The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

The Yellow Rose of Assateague

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The following is an article I wrote for college almost eight years ago, on the personal dimension of environmental responsibility. The Chris in this article is now my husband.

I believe in the importance of relationships.

When my friend, Chris, asked if I would cheer for him on his firefighter pack test, I said yes. Later, he back-pedaled, asking only for help adjusting his straps, but I thought he really still wanted the cheering. I believe in paying attention.

But I am too self-conscious to be a cheer-leading squad of one, so I settled on making him a boutonniere instead. I’d use a yellow rose and maybe, if I could get it, some lavender. Lavender heals burns, so it’s appropriate for a fire-fighter. I know how to make boutonnieres and there is a florist in town from whom I can buy supplies.

But the florist is too far away for me to bike to. A co-worker offered to give me a rose from her garden, but hers are coral-colored–according to tradition, a coral rose symbolizes desire or seduction or something like that. Yellow symbolizes friendship, and Chris and I are definitely friends. I wouldn’t want him to get the wrong idea, so I’ll have to go to the florist’s.

That means asking for a ride.

A ten mile trip means about half a gallon of gas, which means about ten pounds of carbon dioxide released into the sky. One of the consequences of climate change is drier, hotter weather in some areas, which increases the chance of catastrophic wildfires—as in the kind that kill firefighters.

Now, are ten pounds really going to make much difference in the global scheme of things? Possibly not, but of course that isn’t the only instance of petrochemicals in my would-be rose’s history. I have just called the florist. They do, indeed, carry roses, imported from South America, California, and Holland…the designer didn’t seem to know or care which. Obviously, they take a long trip, whatever their origin, probably mostly by airplane. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of hydrocarbon and a lot more drought in the Southwest. That’s not a good gift for a firefighter–I mean Chris already has a steady job.

This is the sort of thing I think about.

In my pocket I have a dollar, and that dollar is a vote towards the kind of world I want to live in. That dollar might not seem like much, but consider that corporate profit margins are sometimes calculated in pennies per purchase. Advertisers consult psychologists to mine our unconscious biases as they struggle to snag as many shoppers as possible. The corporate world understands the power of our individual choices very well.

I believe in the importance of relationship; the oil that makes the gas that might take me rose shopping is the medium of many relationships–between me and gas station attendants, delivery drivers, workers at the refinery, sailors on tankers and workers on pipelines, crews operating drill rigs, teams of geologists, and, in all probability, soldiers and contract workers in Iraq.

All these people are hidden from me by the complexity of our economy, by its sheer facelessness, but they do exist. I help put food on their tables, and they get me where I need to go.

Through the medium of oil, I also participate in relationships with the various employers of all these people: the board members, CEOs and major stockholders of Exxon-Mobil, perhaps, or British Petroleum. I don’t like these people. They are destroying the world in which I live, and using my money to do it. I don’t want to participate in abusive relationships anymore.

Nor do I want to hide from the true nature of the relationships I participate in.

Take this rose, for example. First of all, Chris is a guy, and while I hate to stereotype, I have worked at a florist’s over Valentine’s Day and most guys had no idea how to even order flowers let alone knowing—and taking seriously–the symbolism of different colors of roses. Chris is not going to see a coral-colored rose, gasp, and run off to buy breath mints and prophylactics.

Second, a yellow rose, coming from me, is distinctly weird. Yellow roses are what you give a friend who worries you might have other designs. A yellow rose says “See, I love you, but not that way.” It’s a sweet gesture with an asterisk attached. But Chris isn’t worried. And I don’t normally give my platonic friends roses anyway. If I did, it would be because he or she likes roses. I’d select my friend’s favorite color without even worrying about symbolism. I don’t even know if Chris likes roses, let alone what color roses he likes.

I saw a similar sort of fixation on roses at the florist’s; young, awkward men coming in with only a vague notion of what they want, knowing only that having a girlfriend means buying her flowers. Some have special requests—arrangements in her favorite color, a prominence of lilies or some other bloom she’s always loved–but the vast majority of them want roses. Roses, particularly red ones, are different. They are the chocolate box of flowers, the medium of choice of a ritual deeper and more universal than any couple’s personal preferences.

So why am I getting my purely platonic friend Chris a rose? Particularly a yellow one? Perhaps I protest too much. Perhaps I’m just trying to hedge my bets by indulging in a frankly romantic gesture while insisting he not perceive it as such, thereby protecting myself from having to make any definite decisions about what kind of relationship I want with this man.

Perhaps, in this case, yellow simply symbolizes chicken.

A few weeks ago I had an argument with the maintenance staff where I live. The issue was my refrigerators. The thing is, my building had two of them, since it was designed to house a dozen or so seasonal workers, but I was alone and I needed neither of them. As a vegan, my food seldom needed refrigeration. So, one day, acting on a suggestion in a book I’d read, I went looking for unnecessary energy use in the house. I unplugged the night-lights, unplugged the microwave (it has a clock that can’t be turned off) and turned off the refrigerators.

It felt amazing. I’d always taken constant electricity load for granted—little dribbles of electricity like the night-light, which was in the house when I got there, or the dozens of pointless digital clocks on all the household gadgets, or whole unnecessary floods, like the empty refrigerators. It had never occurred to me before that I could turn them off, that I could actually act on my world in that way.

That night, when I went to bed, the house wasn’t using any electricity at all, except for its smoke detectors. The next day, I laughed out loud for happiness just walking down the street.

And then my boss, who provides the house I live in, told me the refrigerators weren’t designed to be turned off and might not actually go back on again. That wasn’t what the maintenance people told me when I first asked, but then they all changed their minds. I argued, but lost, and so I did what my boss told me to do. I turned the refrigerators back on.

I can hear them humming now. I try to ignore them because I don’t want to think about things I can’t do anything about. And I don’t look so closely at beautiful things as I did when the refrigerators were off. I don’t feel as strong in my life. I don’t laugh as I walk down the street, unless I think of something funny. Turning a blind eye to the subtleties of my economic and ecological relationships constitutes a gap into which the better part of my day has apparently fallen.

I believe in the importance of relationships, and I believe in paying attention. I believe in the power of one individual to affect another, and in the moral necessity of taking responsibility for my actions, however small or subtle. I shall find a way to divest myself of those refrigerators, or I shall find a way to live with their influence without turning away. I shall count every ounce of petrochemical if that’s what I need to do, although I suspect that’s both much more and much less than what the planet really needs.

And I shall give my Chris a rose, if I can get one, and I shall not care what color it ends up being.


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

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