April 1, 2010
In early December, I traveled with 30,000 other people to Copenhagen, Denmark, and, strangely, travel agents around the world didn’t note the coldest mass vacation choice in recorded history. Up in the air, we talked of potential carbon offsets to mitigate the impact of our flight, reviewed the positions of parties to the convention and dreamed of goals we’d personally like to see achieved.
At about 1 a.m. (7 a.m. in Denmark, according to that snappy world clock built into the seatback in front of me), I could see the entire United Kingdom lit up beneath me, and I was astounded. From 38,003 feet, (again, snappy computer screen), the country that had once seemed impossibly large—which I had previously seen only on maps, and what sense did those really give a person of size or distance anyway?—now fit into my window that measured no more than a foot across.
There they were: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, outlined in thousands of tiny lights. Individ-ually, the lights told their stories: a British family with the porch light on, a Scottish business burning the midnight oil. Together the lights were pointillistic—enough little blips of paint to render the profiles of each country in finer detail than the map of my guidebook.
You don’t have to be a child to be astounded by such a sight. It is amazing. In the dead of night the fact that I could see anything at all, much less four countries, bespeaks a single sentence that mad scientists have longed to say: We have taken over the world.
We have the power to change everything. One hundred years ago I could not have seen such a sight; today I can. But here’s the kicker: We don’t just have the power for global change; we’ve used it. The planet is covered in our lights.
That morning I wrote a few sentences in my journal: “If this convention is about this experience, this looking out the plane window and recognizing that we’ve covered the Earth in lights, then I think we stand a chance. Then I don’t think the lights are a bad thing.”
We’ve been reluctant to acknowledge that we’ve changed the world, perhaps even a little scared to admit it. The planet always seemed too vast or too old, its systems literally unchanged since the beginning of human time. How could we possibly change the wind? The tides? The sun? Those realms were reserved for deities alone. But the world is smaller than it used to be.
I left Pennsylvania and arrived in Denmark within seven hours, minus some hellish hours in airport security, and when I arrived I spoke with friends in Italy, Germany and the United States in a matter of seconds. I saw their faces projected on video screens, and they saw a conference center hundreds or thousands of miles away.
I kept thinking how four countries fit in less than a foot of window. That sight filled me with confusion. I was simultaneously terrified and relieved.
Thirty thousand people cared enough to sojourn to Copenhagen, and only 15,000, one-half, were allowed into the conference. Fifteen thousand people knowingly jumped in planes, trains and automobiles to stand outside or protest in the city as a symbol of solidarity. Thousands of teenagers and young adults sported bright-orange T-shirts begging the question “How old will you be in 2050?” as a reminder that individual delegates’ decisions would change the lives of an entire generation. Church bells rang 350 times every day throughout the city—a constant acknowledgement of the safe number of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And as the president of the Maldives reminded us constantly in his speeches, we’re currently at 385.
A binding agreement in Copenhagen was infinitely pressing; time is running out, and the deal we reached was far too weak to be effective, but this simply means we must work harder. The time is now to acknowledge our influence over the world, and in that sense, I think we’ve started down the road to success.
If there’s one thing to take away from this conference, it’s the classic rehab mantra: The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. While acknowledging the problem delivers the potential for recovery, it also provides the potential to make an Earth far better than we’ve ever known. Let’s dream the big dream; let’s be the generation to make our lights into something different, not a symbol of what we’ve destroyed but a symbol of what we’ve made. Together we can.
Brett Shollenberger ’11, an English major from North Wales, Pa., was among 15 students who joined Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education staff members Neil Leary and Sarah Brylinsky for two weeks in Copenhagen. All take part in the yearlong course, Kyoto to Copenhagen: Negotiating the Future of the Planet, which focuses on policy development, climate change and public communication.