- Sometimes the mood is that of an approaching hurricane. Calm now, nothing anyone can do here except make futile preparations, and wait to see what exact track it takes and how severely it hits the neighborhood. Everywhere in the world, which attained an all-time high in average warmth last year, there seem to be 100-year droughts, 1000-year floods, massive devastation both directly from weather and as a result of its anomalies (vast forest fires, immense insect infestation, death of species.) An apocalyptic outlook is fairly easy to feed in such times, even though locally everything remains as it has always been.
- We tend to forget exactly how bad some local and even regional events used to be for the people living through them. The year without a summer in 1816 causing starvation in New England, famine in France in 1787, widespread deep snow killing crops and hastening the black plague in 13thcentury Italy. Middle Eastern ancient religious texts speak of vast floods, as do Chinese chronicles. From an individual standpoint, the past was just as bad _ and often far worse _ than what we are experiencing. And we should not forget that through everything there were always people who blamed themselves, their neighbors, or their society for what was going wrong. But will “think globally, act locally” be enough this time around?
On the beach _ a summer glory
On The Beach _ a frightful story
Doomed insects dancing in the wind
No gods to care if they have sinned
Fish flashing, brightly wild and free
‘Til swallowed whole when they can’t flee
Birds growing fat on bugs and seed
Triumphant conquest by the weeds
I see it all, I simply pray
I’ll watch again another day
- Long Island has large parks in addition to vast stretches of sand and wetlands shoreline. So for those fortunate enough to have time and leisure, shady lanes wind through forests, and dirt paths wander surrounded by ferns. This year there is a minor drought, so insects are less annoying than usual for August _ not good for swallows or bats, nice for someone striding along trying to flick gnats out of their eyes. In such moments the world seems benign and well.
- I used to take these hour or two strolls with improvement in mind. Although that is still true as an exercise and a mental contemplation, I often no longer fill my moments with attempts to identify trees and flowers, nor to visualize scenes “as an artist,” nor to follow deep and often futile trains of thought concerning philosophy or the cosmos. I am, finally, content to not know so much, to just enjoy the experience, and to be grateful for a sense of well-being. I recognize that we must preserve wilderness and rain forests and coral reefs, but truthfully for myself what must really be fought for are these nearby refuges that can be reached and experienced without great preparation.
Only our heads show above the waves as we notice Harry and June plopping down their beach chairs next to ours. Temperature in high eighties, so they are soon along side, June and Joan pairing off to discuss offspring and other social gossip.
Harry comes up dripping and smiles. “Ah, global warming. Good for something, anyway.”
“Right,” I agree. “Water really beautiful this time of year.”
“I wonder what we’d do if a tsunami happened right now?” Harry likes the oddball and even ridiculous non-sequitur in his conversation.
We both glance at the narrow inlet a half mile away through which all the tides must ceaselessly flow. “Outrun it, I suppose,” I say, figuring not much would get in very quickly and would dissipate as it spread.
“Probably right.” Harry agrees. “But there’s so much concentration on catastrophes that I find them almost interesting to imagine.”
“Black swan events don’t need global warming,” I note. “That’s the trouble with projections. A hundred years before the big asteroid, any intelligent being would assume dinosaurs would still be ruling the Earth today. And nobody still knows where the ice ages came from, or when they might return.”
“Don’t forget the Black Plague,” he added. “And the Huns and ….”
“Oh, I know, there’s enough to go around. What’s that got to do with the price of bread, anyway?”
“Well, it’s one way to avoid guilt.”
“Ah, guilt,” I ponder. “Well, I don’t feel all that guilty about all that. Our generation worked out a few problems, as did generations before us. The next ones will just have to do the same. But I’ll tell you one thing…”
Harry ducks his head again and looks at me expectantly. I continue “I doubt if we have any idea what those problems will really be.”
- Sticky hot thunderstorm weather has settled in for the week. Peeking outside the door causes sweat to break out. Taking a walk will lose a few pounds of water. Any moment, tropical downpours may empty buckets on the unsuspecting, then stop as quickly as they began, almost without warning. Nevertheless work must be done, often outdoors, and humans are surprisingly well adapted to such conditions. Well, people did come out of Africa, after all.
- Generally, those who can avoid going out in such conditions do so. For the last hundred years or we’ve been able to fully control internal temperatures, and the use of those has spread. Many folks seem to rush from air conditioned home to (pre-) air conditioned car to air conditioned store or office. Soon, no doubt, they will be wearing air-conditioned suits as well. Maybe it is nature evolving us to finally move off-planet. In the meantime, I enjoy the hot and sticky, at least for moderate amounts of time, although I admit I also hide away in my burrow a good part of some days.
- Little doubt of climate change any more. The world has not only hit record highs on average the last few years, but the immediate consequences of energy-activated weather are too prevalent and destructive to be ignored. The acceptance is odd, in that only a decade or so ago there were fierce protestations of how silly the idea was, massive counter-examples being utilized to prove nothing was happening.
- But prevailing wisdom has changed, just as the arguments against air and water pollution control eventually fell into disuse in the sixties and seventies. Anyone with half a brain now knows the biosphere is heating up, and those without half a brain don’t matter anyway. The only remaining question is what can be done about it, if anything. More importantly, what adjustments and preparations are appropriate _ individually, locally, and globally.
- Some say nothing. I think they are wrong. I lived through the times when we were reliably informed that dense smoke in Pittsburgh, toxic smog in Los Angeles, fires on the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland were simply necessary adjuncts to our consumer lifestyle, and of little consequence. DDT was the only way we could manage insect-borne diseases _ what’s a bird’s life against a child’s? they asked. But somehow, civilization moved on, and all that has become almost a forgotten past and prelude to new challenges.
- Consensus does eventually filter up from accepted common sense in the masses to those in power. In spite of our predilection to see the worst in humanity, most people do care about their immediate environment and want the world to remain habitable for their children. I suspect in the next few years, climate change will become one of the driving forces of political decision-making, if only for how to handle its increasingly devastating effects and increasingly costly preparations. Putting New York under a bubble will not come cheap.
- I have faith in our technology. With will, we can still find a way. An easy start is a large carbon tax. I believe that once we all start to act for real _ just like the pollution crises _ significant solutions will arrive in a decade or so.
- Until then, we have the opportunity to swelter, watch historic fires and floods and winds, and imagine catastrophe around every corner. In the meantime, I will poke my head out the door yet again and maybe even venture out on a short stroll to warm my bones.
- Dew-drenched air forms a light haze in early morning. Soon enough, sharp low sunbeams will slash that into sparkling clarity. By this afternoon, only distant features will be dimmed, the Connecticut shoreline across the sound a vague blue ribbon, if it can be seen at all. Fish are leaping frantically, spoiling calm reflections. It seems a summer moment from forever.
- Forever, we have learned, is a scientific fiction. We swim in change, for better or worse. It once seemed cruel that we are born, age, and die _ some cosmic joke in an eternal universe. Although it is hardly comforting that the universe itself shares our fate, we can no longer complain about being singled out. Like the universe, we just have to deal with things as they are _ and at this particular moment, right here, they are lovely indeed.