The Climate in Emergency

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


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Ordinary Threats

On the 23rd day of the month of September, in an early year of a decade not too long before our own, the human race suddenly encountered a deadly threat to its very existence. And this terrifying enemy surfaced, as such enemies often do, in the seemingly most innocent and unlikely of places.

Thus begins Little Shop of Horrors, a movie I was completely obsessed with for about five years as a kid. Thus also begins a post I wrote a year ago, in honor of the date and of then-current events. I’m reworking that post now. After all, Mr. Trump has been elected President, is giving all the signals up-and-coming fascist dictators do, has initiated the American pull-out of the Paris Agreement, largely dismantled the EPA, is quietly letting American citizens in Puerto Rico die while he dog-whistles racists over football, and may well start a nuclear war with North Korea any day now (if North Korea doesn’t start one with us, first).

Our very existence indeed seems under deadly threat.

As the subject of my post, I took, not the movie, Little Shop of Horrors, but the play it was based on. The critical difference between the two is that the latter does not have a happy ending. The carnivorous plant wins. It is a much darker–and more interesting–story.

In brief, the story is as follows:

A flower shop on Skid Row (a strange idea in itself) is about to go out of business, when the shop assistant, Seymour, puts a strange plant in the window, to draw in customers. And it works! Inexplicably, customers start pouring in! But then the plant wilts, and the owner orders Seymour to fix the plant Or Else. Seymour discovers that the plant perks up only when fed human blood. Of course, he pays up–his coworkers are the closest thing Seymour has to a family and the store is his only means of livelihood. The plant grows, business flourishes, and Seymour must give more and more blood. The plant gains the power of speech and tells Seymour to deliver an entire human. The man refuses. The plant temps him with money, respect, access to beautiful women. The man wavers. The plant points out that the woman Seymour loves is dating an abusive jackass who deserves to die. Sold.

Seymour gets the girl (who had always loved him, it turns out), money, fame, the whole nine yards, but then the owner of the shop discovers the murder and blackmails Seymour. Soon, the boss, too, is eaten.

Seymour now has everything, but the guilt is eating him and he tries to rebel. The plant attacks Seymour’s beloved, who then dies, asking Seymour to feed her to the plant because then at least they can be together. He complies, but then flies into a rage, tries to kill the plant, fails, climbs into its mouth intending to kill it from the inside, and dies. Shortly thereafter, a businessman arrives to take cuttings, intending to propagate the plant worldwide.

When I was a kid, I saw the plant as no more evil than a mosquito (a potentially lethal blood sucker). I see the story now as a morality play and a true and disturbing tragedy.

In a classic tragedy, the hero loses, not because he (rarely she) is overwhelmed by superior forces or bad luck, but because he is destroyed from within by his own shortcomings–which are inextricably related to the very things that make him great. The scary thing is that Seymour is great only in that he is ordinary. He’s normal. A bit geeky and skittish, but basically one of us. It’s hard not to like him. And who among us would not behave as he does? A little blood to save our livelihood? Sure. From there, Seymour gradually crosses one red line after another, taking the least bad option at each turn while the options steadily get worse and the stakes grow ever higher–at what point can any of us honestly say we would have done anything differently?

The final song of the play states the moral of the story:

They may offer you fortune and fame,
Love and money and instant acclaim.
But whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

Although there’s no evidence the people who wrote Little Shop of Horrors intended to create anything other than a goofy spoof of a grade B horror movie, it works very well as a metaphor for exactly the process that is threatening the world. After all, how could the fossil fuel industry create climate change, if not with our money? And yet we keep feeding them, sometimes in order to obtain luxury and power, but more often because how else are we supposed to get to work?
This week’s nuclear threat is a somewhat different animal. It is less obvious that we, the people, are directly complicit, for one thing, and it’s far from certain that a nuclear exchange in this case is a threat to the world as a whole–North Korea is not the USSR. The more realistic fear is regional destruction on an unprecedented scale. The United States can win a war against North Korea, provided China does not intervene, but with what stains on its soul? My president is casually threatening a level of violence that could kill close to 26 million people, most of them utterly innocent and powerless in this situation. Not global destruction, but bad enough.
But I’m a child of the eighties. You say “nuclear,” and I think Mutually Assured Destruction. I think nuclear winter. I think the end of the world.
I think I’ve got a couple of books I really want to publish before I die.
I don’t know what actually should be done about North Korea. Such things are outside of my field of expertise and beyond the scope of this blog. I do know what should be done about climate change, but I do not know what I can do, personally, to make it happen, beyond what I have been doing, which is not much and isn’t working. Somehow, we’re collectively feeding the plant. We’re feeding it through our elections, our purchases, and by our prioritization of other issues for reasons that anybody would understand. How do you ? How do you stop being an ordinary person?
A nuclear bomb can destroy a city. But so can climate change–we’ve seen it happen. We’ve seen worse. There are people in Puerto Rico who will go to sleep tonight in houses that have no running water, no electricity, and no roof.
How do you stop being ordinary?

Hold your hat and hang on to your soul.
Something’s coming to eat the world whole.
If we fight it we’ve still got a chance.
But whatever they offer you,
Though they’re slopping the trough for you,
Please, whatever they offer you,
Don’t feed the plants!

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Tilting Windmills

My friend says she’s sometimes not sure activism is worth it anymore, because the world is about to end. I don’t share that problem. My problem is I don’t know how to choose among the many possible forms of activism, when I believe they might all be fruitless anyway. Six of one one, half a dozen of doing not much. Also, sometimes I get so anxious I can’t do anything at all.

A few days ago, my friend posted to Facebook, attempting to start an “informal dialogue” about how to cope with climate change psychologically. How to deal with the often paralyzing and exhausting fear that awareness brings, especially when the surrounding society offers so often the tempting narcotic of pretending it’s not happening, or is happening only in a distant and mild way. As if we had fifty or a hundred years to sort all this out. As if climate change weren’t especially important. It’s lonely, as she said.

I thought I can help! I have a blog about this very thing! But, when I looked, I saw no entries that really suggested a solution. And when I searched online, while I found confirmation that the discipline of psychology is, indeed, tackling the issue, I saw nothing of particular immediate benefit to me.

Enter the Man of La Mancha

Coincidentally, into my doom and gloom, came an email from another friend about something totally different. Among other topics, he referred to some of his own environmental work as “tilting at windmills.” Of course, that’s a reference to Don Quixote, the classic figure of fiction who deluded himself into believing he was a heroic knight and who attacked windmills, believing them to be fairy-tale giants. My friend is doing nothing in any way similar–the giants he is attacking are all very real–but he has a self-deprecating sense of humor.

But what occurred to me when I read his email was the following:

Alternative Energy Revolution

From: https://xkcd.com/556/

 

If you can’t see the comic I’ve pasted for whatever reason, it starts out with a picturesque landscape of modern wind turbines silhouetted against a peach-colored background. In subsequent panels, two people (rendered as stick figures, this is XKCD, by Randall Monroe, and he mostly does stick figures) admit that the turbines look disturbingly like the tripodal monsters from certain sci-fi stories–and the turbines promptly grow legs and become exactly such monsters, ravaging the landscape. Their huge legs pound the ground with calamitous thunder. The terrified humans despair–but a voice calls “stand aside!” and there, on a hill, lance at the ready, stands DON QUIXOTE!

The “mouseover text” is “The moment their arms spun freely in our air, they were doomed–for Man has earned his right to hold this planet against all comers, by virtue of occasionally producing someone totally batshit insane.”

When my friend mentioned “tilting and windmills” I also thought of Quixote’s story from the character’s own perspective. To others, he seems simply to be having a mental health problem–and that is part of the truth, as the book makes clear. But the deeper, more complicated part is that Quixote is attempting to live by the rules of a vanished, and perhaps always fictional world, a world characterized by honor, nobility, and bravery such as most people now ignore. He is not so much fighting against windmills as fighting for the proposition that there is something worth fighting for, that a man on a horse and with a sense of honor can make a difference in the world.

In the actual book, that fight is a losing proposition. Quixote’s attempts to be a hero all backfire, he helps nobody, and ultimately he regains his sanity and disavows all interest in the romantic stories that used to fascinate him. It is Randall Monroe’s contention, however, that crazy Don Quixote is still out there somehow, and that there will come a time in which we need him.

When we need precisely someone who is crazy enough to believe that he or she can make a difference, despite all evidence to the contrary.

Is the real question, then, how do we maintain ourselves as the right sort of “batshit insane”?

Some Provisional Answers

I’m hardly an expert on how to solve the world’s problems. There are days I can barely manage to clean the cat box. I’d be much more comfortable if I could have Googled up some DIY tips on how to fight the good fight, recommended by a successful activist with a background in psychology besides. But that didn’t happen. So, instead I’m presenting a couple of ideas of my own. After all, I’m going to be forty next week. I figure that after forty years (less one week) on this planet, I’ve learned a few things worth sharing.

1. You Can Only Do What You Can Do

A primary struggle for me is finding myself mysteriously unable to do things. I mean I intend to do it, I plan to do it, I mean to do it, and I don’t. “It” could be anything from losing weight to cleaning the toilet, but the most relevant example is the expansion of this site that I began soon after the election and have not yet completed. Why not?

I’ve tried on a lot of explanations, mostly revolving around quirks of my brain that really do make a lot of things harder for me, but none of those explanations suggested a solution. I suspect I’ve simply been engaging in my own version of what my mother does–calling herself lazy when she finds she can’t work more than anyone humanly could (she’s retired now, but still busy with four grandkids and a big house and yard, plus volunteer commitments). Both of us are under the persistent delusion that we have super-powers, and we set goals and priorities for ourselves accordingly.

I mean, here I am, working as a free-lance writer to pay the bills, plus maintaining three unpaid blogs and writing multiple novels all at once, and I’m down on myself for not also building this site into a major online resource for activists?

Maybe if I sat down and made an honest assessment of what I can do, and then re-prioritized, I’d be more successful at meeting my goals.

I’m not just talking about time management, here. I’m talking about energy. I’m talking about money. I’m talking about resilience in the face of stress. I’m talking about physical and mental health. I’m talking about ability, which, yes, does vary. All of this varies, from person to person and from day to day, often for reasons we do not and cannot know. To some extent we may be able to change our reality–I may be able to do things tomorrow that I can’t do today–but we can’t just wish it away.

If you only have ten minutes a day to devote to saving the world, then accept that and make your ten minutes count. Develop a plan you can actually enact.

2.Don’t Ask Whether You Can Do It–Ask How

I realize this point and the previous one look like contradictions, but I’m actually addressing two different aspects of “can.” There is choosing an achievable goal, and there is choosing a workable method.

For many years I confused the two. When I despaired of achieving something and people told me to believe in myself, I thought they meant I should make like the Little Engine That Could and motivate myself to the top. And that just made me feel worse, because while strong motivation can indeed unlock hither-to un-guessed-at possibility, I knew that real limitations exist also. Sometimes, even the Little Engine can’t.

Maybe that’s what they did mean–the idea that attitude is everything is a very common fallacy, and it results in people not only feeling terrible for not being good enough, but also torturing themselves with the thought that somehow they must not have wanted it badly enough.

But eventually somebody nudged me into realizing that there is a better way to think about goals; don’t ask whether the goal is attainable, assume that it is–then ask what method is workable.

Maybe the Little Engine can take a different way up the mountain.

There is no logical reason whatever to waste time and energy wondering whether we can still prevent climate change disaster. We know that this goal is worth everything we can throw at it, and that if we are to succeed, we must throw everything at it. We will get up that hill or we will die trying, because the alternative is to die without trying and that is worse.

The real question is how are we going to try getting up that hill?

3. Just Pick Something

Ok, but how are we going to attack that hill? Let’s be honest; there are days when each of us thinks we may be facing a no-win scenario, here. And when you believe that you’ll fail no matter what you do, how do you pick a thing to try to do anyway?

I have lots of experience with this conundrum, because I have a really hard time making seemingly arbitrary choices. There are days I do no housework at all because I can’t decide whether to clean the kitchen or the bathroom first. Based on my extensive experience, I can offer two suggestions:

  1. Pick something. If it doesn’t matter which you pick, then you can’t pick wrong.
  2. Once you pick, do something to make it seem less arbitrary, like investing money in your choice, or commiting to a friend you’ll stick with it.

4. The World Usually Doesn’t End

This one’s pretty simple. Yes, it seems plausible that everything we hold dear is about to be destroyed, especially this week, as the leaders of two nuclear-armed nations engage in what might even charitably be termed a pissing contest. But the end of everything has seemed plausible before and the world didn’t end. It usually doesn’t.

5. Don’t Dis Despair

Another friend of mine insists that despair is a useful state, not to be resisted. I don’t really understand this. I trust him to be wise, however.

I do know that temporarily giving into despair can be useful if only in that it allows a rest from the work of resisting despair. Rage, cry, curl up in a fetal position, and then pick yourself back up and get on with things again. I also know that giving up on one thing can be the first step to trying something else–a different, more workable method, perhaps.

How to…?

So, how to keep it together in the face of climate change, or at least fall apart in a useful way? I’m not entirely sure. I haven’t found anyone who can tell me. But at least part of the solution, in my experience, involves the following:

  1. Honor your own situational and personal limits
  2. Choose ambitious, pie-in-the-sky goals and practical means of reaching those goals
  3. If no course of action looks better than any other, choose randomly
  4. No matter how bad things look, remember the world usually doesn’t end
  5. And if you do get caught up in despair, give in to it occasionally–you might find something useful down there in that pit.

That’s what I’ve got. Let’s see how it works.


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As If

A few weeks ago, I sent an email to my teacher.

To be clear, I’m not currently taking any classes, nor am I in a training program of any kind. There are simply some people who remain one’s teachers no matter what. I have two, and I sent an email to one of mine the other week, more or less just to say hi.

He asked how I was. I confessed I was not well; multiple people I care about have cancer and a president named Trump. He made the appropriate sympathetic noises (we’ve never talked much about private matters with each other) and then reminded me that “especially in politics, this too shall pass.”

I suspected him of being blithely ignorant, though of course I didn’t say so. The forces that would see the Earth burn so they can make a buck seem to be winning, and he tells me it will be ok? Yes, this, too, SHALL pass; in twenty million years, biodiversity and climate stability will likely have recovered, but that’s supposed to be comforting?

Actually, it is comforting. As I think I’ve said before, I find great comfort in Ursula K. LeGuin’s line, “No darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars.” The character who speaks this line is talking about the literal end of the world. “There” refers to the land of the dead. That no matter what we humans do, the Earth will probably be able to repair itself in a few million years is a kind of good news.

Beyond that, “this, too, shall pass” is not necessarily a note of hope in the ordinary human sense. The idea is not necessarily that things will get better (though they may), but simply that things are transitory, that the current situation is not the only context, and not the permanent context, that can apply. I have heard it suggested that the way to really internalize and believe “this, too, shall pass” is to make a point of saying it when things are going well.

As a Buddhist might, I can take refuge in the simple truth of impermanence.

I suspect my teacher would be on board with all these interpretations, but could he also have meant what he initially seemed to mean, that yes, indeed, things will be alright? This isn’t the end of the world?

Back when he was more obviously engaged in teaching me, I became fairly sure this man was always right, that things he said were true because he said them. Even before I finished grad school, I’d modulated that stance somewhat. Yes, he could be wrong (though it does seem to be rare), but it was more interesting, and ultimately more educational, to begin with the presumption that he wasn’t. The principle here is a bit like that of a Tarot deck or a zodiac–the process of figuring out how the oracle applies to your question is a wonderful source of insight, whether the oracle actually applies to your question in a literal sense or not. Rather than wondering is my teacher right? I made a practice of asking myself what if he is right? What can I see from the perspective he is offering me?

(I mean this principle within certain limits, of course. Clearly, treating individual human beings as totally infallible could cause problems)

So, I decided to return to that practice and ask myself what if things aren’t as bad as I fear that they are? What does the world look like if the anti-environment plutocracy we now face is simply transitory?

The thought echoed one I learned many years ago–when faced with a challenge, don’t ask whether I can succeed. Assume that I can, and seek to discover how.

And from my teacher’s vantage point of hope and optimism I looked out and saw…a spaghetti pile of possibilities that I find utterly overwhelming. I don’t know about you-all, but I find it very difficult to choose among equally valid options. Faced with a to-do list of five quick items and an afternoon to do them in, I not infrequently end up spending the whole afternoon playing on Facebook because I can’t decide which one to do first. Occasionally I have actually asked my husband to pick a task for me. He complies with good humor.

So, I seem to be paralyzed now, not by the awesome awfulness of Trump (who, after all, will pass, one way or another), but by the difficulties of my own brain. But while awesome awfulness seems like a very big problem to tackle, I have at least some hope of learning to operate my own grey matter. It’s a start.

What about you? What lies in the way of your own action? What does the world look like if you assume you’ll succeed?


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Independence

Happy American Independence Day.

The best of America has always been an ideal to which reality aspires in an irregular and sometimes ambivalent way. Our principle of equality has always been marred by racism, sexism, and various other interrelated isms, and yet the principle itself is valuable as a stated goal—and for much of our history, we have enjoyed a more egalitarian, and more participatory political and legal system than much of the rest of the world. It is not true that anyone can be anything if only they work hard, but hard-working people do have more latitude here than they might, as the flow of economic refuges to our borders attests. We are not the bastion of democracy that we should be, but we are the imperfect bastion that we are.

Anyone who thinks that the United States is the greatest and most perfect country on Earth has not been paying attention. But anyone who cannot tell the difference between the US and a third-world dictatorship hasn’t been paying attention either.

So, with that caveat, I’ll get to my point: the US is not currently independent.

Russia did try to get Donald Trump elected. Whether their involvement was decisive is debatable—it’s possible he would have been elected anyway. That Candidate Trump himself actually cooperated with Russian interference on his behalf has not been proved and might not be true. Yes, his public joking, during the campaign, to the effect that Russian hackers should help him is not, by itself, a smoking gun that he actually expected him to do so, or that any quid pro quo arrangement was made between the American oligarch and any Russian counterpart. That other people connected to the campaign were actively working for, or trying to work with, foreign entities during the campaign is also not proof, nor is the fact that President Trump has some odd financial ties to foreign entities (the extent of which we don’t know because he won’t release his taxes) proof. The whole thing is suspicious as all get-out, but we don’t actually know.

But the fact remains that by attempting to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, President Trump is acting in the interests of Russia (and Saudi Arabia) and not those of the United States. Maybe he’s doing it out of the “goodness” of his own heart, a spontaneous volunteerism with no prior planning or thought of reward, but he is acting in the interests of a foreign power.

I’ve argued previously that pulling out of Paris, and otherwise minimizing or reversing American action on climate, is the primary reason for Mr. Trump’s presidency, the true central plank of his personal platform. His rhetoric on the subject of the economy and American security, his dog-whistles to white nationalists, his consistent vocal abuse of women both individually and collectively, all of that can be chalked up to either personal proclivity or empty campaign promise. A wall on the border with Mexico would do nothing whatever to protect his constituents’ job prospects or personal safety, even if Mexico did pay to have it built. Getting out of Paris, though, is the one campaign promise he’s acted on and the only one that will actually help anyone.

It will help the owners of the fossil fuel industry.

I said that part already. What I did not point out before was the way in which acting on behalf of that industry constitutes selling out American interests in favor of those of other countries. It is true that Russia has powerful interests in oil, but so does the United States. While transnational corporations are, in some ways, independent of any country, Exxon, for example does have an American origin and the US still produces substantial amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas. It’s possible to tell this story as one of private, corporate interest, and many of the interested parties are Americans.

But the United States doesn’t need the fossil fuel industry. We have a fairly diversified economy, a highly diversified resource base, and we’re a net exporter of food. There is huge economic opportunity for us in a properly managed transition, and we’ll likely survive, or even come out ahead, as fossil fuel prices drop due to lessened demand. Russia is simply not as well prepared for the shift. Oil is its primary source of national wealth.

While I haven’t looked into what climate change will do for Russia, I don’t imagine that a rapidly warming planet is actually good for that country. And Russia did, in fact, sign the Paris Climate Agreement. But even if they don’t have less to lose that we do to a changing climate, certain elements within Russian society do have more to gain from hanging on to fossil fuel a little longer.

And we do have a lot to lose. Most of our major cities are coastal and thus vulnerable to sea level rise and a possible increase in hurricane activity. Much of our landmass is already capable of experiencing killer heat waves, and thanks to air conditioning, many of our most vulnerable citizens live in places that get dangerously hot (like Arizona and Southern Florida)—a problem that will only get worse. Increased drought and increased flooding will likely interfere with our agriculture. In many areas, our use of irrigation water is already unsustainable. The United States already gets more tornadoes than any other country on Earth, and while there is no way to tell whether climate change is increasing tornadic activity (there’s no reliable baseline data), it is a fair bet that it will. Political and economic instability in other countries caused by climate change represents a major threat to American security.

Mr. Trump is willing to risk all that for the sake of short-term economic gain—by people other than us.

I want to make very clear that I do not have anything against Russians as a people. Russia is not, at present, a free democracy, so I don’t hold its people accountable for what their leaders are doing. I also want to make clear that I’m not blaming Russia for America’s troubles. While it does seem clear we are under attack, our vulnerability to such attack is entirely home-grown. I’m only pointing out that our laws and government institutions are currently being used to protect a foreign government’s revenue stream at our expense.

241 years ago today, we told the world we weren’t going to let that happen anymore.


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Same March, Different Day

I’m sorry I didn’t post last week. I don’t know why I didn’t—it seemed as though I did not have time, but I don’t think that’s exactly true. I didn’t have all that much to do. More likely, the things I was doing took much longer than normal and took more energy than normal because I was anxious about something. What was I anxious about? I’m not sure. It is the nature of my particular version of anxiety to hide its source—but the fact that I just had my third nightmare about Donald Trump trying to kill me is probably relevant.

Seriously, what is with my subconscious? And is anyone else getting this? I hardly ever have nightmares about anything, and I’ve never before had nightmares about any public figure, no matter how much I might have disagreed with what they were doing. I didn’t have bad dreams about Osama bin Ladin, although I’ve heard that pretty much everyone else did. And three times now, my brain has sent me horror shows about this orange businessman.

Anxiety is counterproductive. Makes it hard to focus on anything constructive, including constructive responses to whatever is causing the anxiety in the first place. Is this why the opposition has not yet really gotten its act together? Are we all just insanely frightened by this guy?

In any case, I wanted to talk about the People’s Climate March at the end of April. I attended the one in Washington DC, so two trips to DC in eight days. At least this time I wasn’t cold.

My husband and I and almost forty others took a chartered bus up to the edge of the city, then we all took the Metro in (that’s that subway, for those not in the know). My husband had volunteered to be the bus captain, meaning he had to help shepherd everybody along, and couldn’t go with me to try to find a friend of mine who was also at the march, embedded within a different group.

I was irritated by this limitation, I will admit—I didn’t understand why our group needed a bus captain to begin with, and it was too hot, there weren’t any toilets, and nobody was listening to me. Eventually we met a collaborator in a small park who had brought a fifteen-foot-tall great blue heron puppet for us to carry and I realized two things: first, the puppet explained the need for a bus captain (a core group of us needed to stay together to work the puppet) and, second, that puppet would be visible from anywhere, meaning I could go look for my friend and be somewhat assured of locating my husband again afterwards.

I never did find my friend—I tried calling him by cell phone but we couldn’t hear each other over the crowd noise, and as a needle he happened to be marching in a very big haystack—but I did get to wander through much more of the crowd than I would have otherwise.

The day was sunny and very hot, more typical of late June than April, and the vast, assembling crowd felt rather more like a festival than anything else. A drum beat from somewhere. Bagpipers and other musicians were audible in passing. Families relaxed in the shade of trees near food trucks, and small-time entrepreneurs hawked t-shirts, other memorabilia, and bottled water. Banners and various giant puppets waved in the breeze. Some of the signs I saw were clearly left over from the science march the week before, but most were the standard fair I’d seen at every other climate-related march I’ve been to over the past few years. The water in one of my bottles tasted funny, and when I drank too much from the other I felt nauseous.  How was I going to stay cool? I’m prone to heat exhaustion, so I baled water onto my head from the reflecting pool with my hat.

I knew I was upstream, as it were, of my husband. To find him I had simply to walk in the same direction the march was going, but faster. I hurried along the sidewalk in places, weaved and bobbed through the middle of the crowd in others. I passed marching bands, more giant puppets, men dressed as Uncle Sam on eight-foot stilts. We followed essentially the same route as the climate march had, but in the other direction, beginning near the Capitol Building and ending near the Washington Monument. At one point, I came across a large group of people chanting Shame! Shame! And wagging their fingers in the air. Why? Nobody knew.

“We are shaming that building,” explained one woman, shrugged, and returned to shouting Shame!

“Isn’t that the Trump Hotel?” someone else guessed, and indeed, once we’d come up even with in, we could see that it was.

“I wonder what it’s like to be in that hotel right now?” I asked.

“Probably pretty embarrassing,” suggested someone near me.

I saw anti-fascist groups holding their own rallies in the middle of our march, as I’d seen the previous week, and once again I walked through the middle of opposing chants on the issue of abortion. Then, I’d thought that I was seeing a pro-choice inclusion within our march, attended by a counter-rally. This time I concluded—and I’m guessing this was the truth of the matter before, too—that there was a pro-life rally embedded within us and that when other marchers came near the rally they simply chanted responses, “my body, my choice!”

Eventually, I spotted the giant blue heron and rejoined my husband. I took a turn carrying part of the puppet, but the thing was unwieldy, and the extra effort set my pulse to pounding in my reddened face. I passed the huge bird wing off as soon as I could. Some of the faces in the crowd around me had gone red and blotchy, too. Ambulances weaved through the crowd along cross streets. We checked up on each other and I wondered if I could make it to the end of the route before I got sick. Gradually, more and more people were dropping out, lining the streets under shade trees, cheering and chanting and waving signs at the hardy few who kept walking.

I made it. Along the edge of the Washington Monument grounds stood long rows of portable toilets under shade trees. There was no definitive end to the march, but as we passed along those rows more and more people dropped out, slipping between the toilets out to the waiting grass, and we followed, crashing out in the shade. Crowds moved across the grounds, continuing the festival, an unstructured, apparently spontaneous rally. A kite flew high, carrying something hundreds of feet into the air—a camera. Eventually, we made our way back to our bus, all of us dazed and quiet from the heat. The driver earned a hefty tip for having fixed the air conditioning while we were gone.

Alright, interesting experience, but what did it mean?

At least 200, 000 people showed up, so I’ve heard. Aerial photographs—from the kite, I assume, as there were no helicopter flyovers, and no visible drones—show a sea of people filling the streets for blocks, our region of blue t-shirts and blue heron puppet right in the middle. It would be tempting to be reassured by such a large outpouring of pro-climate enthusiasm, but as I’ve said, the primary purpose of political demonstrations (aside from networking opportunities and a boost to the marchers’ morale) is to show elected leaders where the political wind is headed—listen to us, or we’ll vote you out! But, in point of fact, the votes have not been forthcoming. Climate denial works better than climate bravery for ambitious politicians, and nobody gets to hear much from the other kind. So, why should anyone listen to us now?

I’m not saying not to march, I’m saying we need to do something in addition to marching, and we need to do it quickly and in a very organized way.

There are also indications of a hidden ugliness to the event. Afterwards, I heard from other activists—people of color—who had been on the march, too, and were harassed repeatedly by both fellow marchers and organizers. One reported seeing an organizer insist that a certain chant stop. Why? The chant was in Spanish. I had seen nothing of the kind, but then, I wouldn’t. I’m white, and one of the most fundamental, and most pernicious, racial privileges is that if you’re white, you don’t see racism. It is therefore incumbent upon white people to seek out the perspectives of non-white people, and to believe them. I had noticed that the crowd was almost entirely white, as are many gatherings of environmentalists, and I had wondered why. Now I know.

People—specifically, white people—we have no time for that kind of garbage. Cut it out. Get it together. Now.

I’ve said that the science march was strikingly different from the series of climate marches I’ve been on, and that this one was largely a return to recent tradition. And that is true, in some ways, but not in others. Yes, there were the familiar chants (“This is what democracy looks like!”), the familiar signs, the same-old goofy, pep-rallyish mood. And yet, something was different.

There was an anger, an aggression, I had not seen before. Some of the signs were very much to the point, the point being that climate change continued means death, destruction, and pain. One showed a cartoon horrorscape of flames and cut stumps and poison smoke with the caption “Baron’s Inheritance.” Towards the end, organizers asked us to sit down, backs toward the White House, for a moment of silence—and then to get up, turn towards the White House, and produce a moment of noise. At that moment of noise, a woman beside me displayed both middle fingers and screamed “F___ YOU, YOU CORPORATE BASTARDS!!!”

I doubt she is alone in her sentiment.

Beneath the festive mood, the silly costumes, the giant puppets, there was an absence of playfulness, a presence of anger and fear. The pep rally didn’t quite work, not for me, anyway, even though that aspect of such proceedings has worked for me in the past, despite my rationalist intentions, despite my worry, even despite my occasional cynicism. It just wasn’t like this, last time I did one of these marches.

Last time, there wasn’t a climate denier in the White House.


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BOO!

This morning, I saw an article posted on Facebook in which a woman recounted having seen two oddly-behaving men while she was out shopping with her children and mother. The two men followed them and did not appear to be shopping. The women, quite understandably, grew concerned, suspecting that the men were trying to kidnap one or more of the kids. The family managed to evade the men and report them, and there the story ended. The kids are safe, but if anything more was ever learned about the men, it wasn’t mentioned.

Perhaps understandably, the author of the piece assumes that her assessment of the situation was correct; her children had been targeted by child traffickers, but had managed to escape. She provides four “warning signs,” so that other parents would be better able to evade would-be kidnappers also. She pleads with parents to watch their kids closely at all times.

The two women acted correctly; while they didn’t have enough information to be certain the men were planning an abduction, the situation was clearly freaky enough to justify getting the kids out of there. And I have to admit that, were I in her shoes, I, like the author, would likely also assume the danger was certain. That there is no proof would feel like a trivial technicality.

But it’s not trivial.

When someone cries “danger!” it matters very much whether the danger they’re warning of is plausible. If you hear a hurricane warning for your area from the National Hurricane Center, you get very busy battening down the hatches. If your friendly neighborhood three-year-old tells you the dragons are coming, you play along for twenty seconds and then go back to whatever it is you were doing. So, when a woman says “there are creepy men lurking in department stores looking to snatch kids,” it really matters whether there actually are.

And this woman can’t tell us. Her understandable assumptions aside, she really doesn’t know.

Irrational fears can actually hurt people. In his book, The Science of Fear, Dan Gardner points out that, following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans chose to drive rather than fly, presumably out of fear of hijacked airplanes. But because cars are much more dangerous than airplanes, thousands of people died in car crashes who would have been fine had they flown.

Mr. Gardner’s contention is that people are very bad at estimating risk (for reasons he explains lucidly) and that we often put ourselves at greater risk as a result. He specifically addresses the issue of “stranger danger,” pointing out that while children are occasionally abducted by strangers, it is an extremely rare tragedy. Most kidnappers are family members, for one thing. And yet, the widespread conviction otherwise has a very strong bearing on how people of my generation raise their kids.

The flip side of the danger of irrational fear is the irrational lack of fear. Not fearing car accidents, even though they are a greater danger than terrorism. Not fearing depression and type 2 diabetes, even though I’m guessing a lot of kids kept “safely” indoors develop these life-threatening problems. Not fearing all the various things that really could mess up the lives of our kids and present much more certain risk than creepy guys lurking around furniture do.

Look, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I am an aunt. There is a four-year-old hand that sometimes holds my index finger. It is just about the sweetest thing, ever. I understand that the merest hint of a child-snatcher is insanely terrifying. I also understand what loving adults are prepared to do when their kids are in danger. And I can’t help but notice that’s not being done about climate change. Not on a massive scale. According to polls last year, 68% of Americans now believe that human activity is causing climate change, and yet we have been electing consistently climate-denying governments anyway.

Today, President Trump signed an executive order intended to undo President Obama’s climate legacy. Although the undoing will be difficult and probably incomplete, and there are things that can be done to fight back, this is not good news. It is, in fact, clear and present danger for children.

I have written before of what climate change could look like over the lifetime of children born this decade. I have also explored climate change as a cause of death. There are hurricanes. There are fires and floods, wars and famines. Already, more people die from heat waves than from all other natural disasters combined.

Unaddressed climate change over the next century means more kids dying.

If climate change falls under the heading of irrational absence of fear, if it lacks the necessary emotional oomph to inspire emergency action, let me offer a more compelling visual. If climate science doesn’t do it for you, imagine that every climate-denier politician and business leader is a child-snatcher lurking around the corner of the next place your family has to be.

Meet me in Washington for the climate march and the march for science next month. And start organizing for pro-climate legislatures, both state and federal, NOW.


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The Taj Mahal Lie: Why Donald Trump Isn’t Our Problem

If you ask a random person on the street “who built the Taj Mahal,” I suspect you’ll get either of two interestingly wrong answers.

  1. Donald Trump
  2. Some prince in India

Different buildings, of course. The one in India is my concern at the moment, though we’ll get back to Mr. Trump later. Whenever I’ve heard the original Taj Mahal brought up in casual contexts (as seems to happen about once a decade, for whatever reason), the description has been something like “the Taj Mahal is a beautiful building complex built by an Indian prince for his beloved.”

Really? He built the whole thing himself?

The standard description is more or less accurate. According the the website of The History Channel, in 1632, the Muhgul emperor, Shah Jahan, ordered the design and construction of a mausoleum to honor his favorite wife, Arjumand Banu Begum, who had died in childbirth (on her 14th child). She was known as Mumtaz Mahal, or “The Chosen One of the Palace,” so her tomb complex was named the Taj Mahal. The remains of both her and Shah Jahan rest at the site, although he had intended to have a separate, equally magnificent complex built for himself. He was deposed by one of their sons before he could have it built.

Of course, everybody knows that the Shah did not literally build the Taj Mahal himself (the labor required over 2000 humans and roughly 1000 elephants and took 20 years). It is an easy guess he didn’t design it himself, either. Sometimes you do hear more accurate verbs in the story, like “commissioned,” or “had built.” It’s not like the truth is being hidden in any way, here. But the convention of speaking as if people who give orders accomplish things all by themselves–as if everyone else involved were simply an extension of the Great One’s body–is so ingrained that we seldom notice we’re doing it.

Who, for example, built the first mass-produced car? Henry Ford did.

Who defeated the army of Robert E Lee? Ulysses S Grant did.

Who burnt Atlanta during the Civil War? William Tecumseh Sherman did.

These answers are such common knowledge that I’m not bothering to cite any of them with links–you know they’re all true. Who were the other people involved in any of these endeavors and what were their contributions? I have no idea. And I doubt you have any idea, either. We don’t know because we don’t care–it is the action of the real person, the one who gave the orders, that matters.

All this is not simply semantic play. Proper attribution of who does what matters. Consider the statement “Hitler killed six million Jews.” It’s true as far as it goes, I’m not trying to say that people who give orders are less responsible, though focusing on the Fuhrer does tend to let thousands of co-conspirators and trigger-men off the hook in the popular imagination. But the phrasing consistently inspires people to fantasize about killing Hitler, as if doing so would avert all those other murders. And the fact of matter is, since Hitler didn’t kill those people alone, it is very possible that, without him, those others would have gone on to have the Holocaust anyway.

And this is where President Trump comes back in the story, not because he’s being compared to Hitler (he has been, but so has virtually every other public figure with at least one naysayer), but because he’s being compared to Richard Nixon.

Mr. Nixon was, of course the one US president who was most unequivocally a crook. He was crude, paranoid, and corrupt. But he also created the EPA and signed more landmark environmental legislation than almost anybody else.

Unlike our other stand-out environmentalist presidents, Teddy Roosevelt and Barack Obama, President Nixon was not an environmentalist personally. Aside from some largely empty rhetoric, he provided no real leadership on the subject, and in some cases he actively threw up roadblocks. He thought tree-huggers were stupid at best.

But the anti-environment campaign had not yet begun, so signing those laws carried no political cost. A lot of the young people who were angry about the Vietnam War also cared about trees and whales, and so forth. The President threw them a couple of bones so he could get back to matters that really mattered. And those “bones” have formed the backbone of environmental protection for the past 50 years.

So much of the Anti-Trump sentiment I hear sounds a bit like the kill-Hitler fantasies in that they rest on the assumption that Mr Trump personally is the problem. As though, were he removed (impeachment, resignation, tragic accident), all the problems and threats associated with his presidency would be removed. And they wouldn’t be. Because we already know what a crude, paranoid, and crooked man does when installed in the presidency and confronted with a functional environmental movement–he creates the Environmental Protection Agency, he doesn’t muzzle it. He enables environmental regulations, he doesn’t undermine it. Richard Nixon didn’t care any more about the planet than Donald Trump does, but he acted like he did because the public made him do it.

I’m not saying that the individuality of leaders is irrelevant. There are occasions when the course of history turns on a single person, for good or for ill. Arguably, Adolph Hitler was such a person. So was Abraham Lincoln. So might Donald Trump be, though it’s too early to tell.

But leaders do what they do because others help him, or because others force them, or because others let them. They never act, nor fail to act, alone.

Donald Trump is part of a movement, both of popular sentiment and of political machinations. I don’t mean he’s popular, I mean that he isn’t alone. He is being helped, forced, or at least allowed to do as he is doing. And that help, force, or permission will continue even if he’s removed. It will continue until it meets a countervailing force.

Why do we keep hearing that Americans, when polled, support environmental protections, including climate action, by a solid majority, yet we keep watching ant-environmentalists and climate deniers taking office? If we forced Mr. Nixon to do the right thing on these issues, why can’t we force anyone else?

Why does the opposition continue to virtually ignore environmental issues and why has it been so ineffective on the topics that it does care about?

Donald Trump could not have become a bother to anyone other than his immediate circle without a lot of help–and an absence of true, effective opposition. Whether the Trump presidency lasts eight years or one year, that is the problem we have to solve.