A New Mantra

For years we’ve been going about all this backwards, and as a result we’re stuck in all sorts of corporate denial, governmental conflict, and some people are swayed by each. For years we’ve been reciting the mantra “save the environment,” when in fact as long as there’s an Earth there will always be an environment. So don’t worry, our environment isn’t going away. It doesn’t need to be saved. But just as living things change in response to their environment (the process we call evolution), our environment changes in response to living things (the process we call climate change).

To be fair, a number of things contribute to the process we call climate change, and responses to living things such as humans is just one portion of the process. Humanity’s portion of responsibility for this process, or at the very least for its acceleration, is staggering, overwhelming, and scientifically undeniable.

So perhaps our mantra needs to be changed from “save the environment” to “save life as we know it.” But as we humans continue to change the environment, a variety of species unable to adapt to the changes will perish and face extinction. Extinction is a normal part of evolution; it happens in all species. Several questions come to mind then:

– Now that we know our actions are leading directly to the extinction of other species, how can we continue to pollute the environment?

– Because our population is growing at a record pace but our actions are making the world’s environment less stable, how are we going to grow the food we need to feed our increasingly huge population?

– Because extinction is a normal part of evolution, when will extinction come for humans? By slowly destroying our own environment and making it uninhabitable are we bringing extinction upon ourselves?

Maybe our mantra needs to be changed again. Because of human irresponsibility campaigns such as “save the whales,” “save the polar bears,” and “save the bees” became necessary long ago, and we have long heard well-meant if misdirected calls to “save the environment.” Starting immediately, our new calls to action will most appropriately need to be framed around “save us from ourselves.” We are greedily poisoning the only place in the known universe that can support life as we know it, arrogantly destroying our own home, blissfully spewing petroleum, chemicals, plastics, and myriad toxins in one place and living in another, as if all places aren’t connected by common soil, common water, and common air. Now the impacts of our actions are becoming clear, and the sooner we clearly connect our own actions with our own imminent demise the sooner we will begin to protect our own species.

Whether we realize it or not, we are endangered. A species qualifies for inclusion on the endangered species list when its numbers drop perilously low, and clearly we do not meet that criteria. But we ourselves are creating a variety of conditions that together can lead to population loss. It is a tragedy that we have not recognized the growth of such dangerous conditions affecting other animals and plants so that we could take steps to save them. It will also be a tragedy if our greed and arrogance prevent us from recognizing the growth of conditions dangerous to the continued existence of human life.

We don’t need to save the environment. It will always be there, in one form or another, even if we aren’t. Increasingly it seems as though our answer to human adaption to the changing environment is to shield ourselves from it. Rather than adapt we hide in air conditioned buildings, we wear plastic waterproof clothing, we pour toxic chemicals on genetically modified plants to force them to grow or to kill others. Hiding from the environment rather than adapting to it, and attempting to control nature rather than partnering with it, means that human beings will find the continuing changes in our environment increasingly intolerable. Inevitably, at some point, the weakest in our herd will fall. And then more.

So join the call to save us from ourselves. Be one of the early adapters. The environmental movement as we know it has only been around for about forty years. In evolutionary terms that’s nothing, and yet in evolutionary terms participation in the environmental movement means absolutely everything. It means saving from extinction entire species of plants and animals – including a certain genus known as Homo Sapiens.

Evolving Differently

I walked out onto the porch last night with a container of bird seed, leaving a trail of seed where the birds congregate each morning for their breakfast. It was nice to imagine the dawn’s cooing and chirping and fluttering, the bustling among one another, and the boisterous synchronized departure. I’m always especially proud of the one or two birds who remain, not following the crowd.

Yesterday’s temperature reached 100 degrees, which meant that last night the darkness on the porch was still deliciously warm. A gentle breeze blew through the trees and bushes, and as it brushed my skin I imagined the birds feeling that same breeze brushing their feathers. I wondered for a moment how many other plants and animals and insects also felt that very same breath of earth. There was something very unifying in that thought.

I walked past the wonderfully intoxicating scent of a heavily blooming jasmine bush and made my way out to our fig tree. I stayed there for a moment, enjoying the air, the darkness, the stars, and the companionship and connection with everything around me.

While I stood there enjoying the warm night air it occurred to me that the air inside our home had been artificially chilled. The machines that performed this task for us use an enormous amount of energy, despite being “efficient” models, and their use means that my family is less acclimated to the climate that we falsely believe we live in. Our house is truly the one acclimated to the desert; we are merely acclimated to the house. We spend the majority of our lives in a variety of temperature-regulated, humidity-controlled, air-filtered environments which are very often quite different than those outdoors. Rather than living with nature we shield ourselves from it. Without realizing it we have literally ended millennia of climate-related adaptation and evolution.

I wonder what people will do as water becomes more scarce, temperatures continue to rise, storms become more intense, and petroleum and natural gas become more expensive? Perhaps laws will be passed regulating how we use resources, and new shelters might be built, but that would amount to little more than shielding ourselves from a changing world that is simply asking us to adapt.

We adapt to other changes all the time, and of course we can adapt to a changing climate too. Like other things we adapt to, like a new child or a new job, changes in lifestyle need to be made. These adaptations don’t make our lives worse, they make our lives different. And as with so many other things we’ve already adapted to, we often find that adapting opens new doors in our lives – new happiness, new opportunities, new dreams, new directions. In this way, we could look at climate change as a huge gift, a chance to re-assess our priorities, adjust our actions, and begin setting things right in each of our corners of the world.

Adapt and Evolve

The news today is filled with reports of heavy snow, freezing temperatures, and millions of us Americans breaking down and helpless due to what might otherwise be post card-beautiful conditions. These conditions, extreme to us even if not to others, remind me of the remarkable endurance of the plants and animals that live outside. I was happy to see hummingbirds, sparrows, and other birds visiting the yard this morning; it always brings a smile to my face when I see them trying to fly in their tiny North Face coats and boots.

For thousands of years we humans and the climate evolved simultaneously. Like any other animal we lived outside and learned to adapt to both hot and cold temperatures. We likely didn’t get as much done in the peaks of hot and valleys of cold, but we managed to survive. In fact, we did really well – so well that we may have gotten a bit arrogant. At some point we became domineering and controlling. We ended up downright abusive, and climate was left with no choice but to hire a lawyer. She’s off now doing her own thing, and our domineering, controlling, abusive selves are stuck paying the consequences. It’s sad when a relationship ends. In this case we’re not paying alimony, because climate doesn’t care about money. What we’re paying is life as we know it. Winters are colder, summers are hotter, storms are more intense, rains either don’t come or come as floods, plants aren’t growing the way they used to, species are dying off, and us? We’re taking bold action: we’re staying indoors, turning up the heat, turning down the air conditioning, making sure that our little space remains at a comfortable 72 degrees, even if the ultimate price might be as high as our own extinction.

Think about it: we’re isolating ourselves from the environment that would have challenged us to evolve. And we’re certainly not challenging ourselves to evolve in the same ways. We arrogantly believe we can control the world, but all it takes is one storm to remind us how small we truly are. Those perspective-altering storms are going to be coming more frequently in the years to come, so I expect us to be feeling very, very small. Left without central heating and air conditioning people interviewed on the news this morning complained bitterly; we no longer understand how to stay either warm or cool without employing machines and using energy. Just a few decades ago our great grandparents lived in both triple-digit and single-digit temperatures, but now look at their spoiled great grand children. Norway should be laughing at us. Especially Norwegian great-grandparents, the ones who had to walk to school in their bare feet, for hours, through a blizzard, while carrying the piano they needed for their lessons.

When a bird flies by your window today, take a moment to consider how such a small, delicate, beautiful creature lived through the long cold night – and continues to go about his or her normal activities today. That bird didn’t have a television, had no magazines, no internet, and didn’t have to buy anything. If that bird can do it, we just might be able to do it too. Here’s a great way to start:
1) Turn down your heat and put on a sweater.
2) Get active! Turn on your body’s own thermostat.
3) Learn how to sew and knit. Make your own flannels, sweaters, blankets, and quilts.
4) Once you’re all cozy walk or bike to your local library, find these books, and read them: Diet For A Hot Planet, by Anna Lappe; and Soil Not Oil, by Vandana Shiva.

Cause and Effect

“Tigers could be extinct in 12 years if efforts to protect their habitats and prevent poaching aren’t increased. A recent study across three continents showed snakes to be in rapid decline due to climate change. Overfishing and changing weather patterns have left 12 of the world’s 17 species of penguins experiencing steep losses in numbers. A recent World Wildlife Fund reportĀ  found that all animals in the tropics have declined by 60 percent since 1970, with everything from gorillas to fish thinning out.”
Huffington Post, January 3, 2011

“Weakened by inbreeding and disease, bumble bees have died off at an astonishing rate over the past 20 years, with US populations diving more than 90 percent, said a study published Monday. The findings are of concern because bees play a crucial role in pollinating crops such as tomatoes, peppers and berries, said the findings of a three-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Similar declines have also been witnessed in Europe and Asia, said Sydney Cameron, Department of Entomology and Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois.”
France24, January 3, 2011

“Bees in general pollinate some 90% of the world’s commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields. It is the start of a food chain that also sustains wild birds and animals. But the insects, along with other crucial pollinators such as moths and hoverflies, have been in serious decline around the world since the last few decades of the 20th century. It is unclear why, but scientists think it is from a combination of new diseases, changing habitats around cities, and increasing use of pesticides.”
Guardian, January 3, 2011

“I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet.”
– Agent Smith in The Matrix, March 31, 1999