Coast Insights 2: meeting the enemy
This post is not about the cute and/or annoying things my grandchildren do.
It is, rather, probably the most political and provocative post I’ve written. A weird concordance of issues arose during our recent visit to the coast, which has played in my mind ever since, and I’m hoping that writing this will help organize my thinking and maybe even stimulate some dialogue with others who are equally troubled by the fate of our beautiful planet.
In my little bit of reading time while the children were in bed or otherwise occupied, I tried to catch up on some periodicals. One was the UU World Magazine, the quarterly publication of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The cover story, Adaptation and Defiance, was written by Jeffrey Lockwood, an insect ecologist. He uses the pine bark beetle and the destruction it’s wreaking on forests as an example and symptom of ways climate change is affecting all life on earth. He cites this fact: “Across North America, bark beetles have infested 234,000 square miles of forest—or about 94 million square city blocks, forty-two Connecticuts, four New Yorks, or almost one Texas.”
However, the gist of the article isn’t about the forest devastation occurring in North America. The message is that living things adapt, some better than others, to these changes, and humans are perhaps better than most at adaptation. This is, says Lockwood, not a good thing, because, first, adaptation leads to acceptance, and second, it tends to spare the better off while the poor, as usual, suffer the most and pay the highest costs. “Just as the Cold War fed the military-industrial complex,” says Lockwood, “the Warm War fuels the environmental-industrial complex. Rich nations can afford clever fixes.”
Having parents who suffered through the deprivations of the 1930s, followed by the extreme suffering in England during World War II, I was taught to be thrifty and careful with resources. I’ve been concerned about, and have tried to take good care of, the environment since before the first Earth Day in 1970. My ex-husband was a science writer and became interested in energy conservation before Al Gore did. I was writing about recycling before most people were doing it, and I carried cloth bags to the grocery store for years before Austin’s bag ban. I use tatty but clean dishtowels instead of paper towels to clean vegetables. I rarely buy new clothes, scoring great finds at thrift shops. We nearly alwaysput more in our recycling container than our trash can.
Now that I’ve established my environmentalist credentials, I know I’m not doing nearly enough—I drive a conventional car, take trips in airplanes, eat meat (though not much) and so forth. In a recent op-ed, “Put climate change where it belongs: Not me,” James Turner, of Greenpeace, writes about how we feel guilty about many of our choices, but he says we’ve been manipulated by the energy industry to feel that way: “The fossil fuel cartel is content to have us feel guilty, particularly if we feel helpless, too.” Later he adds: “In the battle against climate change, we should not be waging guilt trips. Rather we should take the fight to those who use our sense of personal responsibility against us. Climate change is a problem, and we must fix it. But it’s certainly not our fault.” (Austin American–Statesman, Monday, June 9; originally in the Los Angeles Times).
I had several eye-opening experiences on the recent coast trip. Works of “art” displayed on the walls at the Texas State Aquarium turned out to be trash—plastic waste of all sorts, arranged as assemblages in groups of bright colors.
Another day we went to the Rockport Art Center, where the current exhibit is absolutely mind-boggling: A group of about a dozen people spent six hours collecting trash on two beaches, brought the material back to the gallery, cleaned it up and used selected pieces to create the exhibit. There were toys, pill bottles, a whole installation of shoes, a wall of hard hats, a big mobile installation of just about everything imaginable, an arrangement of aqua bleach bottles (a distinctive brand sold in Mexico). I wish I had taken pictures, but I was so blown away by the exhibit I mostly walked around with my mouth open. I am glad we took the kids to see this. We had visited the Rockport aquarium and decided to pop into the nearby art center.
That evening as we walked along the bay near the house I became very aware of every piece of trash. I started picking things up, and soon I had more than I could hold. I sent Chloe back to the house to get a trash bag and in about 20 minutes I had enough to fill it: beer cans, soda cans, water bottles, food containers, a shoe, a hat…. I couldn’t even pick up the piece of carpet embedded in the sand, or the two tires (I’m not sure if they were placed there for a purpose or discarded). I was astounded, because I had walked that area before and noticed maybe a beer can or two. This is an area where people walk and fish; you’d think they’d keep it clean.
The house where we stay doesn’t recycle, although the docent at the art center told me Rockport does provide it. I always feel terrible about the amount of trash we put in the dumpster when we leave (but so far have done nothing about it).
I have to ask myself “Why? Why can’t humans do a better job of taking care of our beautiful home?”
There are many theories. One is called “the tragedy of the commons.” Briefly, it means that which belongs to everybody is taken care of by nobody. Everyone assumes someone else will clean up. It applies to everything from workplace break-rooms to public parks on up to the whole Earth.
Values are screwed up. Caring for the most precious things—water, babies, art, music, serenity, peace—is not a path to riches in our culture.
I believe capitalism, corporatization and our consumer-driven throwaway society are culprits. I’ll probably get flamed if anyone has read this far, but being English (and brought up Labor), I’m basically a socialist. The quality of life in many northern European countries is to be envied, regardless of the higher taxes. I won’t even get started on health care. (Yes, I acknowledge that governments can be inefficient, bureaucratic and ineffective. So can every other institution in the world.)
Power, greed, ego, selfishness are all at work. One of the blogs I follow, The Smallest Forest, http://smallestforest.net/2013/06/ recently wrote: “The cult of the ego has spread and rules most of the world, now. It has become dignified, respectable, sacrosanct. …
“Many decades later, our race is unhappier than ever before. We are afraid of and despise each others’ differences; those traits that make each one of us unique also make us strange to each other….”
Maybe the technology that got us into this will provide solutions. There’s the story that in 1860, New Yorkers looking to the future said the city would be uninhabitable in 100 years because the number of horses needed to transport the growing population would bury the city in manure. Then along came the automobile. (And we know how well that has worked out.)
If I were Empress of the World…. oh, don’t we all think if we were in charge things would function so much more smoothly? I wish I did have more answers than question, but I’m a Unitarian Universalist-Buddhist-Taoist trying to make peace with uncertainty.
I do welcome comments and respectful dialogue. No flaming, please, my world is hot enough.