“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.” — Henry David Thoreau
Today is a beautiful sunny winter day in Mendocino. The town is full of tourists and locals, college kids are home for the holidays, the pace of life has slowed since the coming and going of the annual frenzy known as Christmas, and if I didn’t know what I know about human-driven climate change, and if we hadn’t just returned from visiting Marcia’s mother in Santa Rosa, I would be tempted to say all is right with the world.
But we did go to Santa Rosa, and that once bucolic town is now a sprawling mess of roads and housing developments and malls and a permanent kind of frenzy gripping the populous—a frenzy born of out-of-control growth with no real care for the future. And in that way, Santa Rosa is a microcosm of what humans have done and are doing to the entire planet.
We made it back to the hinterlands safely, and the first article I read upon our return was about the incredibly high temperatures being recorded right now in the Arctic, temperatures some fifty degrees higher than what used to be called normal, temperatures approaching thirty-two degrees—the melting point. Climate scientists are debating the ramifications of this fantastic temperature increase, but there is wide agreement that such elevated arctic temperatures in the depths of winter do not bode well for the global climate picture and are probably the cause of the current ferocious cold weather in the lower northern hemisphere.
On our way home from Santa Rosa, we passed the rail station in Cloverdale that was built several years ago for the train that was supposed to run from the Bay Area to Cloverdale, but the project has never been completed because…
Well, in general terms, the train does not go to Cloverdale because mass transit is still not a priority for most people in California, and therefore is not a priority for most politicians. How can this be?
I like to imagine getting on the train in Cloverdale and chugging down the tracks to Larkspur, walking onto the ferry, sailing across the bay, lunching in Chinatown, spending the night with friends, and sailing and training home a day or so later. That will almost surely not happen in my lifetime, though such travel is the norm in most countries in Europe, and has been the norm for several generations.
Which is all to say, I have a case of what I call earth sorrow today, a sadness that colors everything I do, knowing I am a member of a species that might have avoided our demise had we collectively chosen to do things for the greater good and not for individual short term gain.
When I share my earth sorrow with friends, I get varying advice about how to cope. One friend points out that since there is nothing I can do to reverse the forces already set in motion, I should learn to accept the ruination of the biosphere as I come to accept my own inevitable death.
Another friend suggests that this global crisis is a necessary passage for our species to navigate if we are to ever take the next step of living in balance with nature on earth. If we can’t figure out a way to successfully take that step, we will go the way of the dodo. So be it.
Another friend avers that the history of life on earth is the history of species coming into being and going out of being. Some organisms have been around for hundreds of millions of years, but most don’t last so long. Tigers, for instance, have been around for about three million years and are soon to be extinct. That human beings might have made other collective choices and did not make those choices is simply a matter of the nature of our species—not something to be mourned, but understood and accepted.
These suggestions help me intellectually, but my sorrow remains, especially because there are human societies outside of the United States where people are making enormous strides reducing greenhouse gas emissions, generating most of their energy without burning fossil fuels, riding trains and buses instead of cars, sharing the wealth, and so forth.
The other source of my sorrow comes from being awakened fifty years ago to the environmental, financial, and social problems we’re dealing with today. These problems and solutions have been known, and well known, for virtually my entire life, yet despite the best efforts of many people over those fifty years, the solutions have not been largely ignored and the problems made worse.
We can blame the corporations and our government, but that, for me, is to blame people we elect and do business with as the causes of our problems. I am more comfortable, rightly or wrongly, blaming our lack of imagination for the mess we’re in, and a lack of imagination may simply be a limitation of our species.
Countless studies have shown that our brains and nervous systems and senses have evolved to support our living and surviving in the present moment, reacting to our immediate circumstances with little concern for what happened a week ago or what might happen a year from now. Yet concern about the long-term consequences of our actions seems to be something all long-lived indigenous societies had as an integral part of their social and spiritual systems, a concern for the future developed over thousands of years of experience. i.e. You don’t shoot all the deer around here or there won’t be any deer for the next generation to shoot. That kind of thing.
But nowadays everything is measured by the split second, not by the decade or the century. And maybe that is the source of my sorrow: things go way too fast now for the likes of me.
(Todd Walton’s website is UnderTheTableBooks.com)