The sun was setting, so the light was dim in the woods, but I could see his face well enough, especially with the fire so bright in the foreground. Age-wise, I could have been the father to any of them, but I was responsible in that way for only one, and as recall, she was back at the house right then. Most of the rest of us, eight or ten, anyway, made a stereotypical circle around the bonfire, passing my pipe (having just moved to Eugene that very day from the boondocks of northern Mendocino County, I had easily the best dope).
Nate and I stood across the circle from each other and talked of whatever was in the papers that day. The only part of this that sticks much in my memory is that Nate, who I’d met once at my daughter’s house a few months before, worked himself into a considerable fluff over the evident fact that Obama had lied to him and to all of us.
As I spoke the words at the bearded face across the fire, I somehow knew that I was maybe going too far. I asked him how old he was.
“Forty-one,” he answered.
“How,” I asked, sucking hard at the almost-clogged pipe, “did you ever get to be 41 years old and still be surprised when a president lies to you? Have you been living on Mars?” He told me later that if I hadn’t been so old, he’d probably have taken a swing at me. He remembered being pissed, but there I stood. A long time ago, I’d decided that if I could ever make it to 70, I’d be able to get away with almost anything. Past some point, you just seem to be a colorful old fart.
Well, I wasn’t quite there yet, but I was close. But I was also on the far side of a heart attack and I was on the far side of cancer as I bent into the light, cleaning and repacking the pipe as best I could in the half-darkness. This can give certain people something of an attitude. At least it seems to have given one to me.
Try as I may to be a Buddhist, I can’t shake the apparently inevitable perception that I am at the center of my own consciousness. It isn’t much, but it is apparently everything, and it all radiates out from me. Such truths as I can beg, borrow, or steal become mine, but they are only mine, and the same is true, I think, for each and every one of us. As we talk and argue and bounce our ideas off each other, we seem hardwired to do everything we can to make the world out to be the way we need it to be. We act like we think there is some Truth out there that we might all, somehow, agree to. If only you knew what I know, and blah, blah, blah. We give large credence to sometimes ludicrous ‘facts,’ if we have to; it is amazing, the experiences that alien abductees have had, and people have actually taken pictures of the shadowy group that ordered the twin towers to fall. To the last, distracted one of them, astrologers seem unable to wrap their beings around the fact that the universe and the stars are not, in the end, about them. A popular saying has it that if your only tool is a hammer, you’ll look at every problem as though it’s a nail. Indeed.
To ignore, or even to deny what looms for planet earth, takes a willful and very large hammer. One of the most worrisome aspects of our present situation is that the people who know the most about it — the atmospheric chemists, the paleoclimatologists, the oceanographers, the glaciologists — are clearly the most afraid. Most of these folks speak of real catastrophe by the time our great-grandchildren are our age, a slowly unfolding cascade of dysfunctions multiplying over the decades until there is the very real possibility that there’ll be relatively few of us left, and those most likely to be in pockets tending toward the poles. Our Chevrolets won’t even go there. Not the least of the disturbing insights, for humans, is that this is likely not unmitigated bad news.
A startling number of otherwise sane and sober people adopt a tone and attitude about the news of unfolding disaster which manages to suggest airy superiority, the same sort of self-congratulatory, above-it-all certainty which so often comes with the territory to the expensively educated. We also hear it regularly from our favorite conspiracy theorist or new-Age guru. They are somehow above it all, and clearly, just like Dr. Science, they know more than we do.
To give these fools any credence at all seems a matter more of style than of logic. Many of us getting by now a bit long in the tooth (I graduated from high school in 1961) are, for example, fairly gone into cynicism by this point. Many of us hardly trust anyone anymore, and those in power the least. It is easy for a person in this shape to dismiss science as just one of many ways of looking at the world, no more likely to yield insights into the heart of it all than the babblings of some anonymous Mayan astrologer or the barefoot purveyor of sacred crystals in front of a Mexican restaurant in downtown Willits.
Many people who, on the evidence, should know better fairly bask in the radiance of their superior knowledge, casting as innocent boobs those naïve enough to believe the peer-reviewed science. After all, the real movers and shakers among us have taught us all our lives to ignore authority, eh? Somehow, this becomes a mark of their truer insight. To me — to a middle-class white guy who used to be a teacher, to an ex-English major — this behavior oozes from some dark and pestilent place like some evil being more redolent of the Creature from the Black Lagoon than of the voice of reason and objectivity. They are Karl Rove with a corkscrew in his hand and a smirk on his face as he stares at your belt buckle, motioning for you to follow him, Dick Cheney with a shotgun, your ex-wife calling with *that* tone in her voice, your cat vomiting a hairball.
Ed Abbey observed long ago that the only thing the otherwise attractive and compelling notion of karma has against it is that there exists not a shred of real evidence to support its truth. Yeah, I know, ‘real evidence’ and blah blah blah… Should karma truly operate in the face of all evidence to the contrary, these folks will one day be held accountable for their crimes against humanity. The language here is used advisedly and it is accurate. Whether in individual cases their purpose is to make unclear what is clear by suggesting that there is real controversy among real scientists, or whether it is simply to puff themselves up with loving self-importance, deniers of anthropogenic global warming are asking the rest of us not only to ignore the evidence of our senses but also to ignore the nearly unanimous opinions of those in the best positions to study this aspect of the future.
When CNN quotes some hack who is funded largely by ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute as the ‘fair and balanced’ counterweight to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, they are doing a great disservice by implying responsible controversy where there is none; when the Weather Channel fails to point out the obvious link between more dangerous forest fires in the southwest and exactly what is predicted by the science of climate change, they commit a similar disservice. The obfuscators have done an admirable job here: reasonable people — people who rely increasingly on what they are told by talking heads on their television or on the internet — increasingly dismiss talk of climate change as something they don’t have to worry much about yet. Just pass the grilled oysters and a Red Tail, eh?
Various commentators have tried to happy-face the recent Copenhagen Conference on Climate Change, and bless them for trying, but the plain fact is that the time for talk and persuasion has probably already passed. As our ‘leaders’ blame one another and jet around the world explaining themselves, billions of tons of greenhouse gasses further commit us to the science fair experiment which has become our lives. Following their lead, we — some of us — talk a good game, but we — most of us — continue to drive and fly and buy thoughtlessly, as though it’s somebody else who’s causing all the problems here.
Responsible climatology firmly identifies doing nothing as the worst conceivable course of action, as the most utterly senseless thing to ‘do,’ if you will. Talking a good game, in this context, clearly counts as doing nothing. Most models suggest that this will lock us into about a two-degree Celsius (3.6F) increase in average worldwide temperature by the time our grandchildren near the ends of their lives. So, how’s this likely to look?
The computer modeling unanimously predicts rising sea levels, but differs widely as to how much, depending mostly on how much of the ice cover of both Greenland and Antarctica melts. The most conservative estimates doom some sparsely populated Pacific and Indian Ocean islands, mostly from the fact that warming water expands; the most dire portend the end of Miami and London and most of Bangladesh. Whatever the height of the seas, they will be more, perhaps much more, acidic. About half of the carbon dioxide that comes out of your tailpipe as you drive down to the store ends up in the ocean, and it’s inexorably lowering seawater’s pH, making it more acid as we drive. As the water’s pH drops, coral reefs are stressed and die worldwide, and with them go thousands of species.
Although the rise in temperature has so far been modest, its early effects have been dramatic. Further increases may at best be linear, so it’s not hard to see what a few more degrees will do. Rising average temperatures will likely bring droughts — mega-droughts — to California and to most of the southwest US; already, the mountain snow-packs show long-term shrinkage, which will likely intensify. As the snowpack shrinks in the high mountains, so too does the water supply down in the valleys where the food is grown. What happens when the snowpack is gone is likely to be apocalyptic. At least it will do little for real estate values in Phoenix or Los Angeles or Sacramento, and it is likely that coastal Peru and Ecuador .and Bolivia will be well on their separate ways to being uninhabitable due to the disappearance of their water sources in a warning world. Fires will increase in both numbers and intensity. Worldwide, people whose homes become unlivable will of necessity be on the move toward places where it seems safer. Even so conservative a body as the US Defense Department is beginning to wake up to the likely security challenges here. Sometime between now and the end of the century, we are likely to run out of oil, at least oil we can afford.
Perhaps God will look kindly on us and save us all with a technological fix. Perhaps God will snap his (or her) fingers and make it all better. Perhaps.