Small Projects, Big Lessons

 by Nelson Harvey

When I tell people that I’m working with a grant from NYU to convert one of their vehicles to run on biofuel, I often get the same reaction. “One!?” they chuckle, the way you would at a child who just showed you his fingerpainting. “How cute!” they seem to be saying. However small the project, though, I’ve recently realized that it presents several lessons that could come in handy in the larger efforts to address climate change that are cropping up in all corners of society.

The first parallell between our work at NYU and the broader battle is that, like society as a whole, we don’t really know what we’re doing. I’ve spent days in front of the computer weighing the merits of various approaches to the project, but there are certain things that we just won’t know until we put some fuel in the tank. We could take the safe route and use B20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel), but that would give us a 20 percent reduction in emissions at the most, and there are pressing questions about the impact of biodiesel emissions on human health. We could be daring and use straight vegetable oil or B99, but since we’d be using a new NYU vehicle, breakdowns could have some dodgy PR and budgetary consequences.

With a few exceptions, those of us working on this project have never done this before. Our uncertainty about the proper path is the same uncertainty that we all face as we try to tailor our response to climate change. Humans have never sequestered carbon on a large scale, or rolled out climate “stabalization wedges” significant enough to avoid doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide levels by 2050. All the research in the world can get us part way, but there’s no substitute for simply getting our hands in the dirt.

Like all environmental efforts, our little project has to please multiple parties if it will ever be successful. Administrators need assurance that the vehicle will be reliable, and that the tens of thousands of dollars they’ve poured into a new van won’t wind up in a smoking heap. At the same time, those of us behind the effort have to meet our own standards. If the project is too mild to have much of an environmental impact, after all, then why even bother?

Globally, attempts at greening are no different. It may seem abstract to talk about gigawatt scale solar or wind farms, new incentives for biodiesel, or restrictions on carbon, but all of these policy changes have real consequences once enacted. Jobs may be lost (or gained), industries may rise and fall, and companies may be forced to change. You can bet that consensus won’t come easily, nor should it.

As I’ve explored the specifics of this project and worked to please the different groups involved, I’ve noticed just how easy it is to lose perspective. Concerns about the viscosity of biodiesel or the amperage that a battery can handle often eclipse the reality of what we’re actually doing: converting a single vehicle! If we succeed, it certainly won’t change the world; in fact, it will hardly be a blip on NYU’s own radar. Similarly, no single initiative will take care of climate change for us, and its not clear that the sum of our efforts is even up to the task. As we try, though, I find that nothing eases the way more than a bit of much needed perspective.


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