Oechel believes we’re doing “more poorly than the worst emissions scenario we could imagine. It doesn’t take much math to say, ‘We’ve got an increasing population and an increasing per capita consumption.’ It just doesn’t pencil out. If we started draconian reduction scenarios now, we would still see 600 to 700 ppm [of CO2] in the atmosphere or more [up from 380 ppm now]. So, it really is misleading and cynical to talk about switching out lightbulbs and carpooling. Somebody’s got to step back and say, ‘Look, we’ve got a problem which goes well beyond these issues on the surface.’ And it’s not that we couldn’t do something. It’s just that there appears to be no political will to do it and very little education and information, so people don’t even realize where we are and where we’re headed.”
Oechel once met with Al Gore for a couple of hours, long before Al released his movie. “In the lecture, he had nothing on [the effect of a burgeoning world] population and nothing on increasing global consumption. I talked with him — argued with him — for a couple of hours, and with his staff. He really thought technology was going to solve everything. I was astonished, someone as intelligent as Al Gore missing the big picture.”
So what should San Diego do? “In addition to the things on the table at Copenhagen, I think we need a big analysis like the IPCC [the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] but to include population and economic growth as well as analysis of the best available and emerging technologies. So far, people steer clear of anything that looks like population control. I believe that can’t continue. For instance, I haven’t seen anyone calculate the thermal output of humans. I think every person puts out heat the equivalent of a 75-watt incandescent lightbulb. So you take 7 billion people, you’ve got 525 billion watts in heat. That’s not trivial [when you’re calculating]. Just from human metabolism.
“Let’s say San Diego adopted the [San Diego Foundation Regional Focus] 2050 report, and we reduced our carbon output by half, and that’s doable. It would make San Diegans feel good, but then what? It would only be of use if it became a model for other communities and governments to pick up.”
It’s the population explosion, he insists, that is key but not popular — not politically correct — to talk about.
“I’m a great one to piss in the wind,” he acknowledges. “But we have a crisis. They say it would require five-plus Earths to sustain us if the whole world wanted to live at Western standards. It’s physically not doable. So we have to decide: do we want fewer people, educated and living in a fairly appropriate manner, with enough to eat and shelter? Or do we want 14 billion living like cockroaches? Right now, we’re going for the 14 billion cockroaches.”
The inspirers: Not all teachers at State are as pessimistic as Oechel, but they recognize how heavy the subject is. “Given the enormity of the challenge,” says Geoffrey Chase — he’s the dean of undergraduate studies at State and leads a program that pushes sustainability in higher education — “people can take just so much of it, and then they say, ‘I need to get in my car and go get a beer!’ So we have to talk about how we manage that in terms of our sense of self, our own lives. To say ‘it’s too late’ sends a message that it doesn’t matter what we do. We have to strike a balance. How do we prepare students to think differently about how they occupy their place on the planet, so that when they take positions in companies, schools, law firms, community agencies, here and around the world, how are they better able to deal with it?”
Chase’s colleague Al Sweedler, who’s a professor of physics, partially agrees. “What we — San Diego — must do,” he says, “is turn ourselves into a model city. We’ve made a good start. We are the most solar city in the United States. We were voted top public-transportation system nationwide last year. We are a center for biofuels. I moved to California 40 years ago, and we could never have had this conservation push, this smart development, back then, never. And remember the threat of CFCs and the ozone holes over Antarctica? The Montreal Protocols licked that problem. So we can do it. I’m an optimist.”
“Just look at what our students [at State] are doing,” says Chase. “We just received a $2.4 million grant to put solar panels on campus. The students had a lot to do with that. They are ahead of faculty on this. Go ask Grant Mack and Erica Johnson.”
I head on over to the ’60s-era student union building, Aztec Center, with its multiple giant columns that make it feel like Egypt’s ancient Karnak or the temples at Luxor. I pass a scattering of people thrusting pamphlets and Bibles and petitions at you. The post-sunset sky has turned a deep, velvet blue, and the student union building shines golden within its vertical lighting.
A booth at the top of the steps says “Associated Students.” I ask one of the guys behind the stacks of literature if he knows Grant Mack or Erica Johnson. Grant, I’m told, is the green commissioner for Associated Students, the students’ organization. A moment later, a 20-year-old…kid, a junior-year student, comes up and introduces himself. Mack is one of the student executives who run Associated Students, a — get this — $23 million, student-controlled corporation that owns eight of the campus’s main buildings, including Aztec Center. He’s just completed negotiations to tear the center down and build a new one.
“It’s going to be green,” he says, “very green: a LEED-certified building. That stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s a green-building rating system set up by the U.S. Green Building Council. And not just LEED, but LEED Platinum, the most strictly regulated sustainable building possible. This is a first on any campus in the U.S., and, we think, the world. And guess what? It was the students who voted to tax themselves an extra $45 per year to pay for a very green replacement. We don’t get big-buck grants like UCSD. This is a bottom-up campus. We prefer it that way because this is ours. We students are the ones making it happen.”