On Climate Change, Common Ground & The Person In The Mirror
On a blue-gray January morning in Iowa in 1954, a three-year-old boy stood by his dad’s car, mittens on his hands,swaddled in his red parka, boots on his little feet. Along the street a cadre of Chevys, Packards, Buicks, motors running on leaded gasoline, warmed their engines and cabins while their owners grabbed a last sip of coffee or shrugged into overcoats. The little boy stamped his feet in the cold, waiting to be driven to his grandma’s house for the day — his parents were both students at the local university. The little family lived in married-student housing. WWII-era quonset huts arranged in cramped rows behind the football stadium, called, appropriately enough, Stadium Park.
Curious about the exhaust coming from every tailpipe, the boy bent down behind his family’s gray-blue 1948 Ford to look closer at the white plumes that disappeared so quickly in the bitterly cold air. He sniffed and thought the sweetish odor was curiously pleasant. Coming out of the house and seeing what his boy was up to, a man hurried over and told him he must never breathe automobile fumes, because it was dangerous and poison. The boy was puzzled. “But Daddy,” he said, “if it’s poison, won’t all these cars poison the air and kill everybody?”
The father smiled, and explained that the earth and its atmosphere were so vast, it could never get poisoned. He told me - for yes, I was that little boy - that the earth has numerous systems and processes that balance and maintain the qualities needed to sustain life. Nobody used the word ecosystem back then, but that was how I was first introduced to the concept.
I hadn’t thought of that incident in a very long time, but now it haunts me somewhat. I have a number of crystal-clear, early childhood memories, and this is one of them.
My father became a college professor, and my mom became a housewife. In 1956 we moved to Portales, New Mexico and my dad got his first teaching job at a university.
My parents enjoyed travel and camping, and we spent part of almost every summer while I was a child, living in a tent in the national parks around the West and Midwest. We stopped at the roadside curiosities to see the Petrified Turtle and the Two-Headed Lamb — or the Grave of Billy The Kid. I saw the magnificent views in the Tetons and the Rockies, watched Old Faithful erupt, gazed out over the impossible blue of Crater Lake, explored Carlsbad Caverns, marveled at the Garden of the Gods, all before my 12th birthday. In never occurred to me that the planet could ever be anything but vast and beautiful.
In 1960 our little family moved to San Diego, California and I got my first sight of the ocean. Near Imperial Beach, I noticed a large pipe extending out to sea, and asked my dad about it. He told me it was where sewage was pumped a few miles out to sea and released. The same question immediately came up — if everybody’s doing that, how can it not eventually mess up the ocean? Again my dad told me that the earth is able to absorb these materials virtually forever — the human waste became food for microorganisms that helped sustain the balance of life in the oceans.
That time, I wasn’t convinced. Not too many people were paying much attention to the environment back then, but it seemed a no-brainer to me that no system can absorb that much shit indefinitely and remain unchanged. As I grew older, I learned that England had enacted the first laws to try to curb air pollution in the 1860s, and by the end of the decade a hundred years later, smog was becoming a problem in big urban centers like Los Angeles. I also learned that pollutants like lead and mercury remain in the environment and can have severe health effects. As the 20th century drew to a close, we became more and more aware of the destructive changes mankind had already made to the planet we live on. Now, two decades into the 21st century, we are confronted with stark changes to the climate and the many forms of life that depend on it.
Some people are sure that climate change is a hoax, dreamed up by the Chinese, or people on the left who want to tear down whole industries and regulate everything under the sun. That may partly be true, and it’s never wise to fail to look at an idea even if it seems outlandish. But it’s also true that entire ecosystems are collapsing, and that species from butterflies to frogs to rhinos are going extinct at a frightful pace. We’re just learning how deeply interwoven life is on our planet, and that to destroy parts of it threatens everything that remains. We are only just learning that we, too, are part of this incredibly intricate, living system. This is wisdom possessed by many indigenous cultures, but since the Industrial Revolution, men have told themselves that they can be masters of nature.
Even if human impact turns out to have been minimal, we still can’t survive without trees. Or water. Hell, most of us could barely survive without our cellphones. If SHTF like a lot of folks predict, we won’t have them anymore, either.
It’s possible climate change ccurrently “just” a natural process. We know that the earth has gone through hot and dry periods in the past, and very cold ones too. We know there were cities in the great valley that’s beneath the Mediterranean Ocean, and that the Sahara Desert was once a lush jungle. We know that ocean levels have varied widely. We know that animals have gone extinct ever since the beginnings of life. But the probability is that whatever changes may be products of periodic variation, are made much worse by human activities.
We don’t even know if we CAN slow the pace of climate change, or the long-term consequences of changes that are already occurring. We hear all the time that if we don’t make big changes very soon, the whole thing will spiral out of control and that could mean the end of civilization. Of course, there’s a chance that technological breakthroughs may find new ways to provide energy, harvest water, neutralize carbon dioxide. But the fact is that many of our common paradigms would have to shift drastically in ways and with a speed that may not be possible.
There’s so much we don’t know, although what we already know is terrifying. The very scale of the changes needed is more than most of us can really grasp —if the bearers of the scariest predictions are right. And most of us have no idea what we can do ourselves. Should we go vegan? Should we stop using insecticides? Should we avoid GMOs and eat only organic? Should we stop watering our lawns? Should we move to a different region? Should we be thinking of not having kids? Is it really that bad?
My guess is, it won’t be THAT bad, at least right away. We will find ways to adapt. Maybe it won’t get that much worse than it is right now. Maybe governments and corporations will start realizing their role in creating the mess we’re in and begin making amends. Or maybe not.
Let’s not forget that besides the possibility of a far harsher climate, our problems include economic, political, social and cultural crises that seem to happen all at once and all at the same time. I’m talking specifically of climate change, but we also happen to be dealing with chaos on these other fronts as well.
Sometimes I think, no wonder so many people seem to be flipping out. And, no wonder so many people want a strong, bold leader, one who declares “Only I can fix it!”
It’s natural to want to place blame. Lax policies, greedy corporations, under (or over) regulations, the list could go on and on. But one thing I’ve learned in a fairly long life is that most problems, and nearly all solutions, begin with the person who looks back at us when we’re brushing our teeth. This is where we can control things and by doing so, influence others. This is where we can be creative and proactive with observable results.
The first thing we are going to have to come to grips with is our enormous, individual complicity in all of it.
All of it! And all of us. We may not be in favor of wars, but if we drive a car, we’re helping drive those forces that create wars. Use yard chemicals? Check. Buy products in single-use, disposable, non-recyclable containers? Check. Buy our kids plastic toys that’ll just get thrown away in a few years? Check. Dump old motor oil? That one’s REALLY bad, so double-check. But you see where I’m going with this…..in thousands of ways, each one of us has a certain level of complicity in the state of the world. I’m not trying to make people feel guilty, though it wouldn’t hurt to be a little shamed by how we participate in an entire system that is now so far outside nature that we’re killing it — and ourselves.
All of the problems that beset the world, from wars and exotic diseases to homelessness to a broken government, are things that bear a little assent from each one of us. I don’t want people to feel guilty about things fucking control over. Look, I can’t stop wars or cure ebola any more than I can rescue every stray cat or broken soul. But I can see how, being part of a society that let it all happen, I have to share in the accountability. No, I don’t have the same accountability as, say, a Big Pharma CEO who lied for years about the safety of opioids, resulting in millions of overdoses and deaths. But I’m fully accountable for every lie I ever told, every time I said or did something cruel, or hurt the people around me. And in a very real sense, those will always be part of the effect I had on the world. And that is the level I can have the most effect, it’s what I can change and dedicate to what I think is a higher purpose.
I once had a pastor who used to say, “You exist, therefore you have an effect. Make it a good one.” She also made clear that once having existed, we would always have an effect on the world, however tiny. Only when we understand that each of us personally has a real if small effect on the entire planet, can we begin thinking creatively about these things, and make small movements toward a better global outcome.
Where we shop, how we eat, what we drive are all things we can change. But we need to go further than that. We need to realize that we have enormous common ground — common cause, if you will — that far outweighs our differences. Preventing nuclear holocaust, doing what we can to mitigate climate change, finding cures, developing cleaner and less toxic ways of using resources are all things that affect our lives.
In our polarized, us-vs-them times, when much of the world is roiling while our own country fractures, it’s easy to find common ground with those who think like us. But that’s an echo chamber, and our challenge is to see the many ways that all of us, care about the same basic existential issues. We want our children to have a better life than we had. We want to be loved, and to love. We want to be healthy, both physically, spiritually and mentally. We want to feel we’re part of something worthwhile. These are common to all people around the world. Whatever their culture, religion, technological level or economic status, all people want and need these things. This is common ground, and it ought to be held sacred. Our challenge is to recognize it as such, and realize we can only really achieve those things when we look past our differences (we can always fight about them later) and start to act together.