Will He Ever See
The urgency of our vanishing icecaps
What gets me most are not the scary scientific studies about melting glaciers, the ones I used to avoid. It’s the books I read to my two-year-old. Have You Ever Seen a Moose? is one of his favorites. It’s about a bunch of kids that really, really, really want to see a moose.
They search high and low — through a forest, a swamp, in brambly bushes and up a mountain, for “a long legged, bulgy nosed, branchy antlered moose.” The joke is that there are moose hiding on each page. In the end, the animals all come out of hiding and the ecstatic kids proclaim: “We’ve never ever seen so many moose!”
On about the 75th reading, it suddenly hit me: He might never see a moose. I tried to hold it together. I went back to my computer and began to write about my time in northern Alberta, tar sands country, where members of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation told me about how the moose had changed — one woman described killing a moose on a hunting trip only to find that the flesh had already turned green. I heard a lot about strange tumors too, which locals assumed had to do with the animals drinking water contaminated by tar sands toxins. But mostly I heard about how the moose were simply gone.
And not just in Alberta. “Rapid Climate Changes Turn North Woods into Moose Graveyard,” reads a May 2012 headline in Scientific American. A year and a half later, The New York Times was reporting that one of Minnesota’s two moose populations had declined from four thousand in the 1990s to just 100 today.
Will he ever see a moose?
Then, the other day, I was slain by a miniature board book called Snuggle Wuggle. It involves different animals cuddling, with each posture given a ridiculously silly name: “How does a bat hug?” it asks. “Topsy turvy, topsy turvy.” For some reason my son reliably cracks up at this page. I explain that it means upside down, because that’s the way bats sleep.
But all I could think about was the report of some 100,000 dead and dying bats raining down from the sky in the midst of record-breaking heat across part of Queensland, Australia. Whole colonies devastated.
Will he ever see a bat?
I knew I was in trouble when the other day I found myself bargaining with starfish.
Red and purple ones are ubiquitous on the rocky coast of British Columbia where my parents live, where my son was born, and where I have spent about half of my adult life. They are always the biggest kid pleasers, because you can gently pick one up and give it a really good look. “This is the best day of my life!” my seven-year-old niece Miriam, visiting from Chicago, proclaimed after a long afternoon spent in the tide pools.
But in the fall of 2013, stories began to appear about a strange wasting disease that was causing starfish along the Pacific coast to die by the tens of thousands. Termed the “sea star wasting syndrome,” multiple species were disintegrating alive, their vibrant bodies melting into distorted globs, with legs falling off and bodies caving in. Scientists were mystified.
As I read these stories, I caught myself praying for the invertebrates to hang in for just one more year — long enough for my son to be amazed by them. Then I doubted myself: Maybe it’s better if he never sees a starfish at all — certainly not like this…
When fear like that used to creep through my armor of climate change denial, I would do my utmost to stuff it away, change the channel, click past it. Now I try to feel it. It seems to me that I owe it to my son, just as we all owe it to ourselves and one another.
But what should we do with this fear that comes from living on a planet that is dying, made less alive every day? First, accept that it won’t go away. that it is a fully rational response to the unbearable reality that we are living in a dying world, a world that a great many of us are helping to kill, by doing things like making tea and driving to the grocery store and yes, okay, having kids.
Next, use it. Fear is a survival response. Fear makes us run, it makes us leap, it can make us act superhuman. But we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the fear is only paralyzing. So the real trick, the only hope, really, is to allow the terror of an unlivable future to be balanced and soothed by the prospect of building something much better than many of us have previously dared hope.
Yes, there will be things we will lose, luxuries some of us will have to give up, whole industries that will disappear. And it’s too late to stop climate change from coming; it is already here, and increasingly brutal disasters are headed our way no matter what we do.
But it’s not too late to avert the worst, and there is still time to change ourselves so that we are far less brutal to one another when those disasters strike. And that, it seems to me, is worth a great deal.
Because the thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything. It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand. And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away.
Can we pull it off? All I know is that nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.