Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Echoes, Glimpsed Faces, and a Rising Wind of Transformation

Since my oldest memory, dating from maybe as far back as 1962, I have loved winter fields especially with the quiet low light of evening or of a cloudy day. The reasons connect with the secure country home my parents kept for us, and my good health all those years, a robust build of body that resisted cold, and the abundant snows of those winters when I was just starting school, having the countryside to come home to. It was cheery there, indoors and out, so the frozen lands never symbolized the dreary to me but the wondrously forsaken, where noise was stifled and drama had been erased into the crisp framework of dead and living plants, cushioned and unified by snow. Their colors were varied and subtly reminiscent, bleached versions of what had been and what in just really a few weeks would be. The shadows were blue; the highlights were most often the hot tints found in fires. Nowhere else felt so safe or, at the same time, so invigorating. All of our small family at some time or other went enthusiastically into these places.

Now that I'm graying and stiffening a little with the years I look to the loss of these places with many questions as to extent of and reaction to the loss. It might have been around 1970 when I first heard, on a National Geographic TV special, about the greenhouse effect and how it would steal more and more from the experience of winter. I've never gotten over my dismay about that, though there have been many winters north of where I grew up, spectacular on ski trails, with snowdrifts, whiteouts and early blue dark. Inevitably I've broadened my view on climate change to include it as one in a cluster of symptoms that we are, in our numbers and demands on the earth, getting to be too much for it and will be forced to change the ways we do a lot of things.

While the news brings us an ever-lengthening list of weather and ocean cataclysms like ice floes as big as Singapore breaking away from the Antarctic, typhoon Haiyan, the most powerful sea storm ever recorded, smashing the Philippines and once in a lifetime November mega-tornadoes or June downpours besetting the central U.S., local and unscientific observers like me compare past seasons to more recent ones and notice tree hardihood and rain versus ice versus snow. Those of us living in the northern countryside still drive into whiteouts, freeze our fingertips and worry about our ignition on frigid mornings. But our winters trend shorter at both ends. A long cold winter is what an average winter used to be to the generation older than us. Today's real temperatures tend to be warmer than the ones we heard in yesterday's forecast for today. Warm spells last a lot longer than the cold snaps. One of the personal questions that looms especially large for me is: if I live to be close to a hundred, what will I see of change to the places I cherish along the U.S.-Canadian border as climate change escalates? Likely I will see fires burn away huge stretches of the resinous boreal forest after it's been too hot and dry for too long. Projections are that oak savanna and grassland will grow up in its place.

An interview one recent morning on Democracy Now, with guests Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, climate scientists from England's Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, affiliated with the University of Manchester, stressed the need of "radical and immediate de-growth strategies in the United States, EU and other wealthy nations." I was electrified to hear this report because the meltdown of our four-season climate and disappearance of its hallmark trees and creatures has so long been a sadness, like a known-of disease in someone I love. Just two examples given of de-growth strategies were sizing down the refrigerators used in the United States, where evidently fridges are manufactured and sold bigger than in the rest of the world, and abandoning the habit of a daily shower, or even a twice-daily shower, that requires so much hot water, using tons of fossil fuel in affluent countries. Such practices are called for because, per Mr. Anderson, the developed countries of the world have missed the chance to shift their reliance to full-scale renewable energies and the impending changeover will take place too slowly to safeguard the climate we call normal for the sake of sea levels below coastal city street level and crops that come in every year.

The urgency of the climate crisis is described among researchers like the two from the Tyndall Centre in degrees of warming. Two degrees Celsius or 3.6 degrees F. are in our time thought to be the extent of further survivable global warming for civilization. But according to Alice Bows-Larkin the rate of emissions for carbon and other heat-trapping gases put us on track for something more like four degrees Celsius; a listener/reader easily senses that she refrains from grimly hinting that it could be even more than that. Two degrees Celsius was also the limit agreed upon by the Copenhagen Accord in 2012, and earlier, among the Group of Eight summit meeting of largest nations, in 2009. But as indicators of inhospitable climate, these numbers have no real coordinates in the realm of what it would take to force civilization into some mode of living in which we release so little carbon or other heat-trapping gases that offsets come into play for what we do emit, and we become neutral in how we affect the atmosphere. What drives people to change their ways is pain, not readily measurable, which can be sub-classified into grief, bodily misery (hunger, thirst, illness, agony) and economic loss. For many people, impending pain in one or more of these categories will breed change--and by impending pain I naturally mean fear. Degrees of planetary heating probably can't be uniformly matched with degrees of the different forms of pain or fear brought to bear on people in stressful times. And could increments or measurements of pain ever be used in policy-making? Probably it will need to be deaths.

To read any of today's spokespeople for the movement to curb climate change, such as Bill McKibben, is to see an implication of the extractive industries, chiefly oil, gas and coal, our leading fossil fuels, and of the other industries that ally themselves around oil, gas and coal, like automotive manufacturers. The comfort-filled, fast-paced ways of life that are established courtesy of industries enabled by gasoline and diesel-powered transport are so taken for granted that any public statement that these modes of living could be the death of civilization is dismissed as doom and gloom but is most of all kept out of the mainstream news. The internet, if you google articles on climate change is full of written pieces, a few with someone's grinning face below the headline, which soothe the glancing reader that fears about global warming are overblown. The fossil fuel and auto industries have been notorious for funding coalitions that dismiss the urgency and/or the reality of what our heat-trapping gases are doing ever faster to the one and only earth, home not just to ourselves.

Doom and gloom are not well-received in marketplaces driven by standard, everyday brands of allure; it would take an honest and powerful brand of creative advertising to arouse a mystique around a product expressly designed to stave off the degradation to earth and atmosphere caused by the overshoot of human demand. I'm convinced, based on hunch, hearsay, on-line articles and Facebook, that marketing promotions designed to save civilization from environmental collapse are on the air waves and in cyberspace right now, coming from not-so-far-off places. But we still have the fossil-fuel industries with us, to outspend us, dominate the major news channels and, by many appearances, to drive everyone but themselves into extinction if that's destiny as they see it.

Doom and gloom have been relegated to mass entertainment, where they can be shut out by anyone who doesn't thrill to the sagas they are woven into. I've delved into a literary genre of doom and gloom myself, very haltingly, first when I read Margaret Atwood's novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, and most lately as I finished Stephen King's novella The Langoliers. Margaret Atwood's two late novels are futurist, giving her readers a world in which genetic engineering is in its heyday, cloned and crossbred animals, wild or feral, forage in open country and corporations rule a world in which nations get no mention. The most secure of the citizens are the corporate work force, protected inside gigantic company-owned dorms. North America is hot year-round and tornado-prone daily, with a cool breeze perceptible if a person travels as far north as, she suggests, Moose Factory in what was Canada.

The Stephen King story, like others of his, features time travel. The Langoliers, as it progresses, switches scenes from mid-air in a 767 passenger jet cut off from all sight and sound of life on the ground to a deserted Bangor International Airport in Maine. King's tale challenged my imagination by segregating the notion of time eroding backward from what should to my mind be a reversal of place-making. If time was to peel backward then the technological landscape should sink and crumble, the forests should flourish and shrink back under ice caps, land and sea rise, fall and intermix. In the story however the land below the jet, forced on pain of the travelers' death to take off anew from Bangor and return west, is scorched away by balls of searing red and black, calling to mind some sort of runaway fantastical tires, which in their wake leave nothing but a breathtaking abyss. It worked well in the story as a vision of doom. But it's not the doom that we in our materialist mania for ever more growth are likeliest to spread in a series of spin-off reactions, one health and environmental crisis or several at a time, across the breadth of the continents still holding above sea level.

Crossing St. Louis County, Minnesota daily in the little old Toyota I recognize that it's bound to be the car itself that's my number-one source of carbon output, though it is a hybrid. High speeds make me cringe so I'm normally a gentle driver, passed by nine-tenths of the other vehicles. But the car burns gasoline and emits carbon. To the extent that we all share in the responsibility--to our offspring and to our wild warm-blooded and cold-blooded and plant kin--to stop dumping carbon into the air, won't I try to reduce the worst that I'm putting out, on my commutes and intermittent longer trips? And that is the question I have trouble imagining an awful lot of people asking themselves, skeptics that so many still are about the idea of winter ever being conquered (cold is their enemy) and earth's whole climate flip-flopped by our very selves. What will it take, leaving out some of the most agape-filled, civic-minded, devoutly spiritual ones like those who buy carbon offsets or especially those who demonstrate and go to jail, for a majority to say:  I'm tired of knowing I help upset the water cycle and the mountain glaciers, ruin the summers and the cool green forests, escalate the rash of extinctions, and endanger the very weather that feeds our food crops? I have real trouble imagining that behavior on the part of a lot of people. And yet, whole nations have been known to rush to co-ordinated schemes for everyone's salvation when they finally sense the urgency.

From the 20th-century author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in and wrote about old Florida in the 1930s and prior times, before it was discovered by second-home developers, I've gathered a sense as to what we have lost in America, equating that to my own memories of 1960s springs and summers and their clamor of crickets, whippoorwills and tree toads. Here is her passage from Cross Creek, in a chapter titled 'Toady-frogs, lizards, antses and varmints;' it is her description of frog chorus in the lakes and marshes. "I have lain through a long moonlit night, with the scent of orange blossoms palpable as spilled perfume on the air. and listened to the murmur of minor chords until, just as I have wept over the Brahms waltz in A flat on a master's violin, I thought my heart would break with the beauty of it. If there is not a finished tune, there are phrases, and there is assuredly a motif, articulated, reiterated." I've never been in Florida, but reading in my own time about hordes of amphibians lost to rain-borne toxins and abrupt seasonal change, I wonder if modern people in Marjorie's Florida still get to hear frog symphonies as expressive.

Everything wild that I can remember may be dwindling sooner or later like the bobwhite quail we would hear across most of the months in a year. It's another reason to draw and paint the places just in the ways they have haunted me, because as memories they are precious as the most revered ancestors and infants all rolled in one, tender and self-renewing, strange yet still fabric of our thoughts and emotions, our muscle and nerve fibres.  Here's bait, if you like, or a friendly invitation: if you relish and buy this art or  this organic fair-trade chocolate you are helping us, in our depleted and depopulated locale, to stay there and do our work without having to start our cars to work somewhere miles off that requires day to day car travel.

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