Middlebury, Vt.

Life in the middle of Vermont.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Essay: Coping with Climate Change

There’s something in contemplating global warming that feels like thinking of one's own death.

For a moment the mind wants to, feels it should, take on the topic. And then it slides off to other, more comfortably irrelevant things. It's just too much to face head-on for very long.

Perhaps that's because in the worst of the scenarios in the scientific and popular media, global warming really does equate with death for millions of people. Ecosystems go out of whack, the winds roar and the rains pelt and the ice caps melt. In the inundation, the poor and the coastal dwellers vanish. There's no guarantee that any single one of us would survive.

Even less disastrous projections heat the brain to torpor. As winter moves farther north, so too will the bears and the brook trout and autumn's brilliantly fiery colors. Maple sugaring in the US will come to seem like the carrier pigeon or the American chestnut tree -- a once common feature of the natural world, now so dead as to seem it was never factual.

Can it be that we are really living through the last few decades of winter in New England? Some scientists have concluded that within perhaps 40 years, winter in our north woods will be something that occurs only on the highest peaks. The valleys in the winter months will experience a kind of perpetual November.

Middlebury College's September 2005 Clifford Symposium on Climate Change has everyone who was touched by it seeing the planet in a slightly different way.

Sometimes we see it, now that we have some fresher inkling of the sad facts, through the eyes of despair. Indeed, dealing with despair was one of the topics of a quite moving panel discussion at the symposium. How do we respond when, in the words of keynoter Bill McKibben, we know that whatever we do now to stop more global warming, our planetary fate may be "catastrophic or just miserable"?

This is where sitting on a meditation bench comes in handy. My wife and I have spent a lot of time over the past couple of decades trying to cultivate some sense of ultimate non-attachment to this ever-changing. impermanent world. Now we find ourselves challenged to stretch that tender sensibility -- to encompass what may be the pending demise not just of ourselves personally, but of Earth as we know it.

The techniques for stretching this sensibility aren't any different than contemplating, say, the prospect of nuclear destruction or a terrorist-dominated world. But it would be easier to let go of that kind of Earth. One could reasonably conclude, if it got bad enough, that such a place really wasn't worth saving. Any world that ends by blowing itself up perhaps deserved it.

Even with climate change, many of the forces driving it fall on the less desirable side of the human ledger. Greed. Laziness. Ignorance. Worse yet, willful ignorance (e.g., driving an SUV).

But I'm saddened by this: So much of what creates excess carbon emissions -- and the greenhouse effect that may be fatally warming our world -- comes from simple human desires. Keeping the wolves from the door. Staying warm. Feeding ourselves and our family. Getting from here to there.

Sadly, the way we have gone about these seemingly innocent activities has made us guilty of destabilizing the very natural systems that have ensured our species' survival.

We may have already done too much. There's a lot of excessive heat already in the ecosystem. Things may already be moving quickly toward chaos, so quickly that we can't pull back from the brink.

How to cope? At my house we are trying to look our fears in the face, dance with life's everyday joys, and drink in every piece of natural beauty we can swallow. We are also striving to use less energy -- the stuff that drives the carbon emissions that play havoc with hurricanes and climate. (Memo to Earth: Katrina = Global Warning.)

Through conscious appreciation and good-old-fashioned energy conservation, we are trying to take small satisfaction in knowing that -- if someone is around to write the tale later -- it won't be said that we didn't appreciate what we had. Or that we didn’t try to do what we could to save it.


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