Warming Up To The Topic
The irony of global warming is that it enters the consciousness on a personal level, yet it concerns everyone on the planet. It leaves me in a conundrum about how to talk about it to others. Recently, I was at a workshop at the Solar Living Center in Hopland just south of Ukiah. There amidst the impressive array of solar panels and a windmill turning furiously like an old time airplane propeller, I was learning how to install solar hot water heating. My classmates had flown in from several states to take this week long series of workshops. One was from Miami. "So are people attributing the hurricanes to global warming?" I asked him. "Oh you cannot really tell something like that unless you have 300 years of data," he said, "there are always periods of severe weather patterns." I dropped it. If the possibility was not apparent to someone who had flown all the way from Florida to take classes in alternative energy at the Solar Living Center, I was at a loss.
Global warming is one of those topics not discussed much on a national level. Take our news media. One mention of global warming having anything to do with unusual weather and they receive a barrage of phone calls from the coal and oil lobbyists disputing the association and threatening the station with the loss of lucrative auto and oil industry advertising. MSNBC did get close the other night when a meteorologist explained how hurricanes are created because of warm water in the frigid North Atlantic. Nothing was said about why the water was warm and when asked directly she said more studies had to be done before global warming could be attributed to the hurricanes. The reporter smiled and ended the interview as if they had done their bit. It was almost tongue in cheek.
My partner and I were already believers. About five years ago on late night TV, we caught the end of a report from Greenpeace. They were showing footage of a polar bear swimming in the ocean. It was emaciated, probably sick, most certainly starving to death. The narrator explained that the ice had melted so much that polar bears were having to swim longer and longer distances to find food and there were fewer ice floes on which to rest. There was nothing they could do for the bear except to witness it's plight said the narrator. And so we did. We could not change channels. We were glued to the plight of this bear, watching helplessly along with the Greenpeace crew. The starving bear swimming beyond its endurance changed us. It struck deep to a place of great sadness and in turn to outrage at our human arrogance.
The Greenpeace report did not mention global warming. It didn't have to. We had grown up with polluted skies, understood the impact of cars on our lives and our cities - Bangkok for me, L.A. for my partner. It was not so far fetched that we could be warming the whole planet with this blanket of smog. The ozone hole was a more preposterous story, yet there was relatively little argument about its validity. And when scientist pointed out the link between the ozone hole and CFCs, industry had taken measures to correct our use of ozone destroying chemicals. Why not for global warming too?
Well, business interests mainly. Fossil fuel companies said it would cost too much to curb emissions and went out of their way to attack the science of global warming as did the Bush administration. Bush reneged on his campaign promise to cap emissions from coal-powered plants while his subsequent energy plan called for the construction of lots more emission spewing power plants. The administration even went so far as to remove all references to the dangerous impacts of climate change in the EPA report on climate. What global warming?
The footage of the polar bear had made it real for us. The bear had became our brother. It was a relationship we bore largely in silence. We had close friends who drove a Ford Explorer, but we could not bring ourselves to question their decision to buy it. It was not supposed to be our business. We lived in a culture that believed in personal freedom largely characterized by lifestyle choices. "The American lifestyle is not negotiable," said the first Bush. It was our right to spew emissions.
Recently, my partner went out to buy Robert Kennedy Jr.'s book Crimes Against Nature and came back with Boiling Point by Ross Gelbspan, a journalist who did not at first believe there was any urgency regarding the climate change debate. In this short plain speaking book there was left no doubt.
I read it first. Interspersed through the book were scenarios from conditions around the world. These changes in the climate read like a list of plagues, seven of them. How biblical. There was the plague of mosquitos. Mosquitos love warmer weather thus our outbreak of West Nile disease. There was the flooding of entire islands resulting in the permanent evacuation of indigenous tribes to New Zealand. Animals were migrating en masse and the ecology of the warming ocean was changing dramatically. There was the beginnings of the ocean currents slowing down and threatening the freezing of New York City just like in the movie. It wouldn't take four days, but it might only take four years. Crop failure, wild weather and fires were also on the increase.
As I read, the picture grew more grim. "We're fucked," I kept thinking. If this was happening now we're fucked. We hadn't noticed the warming that much because it was mostly happening in the ocean. But the more the polar ice melted, the quicker it would go because we would no longer have that great expanse of whiteness to reflect the heat of the sun. And as trees died of pests fostered by warmer conditions, they would no longer absorb the carbon dioxide they did. They would be fire prone, the smoke adding to the greenhouse effect. Thus each new condition further created more leverage to warm the earth. The speed at which things could go was beginning to manifest. No longer was this a matter of our legacy, but of our lifetime.
I was depressed for three days. I felt like I'd just been given a diagnosis for cancer, the fatal kind. "I shall have to go to grief counseling," I told my friends. They thought I was kidding, but that's how I felt. That I was saying good-bye to every natural beauty that I had known and much that I had never seen. I felt a sudden urgency to inventory everything before it was gone. I took pictures of the majestic tree outside my bedroom window at my Bangkok home. I looked at magazines of wild places with new appreciation.
My partner did not have such a bleak reaction. The book also spoke of solutions. "We just have to cut back emissions," she said. She who had already ordered her Prius and even broached the topic with our Ford Explorer friends. I did not have quite the optimism for so huge a task. It was not within my power to cut world emissions by 70%. I was not going to be on the right side of global warming, no matter how much I rode my bike. The impact of climate change was already inevitable.
I comforted myself by greeting each new day with appreciation for the world we lived in, its beauty and serenity, its diversity and spaciousness. Gratitude had gotten me through times of uncertainty before. And gratitude in the face of uncertainty had a way of reframing the future into one with the possibility of positive change. It was as if I had had a satisfying meal and could now look forward to dessert.
Dessert came in the form of others who thought the topic was worth discussing. When Business Week came out with a cover story called "Global Warming: Why Business is Taking It So Seriously?", I jumped on it. The article confirmed the same information as Boiling Point while dialing in the response of the business community. So they did care especially insurance companies. The giant insurance company Swiss Re was pressuring their clients to either reduce emissions and develop new technologies or risk loosing their liability insurance. Eighty percent of CEO's considered global warming to be serious, but only 40% were actually doing anything about it. Well, heck 40% was pretty high and if 80% were apprised of the situation that was almost unanimous for a community bent on the bottom line.
Still scientists wondered why the world, especially the U.S., wasn't moving faster given the solutions available. "It's not the science and not the economy," said one, "it is the lack of public knowledge, the lack of leadership and the lack of political will." Public knowledge! Well, that was you and me and leadership had lots to do with the public too and political will was the first plus the second so that's us too. But what could we really do?
In my sustainable living discussion group, at one of the first meetings, someone gave us this quote from an activist, "optimism is the only option." I had often been accused of being an optimist in the sense that to be one was to live in a fantasy world, not quite able to accept reality. But optimism as an option implied a choice and a choice implied conscious will which in turn implied that one was awake to reality however bad. To be an optimist in such conditions required nerve.
I chose to immerse myself in solutions thus my appearance at the Solar Living Center. I wanted to be in the presence of people who were living alternative ideas like the energetic woman who constructed onsite wetlands for treating wastewater and was doing so for wineries in Napa. I wanted my brain to believe that off the grid alternatives were possible, were being implemented. And having experienced the solution, my mind would be immunized against naysayers and my own doubts would be pushed aside. I would be a carrier, my brain a specimen case for ideas. If we were going to manifest political will, we first had to embody solutions.
Some would still call me an optimist. I didn't care because now I was a conscious optimist. I would practice extreme optimism. The bungee jumping of optimism, the despair defying, full-on embracing of real, dig-in-the-dirt solutions. The extreme makeover of optimism. We are interconnected. If I could fully embrace a solution I could pass that energy on to the next person. After all I might be the 99th monkey.
September 27th, 2004