The Solutions are Hidden in Plain Sight–if you look through 21st century eyes

IMG_4806A lot of us in the Northeast are doing our share of grumbling this year about the Arctic air that just won’t go away.  Usually March is the time when the winds start to blow, the sap starts to rise, the snow melts into the thawing earth and our thoughts turn to snowdrops and crocus.

This year, we’re still in the deep freeze with a hardpack of snow on the ground, and no end in sight.

It’s all part of the erratic weather of our climate change era.  The question for all of us now is, how, beyond bitching and moaning, are we going to respond?

Most of us just shrug and turn the dial on the heater up a little higher, not thinking about what that very small, ordinary act really entails.

If your thermostat is wired into an oil burner or a natural gas furnace, like most homes and apartment buildings in the Northeast, then when you turn up the dial in response to the bitter cold you are, perhaps unwittingly, enabling, supporting and becoming an integral part of the very industry that is relentlessly destroying our climate.

The fossil fuel industry is not some demonic force outside of our control.  It’s just a human business that is responding to human needs for energy—lots and lots of energy.

We Americans are used to getting what we want, and what we’ve wanted, in the 50 years I’ve been on the planet, is ease.  What could be easier than turning a dial to make your house warmer in the winter or cooler in the summer, or gassing up your comfy car before you get on the freeway?

1_RussetLikewise in terms of agricultural production—we like to get our vegetables pre-washed and sometimes even pre-cut, all even-sized, no blemishes, laid out attractively in faux crates under spotlights in our upscale grocery stores.

When we buy that bag of potatoes or carrots, we’re not thinking about the tons of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide and fossil fuels that went into making it easy for us to throw these items in our shopping cart.

We’re not thinking about the bees, butterflies and other valuable insects that have been driven to population collapse by industrial agricultural practices; or the huge dead zones in the ocean at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where fertilizer and chemical run-off from the Midwest runs down to the sea; or the millions of birds that are affected each year by the toxic chemicals we spread over the landscape.

We’re just throwing that bag of veggies into the cart, or turning up that dial.

Well, the time of such oblivious innocence is over.

The curtain has been pulled back, and the Wizard of Industrial Capitalism has been revealed—and lo and behold, he wears the ordinary face of each one of us.

Every step we take on this beautiful, battered planet of ours matters.

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

Eric and me at the February 2013 Forward on Climate rally in DC

I am heartened to know that this very weekend, one year after the big climate change rally in Washington DC that I attended in the hopes of pressuring the Obama Administration to block the Keystone XL pipeline, thousands of activists, most of them college students, will be raising a ruckus at the White House gates to insist that the politicians stop gambling away their future.

Here in my backyard, in the Massachusetts-New York region, people have woken up to the fact that mile-long trains of crude oil and gas are being run through heavily populated neighborhoods.

We’re moving to block gas fracking in western Massachusetts as the sight of contaminated tap water in fracking regions brings the dangers right home.

We’re also starting to get serious about making solar energy accessible to homeowners and businesses.

UnknownThis week’s New Yorker magazine has a fascinating article about a little-known scientific program to create a controlled thermonuclear fusion power plant.  Unlike the current fission plants, which burn radioactive fuel and generate dangerous waste, the fusion plant, if it were successful, would run indefinitely on seawater and lithium, with no waste.  It would be ten times hotter than the core of the Sun.

Talk about an audacious plan!  You have to hand it to human beings, we are nothing if not hubristic.  It is our greatest strength and our most glaring weakness.

Why spend billions on creating an artificial sun here on earth?  Why not just learn from our cousins the plants, and start to use the sunlight we have more efficiently?

It’s time to take off our grimy 20th century glasses and start looking at the world and ourselves through 21st century eyes.  When we do, we’re going to find that the solutions to all the problems that beset us have been hidden in plain sight all along.

You can run but you can’t hide

As the heat and humidity of summer bore down on my home turf of New England last week, I made a run for it, spending two days traveling northeast at breakneck speed towards the normally cool coast of Nova Scotia.

I arrived just in time for a rare heat spell here on these windy islands sticking out into the north Atlantic.

Today it was up in the 90s Farenheit, the sun golden-bright and merciless.  Too hot to go out to the beach—a day for staying in the shade and drinking lots and lots of water.

musselsThinking of having something light and cool for dinner, my son and I drove down to the store to get some mussels.

The Canadian Maritimes are a prime source of farmed mussels, and I was eagerly picturing a pot full of the glistening blue-black beauties, steamed in a fragrant shallot and wine sauce.

Ignoring the sad, dried-up looking fish at the Atlantic Superstore fish counter, I confidently asked for a 5-pound net bag of mussels, and placed it in my shopping cart.

I started walking around the store briskly, revived by the freezing air conditioning.  But I kept getting whiffs of a strange smell, like something rotten.  After a few minutes, I realized it was coming from my cart.  It was the mussels.

I returned the bag to the fish counter, where the server took it back without argument.

So much for my fantasy of a mussel dinner.

***

warnsignOn the way home, we stopped to pick up a local newspaper, and while waiting in a long hot road construction line, I noticed a small headline tucked on the inside pages: “Shellfish Harvesting Suspended Due to Red Tide.”

My son and I looked at each other in dismay.  We had already noticed, on our first walk on our normally pristine local beach, that the water was a strange rusty-red color.

We had noticed too that there seemed to be fewer seabirds around, and that when we went down to the rocks to look for the normally numerous crabs, we could hardly find any.

We had been planning to go clamming over the weekend, out on the mud flats at low tide.

That plan would have to go the way of the mussel dinner.

When we got home, we went to the Internet to look up Red Tide, learning that it was more properly known as Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB), and that it was almost ubiquitous along the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines, especially during the summer.

We learned that eating shellfish that have been harvested from HAB water can cause “paralytic toxic poisoning” in humans, characterized by gastrointestinal and respiratory distress.  Good thing I left those stinking mussels at the Superstore!

HABs have disastrous effects on other species like fish, waterfowl, dolphins, whales, and seals.

If I can’t eat mussels I may be piqued, but I can find something else just as good to eat on land.

Ocean denizens have no such options. I began to picture cormorants and seagulls with bad tummy aches.  No wonder we’d seen very few of the big blue herons that used to be so numerous in the salt marshes.

 ***

Red Tide - Mary Mackin 2My admittedly superficial Internet search did not bother to mention the cause of harmful algae blooms, speaking of them as an inconvenient fact of life, like a rip tide or a thunderstorm.

While HABs are sometimes natural, there is nothing normal about the dramatic spike in coastal red tides we’ve been seeing for the past 25 years or so.  They are part of the same phenomenon that causes the dead zones around the mouths of rivers that run through densely populated agricultural regions.  This summer, scientists are forecasting the largest dead zone ever recorded in the Gulf of Mexico—some 8,500 square miles.

It’s human and animal sewage and fertilizer run-off that upsets the natural chemical balance of the coastal waters, feeding the destructive algae at the expense of everything else.

What we humans break, we can also fix.  We could fix this problem if we wanted to.  But I found mention only of closing shellfish beds to harvesting, not of trying to turn the entire problem around by reducing the amount of shit we allow to run off into the sea.

***

I thought that up here in Nova Scotia I might be able to escape from the relentless, depressing awareness of the cascading, ever-quickening destabilization of the natural world.

That’s just another little fantasy I’ll have to give up.  There’s nowhere to run, much less to hide.

Our planet, ourselves: we must wake up to the destruction, before it’s too late

First the honey bee population crashed.  Then it was the bats, dying by the millions in their caves during the winter hibernation, of a strange white fungal infection.

Now marine mammals, including walruses and ringed seals, are turning up dying on the beaches of Alaska and the far north.  Unidentified skin lesions and sores are the visible evidence of an unknown disease that is ravaging them.

Meanwhile, climate change is causing unprecedented surges in the populations of destructive insects like pine borers, which are killing off millions of acres of forests around the world.

I could go on, and on, and on.

Truly, Derrick Jensen is not exaggerating when he says that human civilization is killing our planet.

Last weekend I watched the new film “End:Civ,” by Franklin Lopez, based on Jensen’s book Endgame.  I had put off watching it for several weeks, because I knew it how upsetting it would be, and sure enough, it was disturbing, to say the least.

For me the hardest-hitting part of the film was about human beings’ casual tolerance of cruelty; our willingness to stand by, indifferent, as our fellow travelers on this planet are systematically hunted or poisoned or displaced to extinction.

Part of this detachment of ours may be rooted in the way we tell the stories of how these deaths occur.  We talk about “colony collapse disorder,” for example, rather than narrating the way that entire hives of bees–which are highly evolved, communicative insects–fail to return to the hive one day.

They get lost out there–maybe due to cell phone waves or other forms of chemical interference, we don’t really know–and never come home.  Imagine this happening on a global scale, a whole species of productive, social insects lost, one by one, by the million.

In the same way, it’s far easier to talk about “cancer victims” en masse than to live through the suffering death of your own loved one.  How many vibrant, creative, hardworking people have we lost to cancer the last ten years?  In the last year?  In the last month?  Wangari Maathai and Steve Jobs, to name two famous, very recent cancer victims.  The list goes on and on and on.

But still we remain passive.  We may mourn the disappearance of the honeybees or the songbirds, but we don’t make the effort to connect the dots and come to a true understanding of the extent to which our way of life has been poisoning our planet since the advent of industrialization, and especially since the beginning of the 20th century, which is when synthetic chemical production really took off.

Before she died of cancer, Rachel Carson managed to break through the wall of indifference and make the case against DDT.  Thanks to her efforts, the bald eagle and many other birds have rallied and come back from the brink of extinction.

It’s amazing how resilient life is.  If human civilization would just back off and give our natural systems on the planet a chance, they would heal themselves, and go back to providing the healthy ecological web that made our success as a species possible.

Our planet, ourselves.  We need to understand, in the deepest and most urgent possible terms, that we cannot dissociate ourselves from the poisoning and destruction that is being visited on the forests, oceans, swamps and grasslands of this planet.

The “Wall Street Awakening” cannot be only about jobs, about fixing a broken economy and continuing on our merry path of global domination and “resource extraction.”  The analysis has to go deeper than that, and the change has to be much more dramatic.

All the jobs in the world won’t bring back the walruses or the ringed seals or the polar bears.  What use will jobs be when the ocean is a giant dead zone, and industrial agriculture collapses?  Will we be worrying about jobs when the forests that provide our oxygen are all gone?

We need to focus on what’s important and go all the way this time.  As I keep saying, our future depends on it.  And I am not exaggerating.

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