I have an enormous capacity to suspend disbelief, especially while reading. As long as poor writing doesn’t jolt me out of my mesmerized state, I happily follow along. This allows me to enjoy a cozy mystery or a romance novel or fiction dipped in magical realism. But it is not useful when reading a newspaper article.
This morning’s Washington Post article “Why you should almost always wash your clothes on cold” had me nodding along, all in. Oh, yes! Cold water is good for everything. Powdered laundry detergent only! No dryer sheets!
Luckily, there’s a comment section below the article where other readers snap me back into the bigger picture. Thank you FishyBulb for reminding me that my carbon footprint is nothing compared to the 80-90% of CO2 emissions from energy production, industry/agribusiness, transportation, and building. “You could disappear every house in the country and we’d still have 90% of the problem,” FishyBulb writes.
Yes, I can slow the spinning dial on my electric meter, save wear and tear on my clothes, etc., following suggestions from the WaPo article, but, as the book The Big Fix explains, “the world will not be saved by conscientious green consumers.” The climate change problem is too big for that.
The Big Fix outlines the cause of the problem and instructions for green citizens. “We need to focus, together, on a relatively small number of public policies that can, over time, bring about sweeping change.”
Little changes—like hanging our laundry out to dry—are helpful, but the emphasis on our individual carbon footprints encourages us to feel smug about those sheets flapping in the breeze while distracting us from our primary responsibility to push for substantial changes. (FishyBulb says the carbon footprint concept is marketing from polluter BP to absolve themselves from responsibility.)
I hoped The Big Fix would provide an alternative to wallowing in despair. And it does. The authors explain our climate change problem and offer instructions for us citizens to meaningfully address that problem.
One of my actions: A letter to our county officials that explains my husband’s plan for efficient operation of our trash collection behemoths. Adoption of this plan would mean less noise in the neighborhood, less maintenance on the trucks, and less air pollution. What he and I might do next depends on what response we get from the county.
A giant bee suspended from the canopy framework drew me into a booth at the botanical center’s plant sale. Inside, I found an education display on pollinators. A young man stepped out of the shade. “Do you have a question for a naturalist?” he asked. He and two other people waited alertly for my reply.
My husband, later, told me I’d missed my cue. According to him, I should have asked, “If you are naturalists, why aren’t you all naked?” It’s probably for the best that I missed that cue.
But I did have a question. “Why is it legal for my neighbor to use poison on her property?” The young man kind of sputtered. Then he said he had an answer to that question but it would be better if he didn’t give it.* (Kind of like me dropping my cue.) The woman beside him told us about a friend of hers whose neighbor sprayed poison on the perimeter of his property and killed her friend’s plants.
The young man began explaining how my beautiful lawn, maintained with safe practices, could set the example for my neighbors. I explained that my lawn wasn’t beautiful to anyone but a rabbit because of all the weeds and clover. This response seemed to make him happy. (My yard undoubtedly makes my house-proud neighbor unhappy. Hers is the ideal smooth, even green. Obviously, we have different ideals, at least where lawns are concerned.)
Then I asked the naturalists about my still dormant passion flower vine and they reminded me it’s still early in the season and I shouldn’t give up hope. They gave me a detailed pamphlet on native and invasive plants and I continued among the other booths looking for heritage tomatoes.
My neighbor with the immaculate lawn employs a mosquito control service to fumigate “her” portion of the outdoors. Not infrequently during the warm season, Other neighbors are out with their own personal tank of poison slung over a shoulder, aiming a spray nozzle at driveway cracks or fence perimeters.
So far this year we see only two bats fluttering among the trees at dusk. Fifteen years ago we could count ten. I have read that birds who also catch their suppers on the fly have decreased populations. Fewer insects means fewer meals.
We humans claim to value intelligence but we only value our own. We ignore the conversation of the trees and the communications of the whales. Because we set ourselves outside and above the underlying intelligence, the web of all life, we have only recently begun to see other forms of intelligence. Those populations may well disappear before we ever get a true sense of their extent or qualities. We go about wrecking the environment as if we don’t live here, too.
The tragic part for us humans is that the environment we have constructed for ourselves isn’t even good for us. It’s an economic system which evolved to feed the bloated demands of profit and power. It tramples on the souls of the people who live under it. Toxic food, bad air, polluted water and stress. Money thrives. People and their communities, not necessarily.
There are environmental extremists who view humanity as an evolutionary experiment that failed. These environmentalists look forward to the days when a plague cleanses us humans from the face of the earth so Eden can rise again, a phoenix from the crematorium ashes. Oh! How the beetles and birds and baboons will frolic without the contamination of human kind! Things will be perfect again without us.
In that scenario, my neighbors would no longer spray herbicides around willy-nilly and I wouldn’t be heating my house with fuel oil or polluting the air with my car.
True, the human quest for total world domination is literally killing all of us (except maybe cockroaches), I’d prefer a solution that doesn’t depend on our extermination from it. Other inhabitants of this planet are known to modify their immediate environments to live here. They tunnel, they forage, they eat each other, etc. Other animals also extract and exploit. There are even other species that, left to themselves, run amuk.
If we were half as intelligent as we think we are, we’d learn from our mistakes. Instead, we are inflexible and self-justifying. In other words, not as adaptable as a cockroach.
And, of course, that “we” is a concept that has glaring inaccuracies. “We” can all be wiped out by a pandemic because we are basically physically alike. But “we” don’t all think alike. “We” don’t all share the same level of suffering from the toxicity “we” create or the same (relatively) short-term benefits “we” gain from exploitation of the natural world and each other.
One does not need to contrast indiginous peoples in the Amazon with the Board of Directors of the World Bank to illustrate this point. Right here in Virginia people are sitting in trees to block pipeline crews with chainsaws. The pipelines would transport fracked oil across the state to the seaport for export, wrecking havoc on the landscape every step of the way — from earthquakes at the drilling site to likely spills on the sea. All for the private profit of an already wealthy “we.” The wealthy “we” write the laws that favor the interests of profit and the wealthy “we” insure that law enforcement protects their interests. The “we” who sit in the trees are not the same subset of “we” who want to build the pipeline.
The love of money may well be the root of all evil but comfort can devolve to decadence and complacency. Otherwise, at this point, “we”, intelligent beings all, should be sitting in trees, literally or figuratively.
Where is your tree?
(*Shouldn’t it be natural for a naturalist to have informed opinions about legislation that affects nature? And to freely share that information at a booth about pollinators? )
A change in the weather, a change in anything, is hard to contain. Like a stack of Pick-up-sticks, pull at one and the whole pile might collapse.
When we first moved into this house, what we most loved was the setting: streets of modest homes shaded by towering oaks and tall pines. Our lot had a big oak in the front yard and a good-sized maple tree shading the side porch. The other three corners at this intersection supported even bigger oaks. Crows congregated on the topmost branches, loudly commenting on current affairs in bird world.
Our backyard, on the other hand, was open and sunny. Perfect for a garden, but only thanks to our next door neighbor who had taken down a big maple shortly before we moved in. Never having been acquainted with that tree, we didn’t mourn it. But we’d hardly unpacked the moving boxes and arranged the furniture before the neighbor across the street took out three massive oaks. That made us sad.
In the fourteen years we’ve been here, storms and tree crews have toppled more of these giants. A small house across the street from us changed hands and the new owner clear cut the front yard. Bye-bye seven pine trees. (The house has since changed hands again but no one has replaced the pines, not even with a pseudo tree like the Bradford pear.)
I mourn the gaps in the canopy where trees once stood: the corner up the street where a county crew cut down an oak so broad the trunk grew into the street; the new house addition that required the death of a magnificent oak tree whose branches shaded two properties; ghostly outlines where storms brought ancient residents crashing down. After each big storm, more of the human residents hire crews with rigging and chain saws to slice up and cart off the giants in their yards.
Our last storm uprooted multiple large oaks. They took down power lines as they thudded to the ground and blocked streets and smashed houses. We lost half our maple tree. It scratched our old car and poked a hole in the porch screen but it missed the power lines. (Dominion Energy regularly and severely trims any branches even remotely threatening the power lines.)
After a storm like that one, a sensible person might seriously consider cutting down any trees within striking distance of his roof. We decided to take our chances, even though we can expect more storms like that, more storms strong enough to pull big oaks up by their roots and lay them out flat on the ground. And more neighbors pre-emptively cutting down trees. The streets will be hotter and brighter every summer. The crows will have to fly further and further between perches.
Tropical storms and hurricanes have become more intense during the past 20 years. Of course, the wind has had help in its destruction. Stronger thunderstorms with heavier rains saturate the ground, making it more likely roots will give way.
So we don’t get to have as many trees all because someone two hundred or so years ago decided to power machines with burning coal. And someone else decided that diesel powered engines were more convenient to rotate carriage wheels than a team of horses. Horseless carriages were such a good idea, in fact, that everyone wanted one and then we needed to pave roads and clear land for big parking lots. “The U.S. is covered in about 4 million miles of roads. And while that’s only a fraction of a percent of the total land area in the lower 48 states, it’s still enough to have a noticeable impact on the environment–from heat islands, to floods, to pollution runoff in nearby waterways.”
Our climate is changing because the earth is warming. People have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the air by 40 percent since the late 1700s. Other heat- trapping greenhouse gases are also increasing. These gases have warmed the surface and lower atmosphere of our planet about one degree during the last 50 years. Evaporation increases as the atmosphere warms, which increases humidity, average rainfall, and the frequency of heavy rainstorms in many places—but contributes to drought in others.
Greenhouse gases are also changing the world’s oceans and ice cover. Carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carbonic acid, so the oceans are becoming more acidic. The surface of the ocean has warmed about one degree during the last 80 years. Warming is causing snow to melt earlier in spring, and mountain glaciers are retreating. Even the great ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica are shrinking. Thus the sea is rising at an increasing rate.
We humans have had a lot of good ideas.
Plastic bottles! Light-weight! Unbreakable! Much better than the old glass bottles you had to return for the deposit. But now plastic bottles are everywhere — in the ditches along the roads, filling up landfills, floating in the ocean. We are drinking micro-plastics with our bottled water (and sometimes tap water) and eating micro-plastics in our sushi. And that wonderful polar fleece made from recycled plastic bottles? Laundering fleece frees micro-plastics.
We have changed so much so fast we can’t even keep track of the changes.
Spraying to kill mosquitoes means the birds and bats have less to eat so we see fewer birds and bats. Large swaths of mono-crops replace cycles of flowering native plants that fed the bees so we have fewer bees.
GMO’s, super refined flour, preservatives in food, factory raised meats, food crops raised on chemically fertilized depleted soil. Sedentary lifestyles of desk jobs, elevators, binge-TV-watching, no fresh air. Isolation from others exacerbated by social media.
What are the unintended consequences?
Does any of this matter? How can we tell? Who gets to decide?
This is all very far from a controlled experiment. Too many things are changing at once. We often can’t predict whether, in the long run, Progress and Improvement are good or bad. What’s coming down the pike? We can make out part of it but the rest is a guess.
My usual stay-at-home garb is paint spattered, ink stained denim. But, a few weeks ago, when I had somewhere to go, I donned a brown skirt and white ribbed sweater and red knee socks festooned with frolicking sock monkeys. I topped off my outfit with red polka-dotted glasses.
I went to a demonstration. No one at this demonstration [For clean water. Why do we need to stand up in favor of clean water? Isn’t this, like, a no brainer?) noticed my sock monkey socks or my polka dotted glasses. Or if they did, they didn’t say anything to me.
But I was amused. And, Lord knows, we can all use a bit of light-hearted nonsense once in a while. Or, in my case, regular doses throughout the day.
Take that demonstration. Listening to heart-broken people describe their homes and bodies poisoned by coal ash pools leaking into the well water — that’s enough to make me cry. And it did.
Corruption is no laugher matter — and there’s so much of it! Is there really more than ever? It seems like it these days. To paraphrase comedian Jonathan Winters’ observation on little green men: “It’s everywhere! It’s everywhere!”
We are drowning in bad news. Venality chokes us, and waves of corruption pound us and toss us up onto cold, gritty sand, disheartened and desolate.* Where can we find the get-up-and-go-and-keep-going to oppose all this vileness? We need energy to stay sharp, to march and demonstrate, to write effective letters, to make phone calls, to organize and publicize, etc. — but are we too demoralized from a daily barrage of awful news to stand up? Flattened by despair, how are we to pick ourselves up get going again?
There’s plenty of advice out there about nurturing mental health: good food and good fellowship; fresh air and exercise; a dog or a cat or a loving spouse; sleep, meditation and music (maybe in reverse order?); gratitude and a sense of community. But following this good advice requires initiative I just may not have when I’m depressed by events in the wider world. And as a person with CFIDS/Fibromyalgia, my tank is never full anyway so I’m easy to knock down.
Levity lightens the gloom! For me, a little bit of silly is not a distraction from the serious side of life, but a figurative Chinese gong reverberating through my body to call me to attention. Ask not for whom the cuckoo bird cuckoos! It cuckoos for thee and for me — to make us look up from the muck at our feet and gaze upon the blue sky. (Here I refer to a real cuckoo clock hanging on my own dining room wall and real muckety-muck bullshit.)
There is also a solar powered crystal rainbow maker in my south facing kitchen window. On a sunny day, I can look up from the headlines on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and find brilliant snippets of color circling the room, a mess of little nudges to remind me to laugh and loosen up.
Somewhere in this house two plastic parakeets are clipped to light fixtures or curtain rods or a chandelier. They move around. The sight of one of these silly lime-green things can be another little reminder not to take life too seriously. Our book shelves support some heavy non-fiction but there’s a joke book on the back of the toilet and happily-ever-after romance novels on my Kindle. I always read the cartoons in the New Yorker before the features and the comics in the Richmond Times-Dispatch before looking at the editorial page. (Some of the letters-to-the-editor are funny if you forget that the writer probably didn’t think so).
Our yard sports a few ridiculous touches, too.
A dose of levity can bring me around. I am serious because a joyful life is worth fighting for and I need to laugh because it’s the only way to stay serious and keep fighting for a joyful life.
Pearl Harbor Day was yesterday. I remembered. And I didn’t fly the flag.
We found a flag holder screwed beside the front door when we moved into this house. We bought a flag, a deluxe, made-in-the-U.S.A. stars-and-stripes. As a Quaker, I chose not to repeat the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, which, when all is said and done, is merely a piece of cloth heavily weighted with symbolism. There are principles above ” my country right or wrong” and one sets those principles aside to pledge allegiance to the flag.
Are you a person who loves your homeland? The trees, the bird singing on the wing, the smell of the air? the swell of the hills and the blue mountains rising behind? the shush of surf? the racket of a city street? Any of these can call up home in the mind’s eye.
On the other hand, a nation state is a political construct. As a powerful symbol, a flag may stand for both and be revered. But, under the same flag in a different year, ordinary citizens might fear the soldiers marching behind it. Any symbol, in the wrong hands, can be used to incite hate and violence.
Yesterday I didn’t hang our flag from the house not because I disrespect the servicemen and civilians who died when the bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. No, that wasn’t it. I didn’t hang the flag because I was briefly overwhelmed by the pattern of what we, as a nation, choose to remember and honor.
Our national holidays — no matter what the original intention in setting aside a particular day — seem to glorify our military and deify our veterans. The “Freedom isn’t free!” chant drowns out any nuance.
We are admonished to remember Pearl harbor. Shouldn’t decency call us to fly our flags half mast from government buildings all across our country on August 6? That’s the day when many peace organizations and religious groups remember Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
We rightfully celebrate the birth of our nation on Independence Day. Maybe we should also recall the (according to some estimates) hundreds of thousands of people who cleared and worked the fields but died of contagious diseases before the Europeans moved in and took over? We celebrate Columbus Day but do we, as a people, recall the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee?
And while we’re at it, let’s revive the real meaning of Labor Day — to honor the struggles and celebrate the achievements of organized labor. Outlawing child labor, securing the right to organize, establishing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and more, were no mean feats and have saved countless lives. People died for these protections. “Freedom is not free.”
Labor Day might also be a day that we, as a nation, lay wreathes at the Tomb of the Unknown Worker in honor of exploited/enslaved labor, those buried beside the railroad tracks they built across the prairie or laid in unmarked graves beside the fields they tended. And those others who built our cities dug our canals, blasted tunnels for our roads, toiled from sun-up to sun-down huddled over sewing machines or looms. Juneteenth, which has been an official national holiday since 1997, could be celebrated by everyone, as it should be.
What about greeting cards for Jan. 31, the day the first Social Security check was issued in 1940? Or ritual toasts on June 29 in appreciation of the national highway system? or maybe toasts of clean, safe water on December 2 to the Environmental Protection Agency? “Freedom is not free!”
Let’s toss out the crass commercializing of every one of our holidays. (What kind of holiday do retail workers enjoy when Labor Day is yet another day of sales?)
When I was a child, we pinned simple red crepe paper poppies to our coats on November 11, and thought about all the young men slaughtered in that gruesome war, The War to End All Wars, World War I. They weren’t gods, those dead boys. They were people. We mourned.
We are a country ever yearning toward our ideals of our Declaration of Independence, a country still becoming. We are only ever momentarily the triumphant “Star Spangled Banner.” We are always “America the Beautiful.”
Must our national holidays be all bluster, war-mongering and mindless flag-waving? Will our proud nation ever learn to symbolically bow her head and ritually acknowledge past failings? Can we, as a people, lift up our many civic acheivements in joy and celebration?
Until then, perhaps I need black streamers for my flag or a wreath of red poppies for my door.
Yesterday, a friend called me to ask if I wanted to carpool to the demonstration downtown today. I said, no, my husband and I plan to go to a different demonstration on Monday, in front of a different building downtown. This the third time since January that I’ve turned down a friend’s invitation to one demonstration because I had another demonstration lined up. These days, there is no way I can attend them all.
And how did you react to Donald Trump’s presidential election victory?
A handful of my relatives and close neighbors were jubilant — but not my Quaker meeting. We are deliberately non-partisan, but we are liberal. Inside our clear windows and plain grey walls there were tears, wails and the gnashing of teeth. (This is not totally an exaggeration.) Meeting might have reached unity on draping our front doors with black crepe swags if our clerk had proposed it.
We were gobsmacked! Corporately and individually we had been knocked off-center. We thought we were striding onward and upward toward (our vision of) a better world when suddenly the whole country took a detour! How did this happen? Why didn’t we see this coming?
In hindsight, it is obvious we were infected with complacency. Progress, it seems, is not inevitable. Those of us vulnerable in any way now know fresh fear.
But for most of us in our Quaker meeting, cocooned in relative comfort and security and our white skins, we didn’t grasp the depth of insecurity, fear, frustration, homophobia and racism running through a broad swath of our fellow citizens. We just weren’t looking for a resurgence of hate and discrimination. Who voted for Trump, anyway?
It’s not that we weren’t aware of the other people around us. But ours is a stratified society with neighborhoods and schools determined by income. Even our meeting membership is, to some extent, limited in class diversity. We who are comfortable are never forced to mingle with the hungry. We take up collections for food banks and we do charitable works. We know the statistics and support legislation to alleviate poverty. Daily frustration and hopelessness isn’t ours.
But Trump’s strongest support came from people with annual incomes of about $70,000. For most of us, neither racism nor homophobia is a daily insult. But racism and homophobia and misogamy lurk all around us and are breaking the bonds of inhibition loosened by leaders like Trump with no compassion or shame. Even worse, some ministers reinforce these messages.
Quakers revere their more famous members of the past who were on the right side of history. And we are justly proud of the American Friends Service Committee and the Friends Committee on National Legislation (to name just two Quaker groups out in the world doing good). One day future generations may even revere a few of us current Quakers who are made of the same stalwart stuff as those abolitionists, suffragettes, and civil rights workers.
But most Friends are like most other people. We aren’t heroes. We aren’t activists. We don’t like to rock any boats or cross any lines. We think we know the difference between right and wrong and we vote accordingly. Besides, when Obama was president, we believed, the country was in good hands. We didn’t have to worry.
Then we wake up one morning and Donald Trump is president. We are in shock!
After a great deal of moaning and commiseration, we begin to climb out of this deep pit of despair. For the first weeks and months following the election, we administered self-care: prayer, readings, journaling, music. As a meeting, we decide to hold a retreat on Responding to Challenging Times. We calm down. We see that the sun still rises. Now we are ready to face reality.
There is some recognition that the problem is not Donald Trump. The problems were there all along — even while Obama was president — and Donald Trump is just a manifestation.
Now, along with millions of other people, we are paying more attention. We are swept up in that wave of others rising to assert decency and tolerance. We have our senators on speed dial. We subscribe to email newsletters chock full of alerts on committee hearings,
notices of demonstrations, talking points to share with our legislators. We write to the editor, pressure lawmakers with phone calls and letters. We are energized around common concerns. We hit the streets (peacefully, of course). We send post cards and make phone calls to other voters. We canvas. We hang signs and share Facebook messages. We not only vote — we get-out-the-vote.
Remember when we flooded town halls, demanding answers from our elected representatives? And when we were shut out of the those town halls, new groups (run predominately by women) organized their own town halls with local experts to examine social issues and look at possible solutions. Grass roots efforts found candidates and supported them with time and money.
Here in Virginia, these efforts have paid off in the midterm elections. In spite of gerrymandered districts that heavily favor Republicans, Democrats tossed out incumbents and took seats all over the state. They won in districts the party itself gave up on. And those new delegates are more beholden to the voters than they are to the Democratic party. (May we hold their feet to the fire.)
Ten months into Trump’s administration we are sticking it out. We persist.
But “Eternal vigilance is the price of Liberty” is a tall order. How long can we keep this up? Will we slip back into our old patterns and trust Democrats to take care of our interests?
Blind trust didn’t work the last time. It brought us Donald Trump — and the continuation and expansion of endless war and income iniquities and the occasional child dead of a toothache through lack of health insurance and too many children hungry while their parents work hard at jobs that keep them poor. Even if Hillary Clinton had won the election, to what degree would that have changed? Would we have paid as close attention? Would we have witnessed and acted — or blindly trusted that Things Would Get Better?
We citizens have begun to feel the power we have. Will we use it? How will we use it? Or will we elect a few good people and go back to thinking elections are enough to fix everything?