of CO2.

Clearly, the challenge of sustainability poses difficult questions for me as an artist. Is my work worth the environmental cost? Do I have the right to make that determination? Is it moral for me to exceed the per-capita budget in the interests of music? Until reading McKibben’s article, these questions were so threatening I would resign myself to setting the bar low. “At least I’m doing better than the average American.”

But McKibben’s article led me to a revelation. We face powerful, powerful companies with far more CO2 than we can afford to emit. Government regulation faces all-but-insurmountable barriers to addressing the problem in the time remaining. The science community’s predictions are continually revised to be more dire and more pressing. But amongst all this uncertainty and fear, I have total control over one chip in this game. I have the power to purchase or not purchase gasoline. I have the power to travel by air, or not. My sphere of influence may be small, but it’s entirely mine. So I’m taking firm hold of my 15 tons, and I’m going to do something to reduce it. Can I be a professional musician and live sustainably? Starting today, I will try and answer that question.

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