08/09/2012 02:31 pm ET Updated Oct 09, 2012

One Congressional Race and the Future of Civilization

The other day I went to some trouble to have dinner with a nice fellow named Rob Zerban and four other nice people.

Rob Zerban, as you probably don't know unless you are a political junkie or live in Wisconsin's First Congressional district, is running for Congress. In many ways, Zerban is just what you would look for in a congressional candidate. He rose from a hardscrabble childhood to create two businesses he made successful, as far as I can tell, by dealing with people honestly and considerately rather than through ruthless and sharp practices. They were the fabled small businesses politicians so love to exalt. They really did create jobs, and Zerban limited his own income to ensure that his employees had decent benefits. He realizes that his success would have been impossible without the help of a lot of other people and the support that decent government and a well-functioning society provide. He is also, I learned, a very good listener. He retired early to dedicate himself to public service, striving to pay back a return on what he had received.

Why would Rob Zerban have taken time in the midst of a brutal campaign schedule to have dinner with me, a Maryland citizen? I have no idea. I had scraped up a couple hundred dollars to donate to his campaign a few months back, a measure of how important I think it is, but I'm a retired guy with no fortune and a modest pension who lives in a row house, and whose primary personal problems, if I let the world slide by undisturbed, currently involve ensuring the presence of enough tennis and chocolate in my life. I certainly don't have the resources to provide any significant support to combat the blizzard of outside money any Democrat in a competitive congressional race will have to withstand in this post-Citizens United era. I don't think Zerban even knew I occasionally write blogs for The Huffington Post. I never thought to tell him, and for that reason it wouldn't be ethical to report specifics of the conversation, although Zerban is not the type to tell sympathetic audiences in private what he wouldn't say in public.

It is a measure of how little of a reporter's mentality I have that I never thought of the dinner as a possible subject for an article until the next day. So why did I take the trouble to purchase a ticket for a commuter train from Baltimore to Washington DC, spend a couple hours on a dinner, then take a late train back, forcing my wife to pick me up at an inconvenient hour? That is a lot easier to answer. Rob Zerban is in a unique position, and I was focused on delivering one message, to the exclusion of all other considerations.

The incumbent Congressman Rob Zerban is running against is Paul Ryan, a darling of the reactionary right and author of perhaps the most irresponsible and destructive budget proposal ever to receive prominent favorable attention in U.S. national politics. Unless Ryan is chosen as the Republicans' Vice Presidential candidate (still a possibility as of this writing) Zerban faces an uphill battle to beat him. But Zerban possesses formidable dedication and energy. If he succeeds, he will have provided an important if small part of what our country and civilization itself need in order to prevail.

I went to deliver, in person, one message I wish all our representatives understood, however awkward it was to fit into the conversation, however embarrassingly pedantic it might sound, and despite the fact Rob Zerban must already have known it: The greatest existential threat to our civilization, the most important issue Congress and our government must address, whatever the immediate requirements of political campaigns, is global warming. We have no chance of addressing global warming in time to avoid utter catastrophe, however, as long as corporate money, especially money from fossil fuel industries and unproductive financial manipulation and exploitation, dominate our politics.

Paul Ryan, of course, is a key and willing envoy of the very corporate interests and economic errors that will doom us if we let them. It would be immensely useful to defeat him -- to help discredit the politics and disastrous delusions he represents. That is an important part, the part Rob Zerban is in a unique position to help accomplish, of the first necessary step. But that is also only the beginning of a long slog. After taking that step, it will be essential to understand and keep in mind the primary reason, among many, why it was important. Through all the inevitable distractions he will encounter, that is what I wanted to make sure Rob Zerban would remember.

If we -- our country, our civilization -- are to survive what Bill McKibben, in the last year's most important article, calls "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math," it will take the work of millions of people, very few of whom can alone have any significant effect. It will also take contributions from the ranks of the legislators and policy-makers Rob Zerban might join. However precarious the future, it is very edifying for a grandfather to have the unexpected opportunity to add one little bit, however tiny, to the effort to provide a survivable future where human beings can thrive and grandchildren can grow and prosper.