Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Exploring the Future, Together (Another Climate Rant)

The rain finally came last Tuesday night. I'd been in Wisconsin for nearly a month and we'd gotten a grand total of one solid downpour. Needless to say, I had high hopes for this one, and not just because the shower in our bathroom was mid-replacement and I was still a bit ripe with sweat from frisbee practice.

But the spurt barely lasted long enough for me to get my hair soaked on the balcony. Another quick tease of sprinkles came early Wednesday morning and that was all. Then back to the usual: grass getting browner, daylight getting scarcer, and nary a day with over a 40 percent chance of rain in the extended forecast.

Now, granted, there's a good chance I'm over-dramatizing. I'm no expert on historical rainfall patterns in Wisconsin and at least the temperature has started dropping, bringing the glorious early fall combination of cool air and warm sun. After I wrote the above paragraphs, a real lasting rain did finally come over the weekend. Still, it's been awfully dry since I got here and I now live much nearer to that part of the country destined toward desertification if the planet continues to warm at anything close to its current rate. So if that's enough to get me writing about climate change again, I'll go with it.

Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mich.
First, the quick life update: I moved in with some college friends in Madison last month, bought a bike, joined a frisbee team, and have been trying – and largely failing – to write on a regular basis. I'm interviewing for a job as a technical writer with Epic Systems, a big healthcare software company where some of my friends work, and if I get an offer I'll probably take it. The prospect of living here among great friends with a steady position that at least includes the word “writer” in its title is an appealing one. Two weekends ago, two buddies and I drove north to Michigan's Upper Peninsula for a few days of backpacking along the Lake Superior shoreline (more on that later). Last weekend, it was up to Minnesota for an ultimate tournament. It's adventures like these that make me pretty happy about where I am.

But it's time to break out of my own bubble. The days surrounding September 11, if any, are days for bigger thoughts. I'm 24 years old and it has been 12 years since the terrorist attacks of 2001. That means just under half of my life has been spent post-9/11. Many of the views I have come to hold in regards to that day are summed up by Wendell Berry in his uncompromising essay “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear.” That his words are just as poignant today, with another mass shooting plastering the news and our leaders weighing the costs of military action in Syria, speaks volumes to how far we still stand from a “peaceable economy.”

What has changed since 9/11, as my generation and I have gone from wide-eyed dependents to inheritors of the burden, is the immediacy of our need for change. So I return to our shifting climate, the challenge that will inevitably define my adulthood. From Katrina to Sandy to last week's historic flooding in Colorado, we've seen our weather systems grow increasingly unpredictable and extreme. If you believe in science, this is only the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

Upon considering the weight of it all, it's easy to fall into defeatism. We're so far from where we need to be with so little time to make huge changes. Inevitably, we'll wait until the beast has already broken down the front door and started shattering the family heirlooms before we get serious about saving our home. In short, we're fucked, right? Might as well enjoy a semblance of comfort and normalcy while it lasts.

What an easy backslide to make, like when I sleep until nine or ten on an unplanned morning instead of getting up early to run or write.

Thanks in no small part to my privileged and protected upbringing, I've always considered myself an optimist, a person with deep faith in fellow humans and the long-term benevolence of God, the Mystery, Life, call it what you will. When I let the magnitude of the climate crisis sink in, it tests my optimism more than any of the other daily injustices happening in our ever-imperfect society.

The same science that is spelling our doom, however, also tells us this: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If this is universal law, can we not apply it to the arc of human history? For all of our destructive potential, is there not an equal and opposite capacity for stewardship and compassion? For all of the damage our techno-industrial society has wrought, does it not have an equal ability to save?

Consider the massive changes technology has brought to human life in the last 50 years. Then consider the exponential rate at which major advances are occurring. For better, or for worse, the future is wide open, wider than ever before. What a frightening and inspiring hand we have been dealt.

Another piece from the consistently excellent Orion magazine that has held my attention recently is Kathleen Dean Moore and Scott Slovic's resonant (if a bit lofty) “7 Ways to Write the Future.” What if everyone, not just writers, bought in – even marginally – to the view that “some kinds of writing are morally impossible in a state of emergency.” Imagine the progress if all sectors of society actually treated this as just that: a state of emergency. How many more biblical floods will it take for us to adopt policies with the urgency of wartime rationing, the kind that encouraged “Meatless Mondays” during the first World War and a national speed limit of 35 mph during the second?

I'll go ahead and say chances are high that the fight against climate change will never come close to resembling a military war. It's just too intangible for too many to elicit widespread anxiety and ensuing action. As the admirable (and not just for his beard) David Roberts of Grist concludes in a recent discussion of carbon targets and taxes, “it’s going to be a long slog, through our lives and our children’s lives, pushing and pulling and scrabbling together a patchwork of policies.”

All aboard, then. Some of us will be tireless door-knockers and phone-callers, champions of the front line. Some will be their voices, writers who will hopefully seek not only to renew the spirits of their fellow activists but also to reach across the aisle with reason and respect. Some will be the teachers, fighting to lift up a new generation of humbler stewards in the age of instant information and entertainment. Some will simply be parents who raise their children to live simply and responsibly.

The important thing is not how we contribute. It's simply that we contribute, more and more of us every day. Climate change isn't going away. It's time to find each of our proper strides and settle into the long, hard climb.

Meanwhile, for all of the trudging, we can't forget to admire the scenery. Edward Abbey said it best in “Joy, Shipmates, Joy," his 1976 speech to environmentalists: “It's not enough to fight for the land; it's even more important to enjoy it while you can.” We must not only find more ways to use technology responsibly, but we must find more time to spend outdoors, breathing fresh air and leaving technology behind. For it is there that we gather the fuel to climb on while also living the example which we must set of a more grounded, peaceable life.

On that note, I'll close with some words from my recent trip up to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.


From Au Sable East Campsite
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, Mich.
September 9, 2013

The seasons are starting to change in the North Country. This morning, our third and final one of the trip, has arrived gray and breezy, with the nip of autumn on the air. I can see the remnants of sunrise color on the horizon as I look out from the remains of last night's campfire, past birch, maple, white pine and hemlock to the lake. And what a lake it is – Superior. Gichigami, or the Big Water, to the Ojibwa. We've been hiking northeast through the park with the lake steadfast on our left the past two days. On Saturday we left the auto-tourists behind, hiking through ethereal fog much of the afternoon, the hardwood forest closed around us on three sides in a dozen electric shades of green, the lake a mystical wall of white mist, like a blank canvas for our imaginations.

Cambrian sandstone over Lake Superior
It finally revealed itself that evening as we hiked through the final hours of daylight, along with its magnificent shoreline that has merited national protection. The forest reigns straight and thick to the edge of sandstone cliffs, birches hanging precipitously over a 30-, 40-, 60-foot drop to the turquoise water below. And in between trees and lake is the art of geology, the craftwork of the millennia that give this park its name – streaks and swirls of mineral color, weathered-out arches, spires, and overhangs. Incredible, glorious variety.


It's amazing, really, for all the doomsday talk we spew, how many enchanting wild places still remain right in our home regions. I'm giddy to explore some new ones up here in the Northwoods. It may not always be as dramatic as the West, but it's just as refreshing.

Yet when I send my thoughts back to a trip, a place, hindsight often tinges them with melancholy. Inevitably, at some point, I wonder how it will have changed if I ever return. If I bring my kids in 20 years, will there remain the same wondrous diversity of trees, ferns, spiders? Will the morning breeze still carry the chill of fall in early September? What about for my grandkids in 60 years?

Not to be dramatic or anything, but the answer rests in all of our hands. Get out there, shipmates.