Per Capita Davis: Hummingbirds and elephants

By From page A4 | July 03, 2014

“Per Capita Davis” has been the title of this column for nearly six years. It was born out of my perception that individuals acting together would be the main motor for achieving greenhouse gas reductions. Sometimes I have my doubts. Sometimes it seems the problem is too huge, that no matter what we do as individuals, the world’s reliance on fossil fuels is just too overwhelming.

Still, I take inspiration from my ceramic artist wife’s most recent mural installed at the north entrance to the Student Community Center at UC Davis. The mural includes images of hummingbirds and a quote by Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt movement in Africa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work on sustainability.

She tells a story (you can watch her tell it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IGMW6YWjMxw) about a hummingbird. There’s a huge fire and the forest is going up in flames. All the animals — including the elephants with their big trunks that could suck up large amounts of water — are transfixed and feel overwhelmed as they watch the forest burn. But a little hummingbird flies to a nearby stream to get a single drop of water, then flies to the fire, drops the water, and returns, time and time again, to the stream for more drops.

The animals ask the hummingbird why she’s doing this when her drops of water are so small and her efforts so insignificant. Her answer is simple. “I’m doing the best that I can.”

Maathai uses this to explain her own efforts against environmental problems that are seemingly intractable to the efforts of individuals. She states (paraphrase), “That’s what I want to be. I don’t want to be one of the animals watching the forest burn. I want to be a hummingbird.”

This is really one of the most eloquent and elegant explanations for individual action that I have come across.

But we also need some of the elephants to take action. And this is where the Environmental Protection Agency’s recent announcement that it will begin the process to regulate emissions from coal-fired power plants comes into focus. It is “upstream” actions like this that result in huge greenhouse gas reductions without us citizens having to lift a finger.

Whenever government requires stricter building standards or appliance efficiency standards, raises the mpg requirements for cars and trucks, requires utilities to generate or obtain power from renewable resources, or makes any number of other requirements on sources of greenhouse gas emissions, two things generally follow. One, the reductions from these requirements dwarf anything an individual, or even a collection of individuals, can accomplish. Two, a lot of hollering ensues about increased cost.

Witness the headline Monday in The Sacramento Bee on Page 1 in type the same size as the nameplate: “Air rules may get painful at the pump.” It seems the fossil fuel industry has formed a “grassroots” organization (they call it “Fed Up at the Pump”) to make a last-ditch effort to stop cap-and-trade. They’ve been fighting it since it was first planned in 2006, including bankrolling a failed attempt in 2010 to repeal the authorizing legislation at the ballot box.

So what are we talking about here? Big industrial polluters have been required to participate in cap-and-trade since 2012. Transportation fuels make up about 40 percent of California’s greenhouse gas emissions. So what’s the “bite”? How much will costs increase?

Estimates from all sides, including the industry, speculate that there may be up to a 15 cents-per-gallon increase. Whoa, Nellie! Is that it? That much of an increase can happen if an oil company sneezes or if speculators on Wall Street think the sky is falling.

In this case, the extension of cap-and-trade involves both the hummingbirds (us) and the elephants (the fuel industry). The elephants already have let it be known that they will not absorb the increase; however much it might be, they will pass it on to the consumer (nothing new in that). But it seems they get their feelings (though not their wallets) hurt when they get blamed for rising gasoline prices, so they want everyone to know that at least this time it’s not their fault.

Left out of the hysteria coming from the fossil fuel industry about a potential rise in the cost of a gallon of gasoline are the benefits derived from the cap-and-trade program. Aside from the obvious that the state is doing its part to prevent irreparable harm to the planet from increased levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, the funds raised by this program are themselves funding other programs to reduce emissions.

Nothing of the sort happens when gasoline prices rise when costs are increased due to actions by traders and speculators. And, importantly, everyone agrees that price is what people respond to in terms of changing behavior, so us hummingbirds may drive less and buy more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The cap-and-trade program, by bringing together hummingbirds and elephants, actually may get us at least closer to the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020.

— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis; his column is published on the first and third Thursdays of each month. Send comments [email protected]

John Mott-Smith

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