In Vermont, activists want to revive an old water mill to generate electricity. In California, so-called locavores are eating only local food, not food shipped by long-haul trucks. They're part of a bottom-up movement to fix global warming and start adjusting to a post-oil world.
But will it work?
For years, the task of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions was seen as a job mainly for central governments. The result: the 1997 Kyoto Protocols, a top-down effort by most industrial nations to mandate reductions in carbon burning. And indeed, one more reminder of the need to act was issued this week in a British report that calls for governments to spend up to 3.5 percent of GDP to counter climate change.
But with the major emitters such as the US and China outside the treaty, and with the Kyoto nations failing to meet their 2012 goals, the idea of millions of self-sacrificing individuals taking responsibility for their own energy-excessive lives seems like The Next Best Thing.
The "Relocalization Network," for instance, is one of several groupings of activists trying to swear off fossil fuels. The network has 128 local groups so far, mainly in the US, that create communities for a postcarbon world by such actions as Internet-linked car sharing, buying only local foods, walking and biking more often to destinations and, overall, reducing personal consumption.
This winter, a group called The Climate Project that came out of Al Gore's movie and book, An Inconvenient Truth, plans to train hundreds of "grass-roots messengers" to speak in their communities about the need for action on global warming.
To be sure, much of this activism is meant to pressure governments to impose tougher restrictions on carbon-burning companies, SUV owners, home builders, and the like. And in the US especially, popular will to make the necessary sacrifices to curb global warming has not been strong enough to overcome US objection to Kyoto-like mandates.
Nonetheless, these groups are setting the pace for low-energy lifestyles, taking President Bush at his word that "America is addicted to oil."
They cite not only global warming but a need to start adjusting now to the coming age when oil supplies run out or their alternatives (such as oil sands and nuclear power) prove too burdensome as energy sources.
One step above such personal action is an initiative by a few hundred US mayors, launched last year by the Seattle mayor, to turn their cities into models of "acting locally" to reduce carbon dioxide output. Many of these cities have changed building codes to encourage energy efficiency, and are pushing nonautomobile transport, tree planting, rooftop gardens, and biodiesel in city vehicles.
In New York, which produces 2 percent of US carbon emissions, the mayor plans to make his city the leader in this effort. Last year, about half of the cities reported reductions in greenhouse gases.
That's a hopeful sign that Americans are becoming hip to the warning that "we have seen the enemy and he is us." Creating a widespread willingness for a low-carbon lifestyle is essential preparation for what may be strong government action to come.
Now, about trading in that SUV for a hybrid..