What Now?

As the howling winds approached the Texas coastline, I was writing words for an invitation to my mother’s 100th birthday party. I checked to see what had happened the year she was born. Perhaps I could use some of those “benchmarks” in the invitation? What happened in 1917?

An explosion at an artillery shells plant in Pennsylvania killed 133 workers. Initially blamed on German saboteurs, it may, in fact, have been an accident.

Over 73 blocks of Atlanta burned for nearly 10 hours, destroying 1,900 structures and displacing more than 10,000 people.

A tornado, or more likely a series of tornadoes, swept some 300 miles from Illinois into Indiana in eight days and killed 101 people.

A fire accidentally started by a foreman with a carbide lamp in a copper mine near Butte, Montana killed 168 workers. It remains the deadliest underground hard rock mining accident in the U.S.

Be assured, I chose other events to include in the birthday invitation! But these incidents made me stop and think.

When was the last time you heard of 100 people killed in a series of tornadoes? Today weather scientists can quite accurately predict them, and warning systems are in place.

A recent munitions factory incident? Safety regulations in factories have, for the most part, kept workers healthy and alive.

A city fire? Most of those structures in Atlanta had wood shingles. After the fire, the city passed an ordinance that prohibited wood shingles on new construction.

After the mine disaster, a mining strike called for safer conditions. I’m willing to bet a carbide lamp, or for that matter, any open flame, is not permitted in the tunnels today.

Following all these incidents, steps were taken to prevent the same thing from ever happening again, often with the help of scientists and engineers. These may have been costly regulations, but they saved lives and property from that time on.

But today as I write this, Hurricane Harvey is one of the worst in our history. Another is approaching Florida. Here in the western part of the U.S., we have more than 60 major fires burning. Even though I am not close to the fires, a heavy haze hangs in the air and I can see tiny  white ashes floating. A light layer of ash coats my garden bench. The sun this morning was an eerie orange/pink color.

We’re back again to where our ancestors were after the city fire, after the tornadoes, after the factory explosion, after the mine disaster. What do we do now to prevent this kind of destruction in the future? Is there anything we can do? It’s time, once again, to go back to the drawing board, to again listen to the scientists, to the technicians, and set in place the regulations that can protect our earth and its animals and people. They may be costly. This is what our grandparents and great grandparents did. We are certainly capable of doing the same.

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Living with a Dying Earth

Actually, the Earth is NOT dying. It will continue to live on long after you and I and all humanity are gone. It will be different, yes, but it will live on and evolve. When I get too down about the dying starfish on my beach and polar bears trapped on ice floes, it helps a little to remember this.

When I was young, we heard nothing about “extinction” or “endangered animals” because it happened so rarely. Today a lot of life on Earth is dying way too fast. If we continue at the rate we’re going, 75% of all species on Earth will be extinct in just a few hundred years.

We are in what scientists call the “Sixth Extinction.” Over Earth’s history, there have been five big extinctions, all millions of years ago. The dinosaurs disappeared in the last extinction period, about 66 million years ago.

But this Sixth Extinction is unique. Since the last extinction there have been many warming and cooling periods. But for the first time in Earth’s history the actions of one species is accelerating the warming period we are in right now. That rate of warming is going at an incredibly fast speed, unlike most other extinctions that took thousands of years.

The reality? Insects and rats might survive this Sixth Extinction. Even if we made drastic changes instantly, we will never return to the Earth we used to have–we’ve put too much carbon into the atmosphere.

So what? So what does a few hundred years matter to us? We won’t be around. The reality is that we are already being affected–increasing wildfires, severe flooding, atypical storm systems, rising sea water, all signs of climate change. As much as some leaders can claim that the changes we need to make are too expensive (and they ARE expensive), we are already paying a high price in damages. The costs ahead of us, however, will be much higher.

I’m always an optimist. We are the first generation to understand climate change and recognize it as a fact, even though scientists have warned us for many years. More and more people are becoming informed and concerned. We have an incredible opportunity to make changes that, if they do not solve the problem, at least give scientists and specialists a little more time to develop a miracle–and that’s been done before.

Some scientists see a “perfect storm” of new laws at some local, state, national and international levels right now. The Paris Climate Accord, signed by every nation in the world, is historic! All the countries in the world recognize the problem and know that action needs to be taken.

We all know what needs to be done. It’s just a matter of re-committing ourselves–recycling, buying less plastic, using resources sparingly, using clean energy, living more simply. No, those small actions are not enough, but they serve as a visual, concrete reminder to us and our neighbors of the bigger steps our country and the world need to take.

The greater steps? We need to DEMAND that our local state, and federal governments clean up their acts. We demand by writing postcards, making phone calls, attending legislative meetings, marching, and joining groups to gain more power. We support organizations that are actively working to effect change, especially at the legislative level.

Seeing us taking these actions will also give our children and grandchildren hope instead of cynicism. We don’t have the leisure to “let someone else deal with it.” We don’t have the leisure to wait until the spirit moves us.

I loved the sign that appeared in a recent march. It said something like this, “No one’s going to blame you for not doing anything to stop global warming. Except your children and grandchildren.”

A Child’s Earth

Toshiba Digital Camera

She just turned two. When she wants her grandpa’s attention, she trots over and stands beside him at his computer. She doesn’t say anything. She stands there ever so quietly until he notices her. Who could resist such adorable sweetness? Grandpa might ignore a child tugging at his sleeve or whining (for awhile), but this is irresistible. She’s only two, but she knows what gets results.

Kids are so smart. They notice. They see. When my son was seven or eight, back in the ’80’s during the arms buildup, I noticed him stretched out on the living room floor, studying the “Ground Zero” map on the front page of our local paper. He could tell that since we lived only a few miles from a base where nuclear warheads were stored that we were a target on Russian military maps.

About the same time, a friend told me that his young son was having nightmares about nuclear attacks. That child knew the possibilities. He understood the potential.

I remembered these incidents when I heard a young boy’s response to someone asking why he was walking in the big march last month. “Because of global warming,” he said. Our national leaders may choose to ignore it, but the children understand what’s happening.

I don’t remember how we discussed that bulls-eye newspaper map. I do remember reading a psychiatrist’s suggestions for how to deal with children’s fear of nuclear war. Children who see the “big people” in their immediate lives (parents, grandparents, etc.) actively DOING something to make a difference (not just talking about it) experience a sense of reassurance. They sense that their parents care about what they care about and are acting to change it.

Global warming is scary even for adults. Kids are smart. They’re aware of news coverage and conversation–melting glaciers, fires in tinder-dry areas, more erratic weather and storms, polar bears trapped on melting ice floes, rising waters, the “hottest year on record” reports, and, yes, even the disappearing sea stars I wrote about last month. If they see us acting to try to keep the world safer and healthier, they absolutely will notice. They’re smart.

We don’t have to lie down on the railroad tracks to block a coal train. We don’t even have to march in a parade. We can call or write postcards to legislators about maintaining international climate change agreements, make some small changes in our own energy consumption, or join a local group trying to preserve some wild spaces. The earth needs those big expanses of wild areas for the health of its atmosphere. If the children can be involved somehow, even better yet.

And then, support some environmental organizations that are working on a national scale to bring much larger and more urgent change. Some of my favorites that are very reputable are Union of Concerned Scientists (factual, no nonsense, research-based), Earthjustice (“because the Earth needs a good lawyer,” highly rated), Sierra Club (becoming more political, lobbies politicians), Nature Conservancy, and Natural Resources Defense Council. Not everyone is comfortable with Greenpeace. They are aggressive and confrontational because they recognize the urgency of the situation.

Read more about these groups and others online. You can check a site like Charity Navigator to verify that the money you send is being used well.

And by starting to act yourself on behalf of the child in your life, a remarkable thing will happen. Not only will that child experience a sense of hope and reassurance, but you will, too.

Toshiba Digital Camera

“There is nothing more difficult, yet more gratifying in our society than living with sincere, active, constructive hope for the human spirit.” –Maria Popova

Dead Zones (revisited, revised for this month of change, November, 2016)

His back ached and he could still taste grit between his teeth, but as he rocked in the porch swing at the end of the day and looked out over the land, he could see it going on for years and years. His children and their children would continue to grow the small herd of beef cattle and the vegetable crops for the local market. Perhaps they could pick up that piece just west of them and expand their holdings.

He didn’t know about dead zones.

The years passed, and he passed, too. His children went to war and wandered to the cities. The land was divided and sold. The years passed and the land was divided again and sold. And then again.

And when my friend Connie and her husband bought one of those much smaller pieces, just a fraction of the farmer’s, they hauled in rich topsoil all around the house. They set about developing beautiful gardens–a small orchard down near the road, raised vegetable beds behind the house, flowers for every season surrounding it, and a lush carpet of lawn in front.

Connie doesn’t have a green thumb–she has ten green fingers. Past president of the garden club, she can grow anything.

Almost anything. Connie didn’t know about the dead zone.

She planted a plum tree by the side of the house that had a great southern exposure. It died. She pulled it out and planted another fruit tree nearby. It died also.

In frustration she finally contacted the county extension office. They weren’t surprised at her question. They’d heard this complaint before. Many years ago, farmers often kept one area, perhaps a corner, away from the house and their animals, as a dumping ground for any chemicals, old fertilizers, or poisons. This, a dead zone, passes on and on for generations.

Dead zones also exist in the oceans, areas where the oxygen concentration is so low that animals can’t live there. These areas can occur naturally, but human activity can also create or enhance them. Excess fertilizer runs off the land (hence the concern about septic tanks or farm animals close to streams, rivers and salt water) and then into the sea. Those nutrients promote algae growth. As that algae decomposes, the process consumes the oxygen in the water that’s necessary for marine life.

Connie’s farmer had neglected to visualize that division of his land, the population growth, the loss of the farm. He didn’t know that what he was doing would continue to contaminate the soil for generations after he was gone. Connie dealt with her dead zone by planting grass whose shallow roots didn’t run beneath the rich topsoil. She calls it the “Dead Zone.”

Today we know about the dead zones, in the water and on the land. We know that whatever we spray or sprinkle on our little patches of ground will stay there. We know the lawn chemicals won’t magically evaporate or sink into nothingness, in spite of what the manufacturers claim. They accumulate over the years, over the generations.

Today we know that the over-emittance of greenhouse gases is contributing to the increase of Earth’s temperatures at an alarming rate. Scientists have warned us about this for years. We’ve resisted their warnings for a long time. Now we’re beginning to feel it in the changing weather patterns. We can no longer claim ignorance.

Today we know that if we don’t make significant changes in the way we live, we will be producing more dead zones all over the world.

We know all about the dead zones. What will our grandchildren and their children inherit?

We know better.