When I bought my latest Metrocard – the semi-disposable fare card for the New York City transit system — I was surprised to see the usual blue-on-yellow color scheme replaced by green-on-yellow. A holdover from St. Patrick’s Day, perhaps? No such luck. Turning the card over, I learned that my daily commute is helping to save the earth from destruction: “Every full rail car keeps 75 to 125 cars off the road.”
In other words, if you imagine an alternative universe in which New York has the same population crammed into the same area, and every one of them, including schoolchildren and just-off-the-boat immigrants, drives a car (and has never thought of, say, taking the bus), and the city is covered several layers thick with highways to accommodate them all, then a subway system does indeed save energy and reduce greenhouse emissions in comparison. By the same token, I save a bundle of money every month by not having a swimming pool and a staff of servants. Compare reality with science fiction and you can prove anything you want.
There’s nothing terribly wrong with changing the color of the fare cards and quoting a bogus statistic to help New Yorkers – famously deficient in self-regard – feel better about themselves. The trouble comes when greens start taking this sort of reality-vs.-fantasy logic seriously, like reimbursing companies for actions they took more than a decade ago, or clearing a jet-setter’s guilty conscience with “carbon offsets” that usually make no difference or even make things worse. Sure, mass transit is a good thing for any number of reasons. But in a city like New York, which grew up around the subway system, riding the train to work doesn’t “save” anything, since few commuters have ever had any notion of getting to work any other way.
All this brings up the issue of the New York Post that was published last week with green ink on the cover instead of the Post’s usual red. It was a special issue, part of a sponsorship deal, and listed among the issue’s paper-saving green features was “fewer ads.” This is an area in which most of America’s newspapers have been proactively green for at least a decade, and what has our cheapskate nation done for them? Nothing. Throw in credit for copies not sold because of people reading online, compare the results with an imaginary world in which there is no World Wide Web, and the newspaper industry has probably saved four or five kajillion tons of nasty carbon dioxide by now. So how about a little subsidy, Congress? As long as you’re saving the earth, why not give a dying industry credit for its far-sighted and charitable decision not to adapt to changing times? On top of everything else, this would be the perfect way for Al Gore to make amends to America’s newspapers for inventing the Internet.