Climate change unvarnished: Art of the improbable

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

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“Now I can go out and buy the biggest SUV I can find and drive it everywhere I go,” a friend said after reading my latest column.

This wasn’t exactly the response I was hoping for from the column, which told some “unvarnished truths” about global warming. At the top of the piece I’d quoted Abe Lincoln, who said that when given “the real facts” the American people “can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.”

So keeping the faith that learning the truth would motivate rather than frighten and depress my readers, I told them that climate change has arrived, it will get progressively worse, and it’s too late to fix it by making green improvements to one’s house. The only thing that might slow climate change, or curb its worst effects, is “a coordinated, societywide, global response.”

My friend was teasing me about the SUV. He rides a bike to work and buying a big, gas-guzzling vehicle is probably last thing he would do. But his point was well taken – if your personal actions don’t “make any difference,” why should you align them with efforts to preserve the planet?

But it also remains true that doing something – no, everything you can – to lower your personal carbon footprint will not, in and of itself, have any effect on a global economy that derives 80 percent of its energy from fossil fuels and emits 2 million tons of carbon dioxide per second into the atmosphere.

So what can you and I do to fight global warming in a meaningful way?

Pondering this, I remembered a legend about a clever mathematician in ancient India who invented the game of chess and gave it as a gift to his king. The delighted king told his subject that he could have any reward he desired, but the mathematician asked only for some grains of rice. One grain should be placed on the first of the chessboard’s 64 squares, two on the second, four on the third and so on ... with the number of grains doubling on each square.

Surprised that the mathematician asked so little, the king commanded that a bowl of rice be brought to fulfill his request. But soon another bowl, then another, then cartloads of rice had to be delivered. By the time the chessboard was full, all the wealth of the kingdom lay upon it, and the mathematician himself was king.

This is the power of exponents. The simple doubling on each of just 63 squares meant that it took 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, grains of rice – almost 3 billion times the number of people on Earth – to fill the chessboard.

What, then, are your chances – or the chances of the few of us who see the writing of disastrous climate change on the wall – of turning around the enormous momentum of the global fossil-fuel economy? Highly improbable, one would say: at least as improbable as the odds that a handful of British colonists could foment a revolution against the world’s greatest power, win, and build an even greater power of their own.

But probable failure can become certain success if one harnesses the power of exponents.

So I invite you to practice the art of the improbable by performing the simplest of acts: Stop using your clothes dryer and use a clothesline outdoors in summer and over your bathtub in winter. (Your clothes dryer is probably the most carbon-intensive appliance in your home.)

Of course, doing so won’t make any difference – unless you overcome any reticence you might have about persuading others to use a clothesline as well. By persuading just one person to make that small effort on behalf of the planet and our children, you can double the effect of your action: you can reach square two, so to speak.

The next step is convincing that person as to why he or she should persuade two other people to use a clothesline – and follow you in taking other private and public actions as well. Perhaps you can address a club or class about why you took your action.

It’s better to work toward improbable victory than to resign yourself to certain defeat at your ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website,

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