The Climate in Emergency

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


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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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Seeing Patterns

Last week, I had the distinct pleasure of a hike on Mount Desert Island with my friend and teacher, Tom Wessels–the same man who lead the hike in the White Mountains described in my post, The Ghost of White Birches. Only, then he was leading an organized group activity associated with the school I’d just graduated. This time, for the first time, we were just friends going hiking together.

Myself, my husband, our elderly but still spry dogs, and him.

Switching contexts can have an unpredictable effect on relationships, and I can be slow on the uptake when the rules change. I had left it to Tom to suggest a hike, rather than saying so myself, because I did not want him to think I was expecting him to work on his day off. But as it happened, I need not have worried. Nothing had really changed between us. And while he had no planned lectures, no educational objectives, and had not previously hiked our whole route (as a professor, he appears to meticulously plan everything), he still kept us appraised of the cultural and natural history around us, knowing and sharing our interest. Tom is not one of those people who wears radically different hats for changing circumstance. He is always and exactly himself.

He told us that part of the trail we followed ran along the bed of the first road on the island. He pointed out a big-toothed aspen so furrowed with age that it looked like an ancient cottonwood, and how two other trees of the same size and species nearby must be much younger, having smoother bark.* He commented that the rhodora was coming into bloom. He answered questions, asked and unasked.

“Sap,” he said, spotting me examining a mass of white stuff at the base of a tree. I had thought it was either sap or bird urine and that either way it indicated some story. “These spruces are not doing well. Fungus comes in, then ants, then woodpeckers. Carpenter ants can’t excavate healthy wood.” The sap had flowed from the work of a pileated woodpecker, going after carpenter ants.

I knew from previous conversations that one of the reasons the spruces are becoming more vulnerable is climate change.

Much of Mount Desert Island is dominated by spruces, a cold-tolerant genus of tree that is rare at this latitude. The island–and the coast of Maine generally–is different because the frigid Humbolt Current bathes the land in cool sea breezes and cold sea fogs. According to rangers at Acadia National Park, which includes much of the island, the Gulf of Maine is now warming faster than almost any other water body in the world. Lobsters are moving north, to the detriment of lobstermen in southern New England. Southern fish species are moving in. In warm years, every puffin chick in the state starves to death, unable to swallow the larger, southern fish their parents bring.

I was right to think the white stuff at the base of the tree held a story.

Tom sees patterns. In a somewhat different and still less-developed way, so do I. A hiker without this kind of knowledge would see a pristine wilderness, protected in perpetuity by the US Park Service. Tom sees spruces not doing well (and paper birches dying off, lobsters moving, puffins starving) and is saddened.

There is a certain comfort to be had by sharing your reality with another. We chat about our home, mine and my husband’s, in Maryland, and how our forested lot prevents our having a garden, or a solar panel, or a wind turbine, but does protect us from the damaging effects of winds. In the ten years I’ve been there, I say, we’ve survived two hurricanes (Sandy and Irene) and a derecho, and the wind mostly flows over the tops of the trees.

“Those will happen more frequently, because of climate change,” comments Tom. We know. My husband talks about the changes he’s seen in Assateague Island in the forty years he’s been watching the place. Casual visitors don’t see that, either, only an unspoiled, wild beach, but we have friends who were married in a house on that beach and the house is not there anymore. The place where it stood is now several yards off shore. Maryland is slowly sinking, a natural subsidence triggered by the retreat of the glaciers tens of thousands of years ago, but sea level rise from climate change is real, too.

Last month, in St. Michaels, a town on the Chesapeake Bay, I saw water quietly lapping over the edge of the town dock, standing a few inches deep on pavement. Nobody else said anything. Nobody acknowledged it was happening, let alone extraordinary. Tidal height can vary. There is the influence of the moon’s phase, of course, since full moons and new moons produce extreme tides, and an onshore wind can pile up water on the coast. If both occur at the same time, tides can become extraordinary quite naturally.

But the town dock would not have been built where it was if flooding were normal at the time of its construction.

Last night I dreamed that nothing I did turned out right, that I was driving down winding country roads, lost, that the roads became dangerously, fantastically steep so I pulled over, only to watch my parked car roll down hill into the back of another. The metaphor of my subconscious is clear; I don’t know what to do about any of these patterns.

My mother and I discuss politics over breakfast. We are both worried about the survival of democracy. I go to bed with a hard knot of anxiety, the same nauseous fear that has plagued me since the election. I attend marches, write political letters, sign petitions, keep this blog, but there is something else that must be done, some stronger, more effective way to fight, but through the fog of anxiety, I don’t see it. Other than to acknowledge the truth, share my reality, I don’t know what to do.

 

  • The rate at which wood grows varies, as many people know, but the bark of each species grows at a nearly constant rate. Thus, an individual growing more slowly than normal for its species will have thicker, more textured bark. With some few exceptions, trunk size plus bark texture gives a better indication of tree age than either does alone.

 


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What the Science March Was Like

I went to the March for Science, as promised, on Saturday. My husband went to our local satellite march (he was brainstorming chants for days ahead of time. My favorite of his: Science Yes!/Silence No!), but I felt a need to be in DC. So, I arranged to spend the week with my mother, and she and I bought tickets on a bus chartered by the university in my hometown. We went marching together.

My mother, incidentally, is a scientist, a geologist, specifically. I am trained as an ecologist, though I’m a science writer, rather than a researcher. It was our march.

It was not an ideal day for marching. The rain started just as we got on the bus, and the sky proceeded to variously spit and drizzle throughout the day, while the air temperature held steady around 60° F. Hypothermia weather. Heat travels much faster through water than through air, so wet weather gets dangerous at a much higher temperature than dry weather does. A four hour rally preceded the actual march, which took an additional two hours or so, a long time to stand or walk out in the rain. We kept ourselves as dry as possible and checked in with each other frequently.

I’ve been cold in DC before. At my first climate march, four years ago, the weather was cold and blustery. But that was in February. This time, in April, the grass had greened up, most of the trees had leafed out, the spring color enlivened and relieved by white and pink flowering dogwoods and the blond and white monumental architecture of the city. Tiny, winged elm seeds and fallen, string-like, oak flowers clotted together in the streets, and the slicked and flowing water turned everything silver and vague beneath dark, grey cloud. Sometimes the pavement shone with isolated grains of glitter, presumably shed from someone’s costume or sign. There is a loveliness possible, on a rainy day.

Our bus dropped us off near the Capitol Building, but the rally and the beginning of the march was at the Washington Monument, so we had to walk a good distance just to start. Clumps and clots of people, some carrying signs, moved in the same direction, presumably fellow marchers. One of my favorite things on march days is watching people converge, seeing actual, undeniable evidence that other people–maybe a lot of other people–are showing up.

As we arrived, we could hear the rally already in progress. The grounds were full of streaming lines of people. We went through security (a simple, efficient process, but one that did not occur on prior marches) and joined the crowd, which seemed largely organized around a big stage and a scattering of large video screens and tower speakers hung from cranes.

Unfortunately, I’m somewhat sensitive to sound. I don’t mean my hearing is especially acute, I mean that noise that is too loud drives me nuts. We found that there was no happy medium between being too close to those giant speakers for comfort, and too far away to clearly hear what the people on the stage were saying–which was too bad, because some of them seemed like they would have been interesting. Bill Nye was one of them. I have no idea what he said. Some of the others introduced themselves by saying their names, institutional affiliations, and the proud shout “I am a SCIENTIST!” Everybody cheered. I have no idea what they said, either.  But there were bands playing in between each speech, and the music was good.

Instead of listening to the people I couldn’t hear (I really hope all of that is posted online somewhere so I can watch it), I milled around, trying to spot anyone I might know, looking at signs, and people-watching. A few people wore pussy hats. One person wore a polar bear costume. Two dressed as dinosaurs and fought with each other and inspired frantic barking by various small dogs. At least one person wore a Beaker costume, as in the anxious Muppet who says “meep!” and works as a lab assistant to Dr. Bunsen Honeydew. Beaker showed up on a lot of signs, too. He seemed to be popular, as were t-shirts from my beloved XKCD (the best geeky internet comic, ever).

Organizers had suggested we either wear whatever we normally wear as scientists or dress as our favorite scientist. Accordingly, I saw several Einsteins and Darwins and at least one Bill Nye (other than the real Bill Nye, of course, whom I did not see except on the giant screen). I had been planning on wearing a hat similar to one worn by one of my science heroes, Tom Wessels, and I wished sincerely I had not forgotten it–that hat would have kept the rain off my head.

Finally, we surged out of the rallying grounds and onto the march route…and then we stopped, standing still in the road. After a few minutes, a strange sound issued from up ahead and grew and swelled…people were cheering! The wave of cheering passed over us–we duly cheered as well–and swept on behind us, and no, none of us knew why. We advanced maybe fifteen feet and stopped again. This went on for almost an hour, start and stop and start again, interspersed with cheering, and by the end of that hour we’d traveled only a few hundred feet.

“This is a good sign,” I told the people behind us. “The same thing happened at the climate march in New York, and that march was really big.” They seemed to agree with me, so I said it again to someone else. I meant that maybe there were so many people that we’d clogged up the route. I really hoped that was the case. Another wave of cheering passed over us.

In the middle of a demonstration, you can’t tell how big it is or why anything is happening.

I people-watched some more, and found the Wonder Twins, in full regalia, holding a banner, which I forgot to read because I was busy reading the Twins’ capes–which identified the scientific specialty of each and the fact that one of them was transgender, the other cisgender. The original Wonder Twins did not wear capes and had nothing to do with science that I remember, but I liked the costumes and we chatted for a while.

I read more signs.

SCIENCE HAS NO AGENDA

MARA LAGO WILL BE SO FAR UNDERWATER, YOU WON’T BELIEVE HOW UNDER WATER IT WILL BE

HAD POLIO LATELY? ME NEITHER: THANKS, SCIENCE!

BF IS MY BFF! (BF Skinner reference)

MY MONKEYS CAN WRITE BETTER EXECUTIVE ORDERS! (under copies of two paintings that did appear to have been made by monkeys or apes)

IT’S SO BAD, EVEN THE INTROVERTS ARE HERE. PLEASE DON’T TALK TO ME.

There were a lot of signs in which SCIENCE was an anagram for something, or written out using the Periodic Table or other suitably sciency symbols. There were quotes from Einstein, Thoreau, Emerson, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Carl Sagan. There were lots of signs using “trump” as a verb, as in “facts trump opinions.” There were puns on the word “resistance” involving electronics. There was a sign with the words SCIENCE and TRUMP separated by three parallel lines with a slash across them. I asked the man holding it what the symbol meant. “Exact opposite of,” he said. A popular sign read “science is like magic, except real.”

Which is pretty much true. It’s common knowledge that many branches of science grew out of magic–chemistry began as alchemy, and so on. Arguably, it remains magic, it’s just effective magic. I mean, any good wizard claims to have special knowledge and insight into how the world works and to be able to transform the world as a result. Scientists and engineers do just that. It actually is possible to make lead into gold, and gold has been made from bismuth. It is possible to change the entire climate.

What this march reminded me of were the Druids. I cannot find a really reliable source to cite here, so please don’t take my word for this, but I have read that the Druids and bards together were the educated class of the Celts and performed social roles that we now might identify with clergy, law, art, and science. And they were politically powerful, standing up to fight the Roman Empire. Everyone knows that the Romans tried to eradicate the Christians, but they quite literally slaughtered the Druids, too. Well, maybe the Druids are rising.

Perhaps the people carrying the REVENGE OF THE NERDS signs harbored a similar sentiment.

Other than the mysterious cheering, we were mostly quiet. A group of men beside us discussed possible chants: “If P is low/the null hypothesis has got to go!” which is definitely catchy, but instead of chanting it they began quietly discussing whether they were remembering the principal correctly, given that one of them hates statistics and the other is a physicist with dyscalcula (the math equivalent of dyslexia). I have a similar problem, and the physicist and I commiserated for a while. We never got around to chanting about P values. Around then was when I spotted the glitter floating by on the rainy street.

We still hadn’t gone anywhere. The advantage to not going anywhere was that we were still relatively close to the stage, and we danced to keep warm as long as they kept playing. My mother recognized the groups, though I did not. It was fun.

Finally, we got going, and some chants did start up. “Science, not silence” was popular. My favorite was “don’t pretend that you don’t care/science gave you back your hair!” My other favorite was “What do we want? SCIENCE! When do we want it? AFTER PEER REVIEW!” Which is extra-awesome because I first saw it as a joke on social media captioned “why scientists can’t have protest marches,” or some such. But we can, and we did, and peer review is important, so there.

We continued marching, without incident, back to the Capitol building and our bus home, though we did pass a few counter-demonstrators who seemed to think that we were all atheists (they held signs asking whether we had been brainwashed by professors who denied and mocked God. Of course, I can’t imagine any real science professor even mentioning religion in class, much less mocking it). Other demonstrations seemed to be embedded in ours, like inclusions in some larger mineral mass. We passed socialists handing out leaflets, anti-fascists with their own signs and chants (I suspect most of us agreed with them, but they did seem to be their own group and held their own miniature rally at the end of the march), and an abortion rights contingent, complete with their own counter-demonstration of pro-life people. I’ve never seen anything like that before, this symbiosis of highly disparate groups within the same overall system. My mother and I stopped, once, so she could buy lunch from a food cart, and once again so she could buy a dry sweatshirt to wear on the bus. Did I mention it was raining?

I was struck, all but literally, by how different this march felt from every other political protest or demonstration I have attended. There was no sage smoke. There was very little drumming, and no one costumed as Uncle Sam or Big Daddy Oil, or other such motifs. At all of the others I kept seeing the same signs and hearing the same chants, from march to march, regardless of what the specific event was supposed to be about. At the pipeline rallies, a large number of participants carried signs that had nothing to do with the land use issues and Native American rights placed front-and-center by organizers. No, it seemed to be just the usual suspects in for a generalized pro-environment event. But at the science march, it was all science.

A few “I’m with her” signs with pictures of the planet on them could have been previously used at other events, but mostly it was incredibly focused. Even the typical chants were missing. We knew them–someone started up with “show me what a scientist looks like/this is what a scientist looks like,” a clear riff on a recurring chant about democracy, but even that died out pretty quickly. It was just a different type of crowd.

When we, the marchers, spoke to each other, we tended not to make statements. Instead, we asked questions, mostly about what each others’ signs and shirts said or meant. “What kind of scientist are you?” was frequent. The kind who asks questions, apparently.

This march even felt different.

In every other demonstration or protest I’ve been on, there has been a definite pep-rally vibe. Someone starts chanting “the PEOPLE, UNITED, will NEVER be defeated!” and you feel all optimistic, like yeah, power to the people! And only later, afterwards, do you remember that if the people were actually united around progressive politics, we wouldn’t have elected Donald Trump, and anyway, united people are defeated routinely by folks with money and guns. We come back, but we do get defeated. The pep rallies help, of course, for a while.

This time, I felt no such surge of optimism–but no pessimism, either. We didn’t need to boost ourselves up. Our message wasn’t “we’re going to WIN,” but simply “we are here.” And, even more simply, “the world is what it is.” After all, we’re scientists. As many of the signs pointed out, facts don’t care whether you believe in them or not.

Whether we win or not, global warming is real. Whether scientists get the funding they need to watch it or not, anthropogenic climate change will continue to happen until we collectively stop making it happen. The world needs scientists, and individual scientists, of course, are part of the needing world. But the truth of that need exists whether the rest of the world recognizes it or not. There is a certain serenity in that.

It was nice to rally with the scientists, to see signs and hear chants that you actually need to think, to know something, or to ask questions to understand, to be in among the crowd that has never been the in-crowd, and know that today, this is our place, 40,000 of us strong. Today, we are the cool kids.

But it wasn’t a pep rally. It didn’t need to be. It was just rockin’ with the Druids in the rain.

 


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On Losing My Wallet

Ok, spoiler alert; I found my wallet after all. It was in the back yard, under some leaves, having fallen out of my pocket. But it had been missing for almost 24 hours, and as I’d last seen it while out doing errands, I was more or less panicking over the thought that it could have been stolen.

Yes, this does have to do with climate change.

See, there is something that feels so unfair about losing a wallet (which I seem to do about once per decade)–a momentary oversight, and suddenly I’m looking at weeks of difficulty and expense. I mean, yes, I know, it’s my fault, it’s my mistake that causes the problem, but the consequences seem so disproportionate.  And since there are so many times I almost lose my wallet, and then it unexpectedly turns up, that when I really, truly, do lose it, the loss is hard to believe.

I keep looking in places I already looked, hoping that it will turn up, that I will somehow be rescued from the situation.

These two elements, the sense of injustice and the semi-rational denial, should be familiar to a lot of people. There is a sense that the presidency of an odious and ridiculous climate denier just should not be allowed. There is a sense that we’ve worked so hard, we deserve to have some success–not to have to double down and work harder.

I don’t mean to imply the the presidential election turned out the way it did because of a simple moment of thoughtlessness. I don’t mean to imply that there are no relevant questions of blame, credit, or justice. The metaphor could be carried too far.

The important thing I want to emphasize is that the universe is not fair–nor is it unfair. A moment’s inattention or the turn of political will, these things have whatever consequences they have. And then we deal with them, for better or worse.

We have no time to denial. We have no time for insisting we don’t deserve this. We have no time for assuming that somebody will get us out of this fix. It’s time to get busy.

As I did when I called the bank and cancelled my debit cards. About twenty minutes later, I found my wallet. Sometimes the disaster doesn’t happen. Sometimes the miracle plays out. But those happy endings aren’t earned any more than the unhappy endings are. It’s just what happens. And we have to respond to what happens–with the limited information we have at the time–and keep working until the job is done.


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Reactions

The following is a somewhat edited article I originally wrote for a class assignment–it was immediately after the lecture I describe in the post, The Good Fight. The assignment was to simply write about how we felt in and after the discussion. The “you,” therefor, is my professor, Tom Wessels. Note that ellipses (series of dots) do not signify deleted material, as in formal writing, but rather extended pauses, as in informal writing.

 

How did I feel in and after the class discussion? This was not the first time I’ve watched you chart out the context of the current crisis in terms of entropy, so it did not pack the emotional punch of surprise. The first time, in Community Ecology class, I was quite literally nauseated…I had been familiar with most of the information you presented, but was lacking a few pieces and the overall structure that so starkly and rigorously defined our position as that of members and murderers of a dying planet. And I put it that way well aware that this condition of dying will not likely result in actual, overall death…I’m aware that the biosphere has survived five mass extinctions before, and will survive this one. I just don’t want to be culpable for it. And it saddens me to be here for it, although when I talk about it with most people I emphasize our position of opportunity and power; I used to do an interpretive talk, ostensibly about sand dynamics on barrier islands, where I took the opportunity to tell people that we are the most powerful generations (deliberate plural) that have ever lived…I want people to see this positively so they don’t shut down, remain apathetic in guilt and fear. But to you, since you have invited candor, I can admit to being scared and pessimistic myself.

I don’t think we’ll collectively turn this around voluntarily. The critical issue, as I understand it, is perceived limitation. People adjust themselves not to what is but to what seems to be. Fossil fuel gives us the illusion of a bigger, less vulnerable planet than the one we have. I think the thing that will make us change will not be a culturally driven realization, though I am trying to foster one, but rather the onset of more obvious limits. Wars, famines, plagues…and I’m going to live through it, I think. Maybe I’ll be able to help some way. Maybe that’s why I’m here. In which case, ok, I’m here, I sign up, I agree. If I can help, fine, I’m ok with being here now, whatever trouble that turns out to entail. But it makes me sad and angry.

This is not new. I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, trying to formulate my ideas, make myself into a being of some use…I’ve been going in circles. I’m not a very practical person, I’m not very good at getting things done, thirty-two years old and I can hardly support myself, let alone get myself into a position where anyone will listen to me. What have I done? Of course, at my age [President] John Adams was asking himself a very similar question, working through radical new ideas about democracy and independence and wondering if history would pass him by…I tend alternately towards despondency and something bordering on self-inflation. I’m afraid this is way-too personal an essay, but you asked. What is new this year particularly is that starkness…and a better way of organizing these ideas. And of course going to graduate school has everything to do with my attempt to DO SOMETHING.

Today in class I got all kinds of neat ideas. Like I think that our species’ timeline is not only one of gradual growth recently succeeded by rapid growth, but also it is a story of the progressive increase of the scale on which carrying capacity is calculated. The scrub jays are part of a very local ecology; when their population peaks and crashes, it does so locally. Their scale of feedback is local. When they change their local environment, their local environment changes them back, and so a kind of rough balance is maintained. We were that way once, but very quickly our ancestors built trade networks that lifted our relevant scale to the regional. So a community could exceed its local carrying capacity and not notice, not stop drawing resources, until it triggered a regional crash, as you said the Maya did…and as you said, the regional collapse is deeper and lasts longer than local scale collapses are. Then we became continental, global…. The Industrial Revolution extended this trend dramatically by artificially and temporarily extending our scale to something larger than the actual planet by accessing the stored solar energy of the past (not quite a new idea there) thus preventing us from collectively “hearing” the feedback of the actual planet—at least for a while. Then the crash larger than a whole planet.

Maybe you’re right. Maybe everyone will wake up. But I fear it won’t happen until the limits become more than an intellectual thing for most people, until we have no option. I wish I could say “I’m not with them.” I hate feeling powerful enough to be culpable but not powerful enough to change.

One more note. I mentioned not being a very practical person. I think that’s changing. I heard your question “what can you do?” in very concrete, practical terms. I can shrink my foot-print, I can be an example, I can start up a website, I can run my Yahoo group, I can go to graduate school, I can start emailing around to get somebody to figure out how to turn those lights off in the class-room. I’m doing all those things (except I haven’t addressed the lights yet). When I figure out more to do I’ll do it. I hear your question as a request for a plan, a concrete proposal I can enact today. Most of the other students addressed the questions in conditional, abstract terms, in generalities. I don’t know what to make of this….

I am glad you’re teaching this class, that someone is. Before class, a few of us were talking briefly about imaginary friends, and I was thinking of how children often let go of imaginary friends and stuffed animals because they find no one else believes. It is hard to go on treating something as important that people around us do not. And it is hard, too, given that there is a certain strategic quality to any discussion of this subject—always, there is the need to consider whether saying the wrong thing might frighten away “light green” allies. How much can I say, how serious can I be, before my audience reaches overload and shuts down or lashes back? But who do I talk to when I’m overloaded, when I despair or I don’t know what to do, when I want to run gibbering off into the night?

Tom, this paper has turned out a good deal more personal than I would normally address to someone I do not know outside of a professional context. I have never chatted casually with you, much less told you anything about myself. But you asked, and I find myself unwilling to do less than answer the question. I hope you do not mind.


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A Christmas Re-Post

Today is Christmas.

Perhaps you don’t celebrate Christmas. Many people don’t–it isn’t my primary winter holiday, either, though I join the celebrations of family and friends. But WordPress tells me that the vast majority of pageviews come from the United States, so chances are Christmas is on your mind today, whether you celebrate it personally or not.

There are the TV adds, the holiday specials, the new holiday movies, the incessant Christmas carols in public spaces. For example, I’ve heard “Little Drummer Boy” at least three or four times already without having sought out the song even once and I’m basically a homebody who ignores popular culture whenever possible (except as relates to climate change and a few other political and scientific issues). I am aware that some people harbor a special hatred of that over-played song.

But I kind of like it.

Actually, I really like it. That song has been known to make me cry whenever I really pay attention to the lyrics. Minus the rum-pa-pum-pums  and traditional lyrical line-breaks, here they are:

“Come,” they told me, “a new born King to see. Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King, so, to honor Him when we come.”
“Little baby, I am a poor boy too. I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give our King. Shall I play for you on my drum?”
Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for Him. I played my best for Him.
Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

I mean, seriously, picture this. There’s this little boy who has this fantastic experience–mysterious grown-ups appear from some exotic place and tell him of this amazing baby–this King whose birth was announced by angels and by a new, very bright star, the subject of prophesies about the redemption of the whole world. The drummer boy probably doesn’t understand most of it, but he understands this is a Big Deal, and when the grown-ups urge him to come with him to worship and honor the newborn King, he eagerly agrees.

Except what can he give? He has no money, no expensive gifts. He’s poor and he’s just a child–compared to all these Wise Men and other important people, what can he do? He doesn’t know how to do anything except play his drum and maybe he can’t even do that very well. Poor little drummer boys just don’t get to go visit kings. It isn’t done.

But then the child gets to see the baby, and he sees this King is actually a poor little boy just like him. They aren’t that different. And the baby is looking up at him, expectant. The drummer boy just has to give something. So he does the one thing he can do, knowing it can’t possibly be enough. He plays his drum and he plays it just as well as he can.

And it makes the baby smile.

We’re all like that, in one way or another. Most of us probably feel inadequate most of the time–I certainly do–and, frankly, in the face of global warming, we are each inadequate, at least by any reasonable definition. We don’t have enough money; we don’t have the right skills; we don’t have the cooperation of friends and family (or Congress); or we have other, competing responsibilities; or grave problems of our own to cope with. These are entirely valid excuses, real stumbling blocks, and arrayed against us is the full power and might of some extremely rich people who do not want us to get off fossil fuel at all, ever. We’re running out of time.

And yet, sometimes the universe isn’t reasonable. Sometimes one person can change the world. Sometimes one’s best turns out to be good enough after all.

May it be so for you. Merry Christmas.


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On the Paris Climate Talks: A Literary Interlude

First, my apologies for not posting yesterday; I sometimes have anxious or depressed episodes and they make it difficult to focus enough to work. This has not been a good week. Of course, if one is going to be anxious, this would be the week, given that the world’s leaders are discussing whether to avert the end of the world and at the same time the presumptive Republican front-runner for the US Presidential election is doing a really good imitation of Hitler. I don’t know whether the fact that I’m not crazy to feel like this makes me feel better or worse….

Anyway, we’re kind of waiting to see what comes out of Paris, although there is a petition to sign (please!) asking certain recalcitrant national leaders to quit dragging their feet on what really looks like a viable deal.

While we’re waiting, I’m thinking about a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin, The Farthest Shore. Her writing is excellent, not just because it is extraordinary in terms of craft, but also because much of her fiction going back to the late 1960’s seem to imply an understanding of climate change. Her sci-fi books, set in the distant future, often have an overtly environmentalist message and refer to Earth having warmed significantly since our time. One, published in 1969, clearly describes the natural greenhouse effect (yes, there is one; what we’re causing is in addition to that) and repeatedly links environmental catastrophe specifically to industrial revolution. Her fantasy novels frequently address spiritual and magical themes that could be read as ecological principles. I don’t know if Ms. LeGuin actually knew about anthropogenic climate change in the late 1960’s, but it is possible; some scientists were beginning to investigate the matter, and of course the idea was first discussed in the nineteenth century.

In The Farthest Shore, a wizard casts a spell for immortality and accidentally–though, without caring about it much–unbalances the entire world, creating a  “hole through which life drains out,” as some of the characters describe it. Essentially, he makes a serious attempt to cast off the limits imposed by both biology and physics, which is exactly the same thing we’ve been using fossil fuels for. I do not know if Ms. LeGuin intended it this way, and I suspect she did not, but the book makes an interesting allegory for climate change, with personal immortality standing in for the more complex suit of powers we look for from technology–a story of the pursuit of a good thing causing ruin because it is taken to absolutes.

One character asks why a person shouldn’t want immortality. His companion, a very wise man, replies:

–Why should you not desire immortality? How should you not? Every soul desires it, and its health is the strength of its desire. But be careful; you are one who might achieve your desire.

–And then? [the other asks]

–And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This! This blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, two that make one, the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other, and are forever reborn. And with them all is reborn, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is life. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death–death without rebirth?

All of this is simply to put the quote I’m thinking of in context–the quote that gives me some meaning and comfort as I wait to hear back from Paris. As the protagonists sail towards their meeting with the wizard, which either will save the world or won’t, one of them sleeps while the other keeps watch and thinks about the future.

…..They will praise me more for that in afterdays than anything I did of magery….If there are afterdays. For first we two must stand upon the balance-point, the very fulcrum of the world. And if I fall, you fall, and all the rest…. For a while, for a while. No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars….Oh, but I should like to see thee crowned in Havenor, and the sunlight shining on the Tower of the Sword and on the Ring we brought for thee from Atuan, from the dark tombs, Tenar and I, before ever thou wast born!”

He’s right; no darkness lasts forever, and even there, there are stars. The biosphere can recover from a major extinction–it takes ten million years, but it can do it, and has done it before. But there are things I should like to see, and so I hope for good news from Paris.