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.

Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Corpus Christi Caller-Times

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.

Rockport Art Center photo

Rockport Art Center photo

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.

Trash in 20 minutes

Trash in 20 minutes

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, 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.


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3 responses to “Coast Insights 2: meeting the enemy”

  1. David Meischen says :

    Thanks, Jill. Much food for thought here.

  2. tim says :

    There is so much here, I hesitate to begin, but I sense that your question is one I have addressed before and is summed up with, “Are we going to make it?” My answer to that question is an assertive, “I don’t know.” If everyone on Earth were as wise and knowledgeable as you and I, we’d be fine. If you want to see flames, that last statement is good bait, but I mean it and I could defend it. Cooperative action could solve all our problems, if there were not money, apathy and the peculiar “disease of conservatism“ thawarting us.

    You can look at human history as a glass half full or half empty. To me, the correct answer is simply not knowable. One symptom of the “disease of conservatism“ is the belief that nothing ever changes. The truth about the universe and everything in it is the opposite. Everything always changes. The world will change in the next 100 years quite dramatically, the climate being a major example. However, the current “climate change deniers” will still be with us. You might ask how they could still deny it when ocean levels have risen 30 feet, the polar ice cap is gone (along with the polar bears) and the only people left in Miami are those too poor to move out. But they will still be denying because of the “disease of conservatism“. That peculiar disease is one that makes people believe what they want to belief – in the face of contrary evidence, with no logical reason and forever.This is nothing new. What IS new is that those people are now the playthings of rich and powerful interests who don’t believe in anything but the accumulation of more riches and powers. It is not likely that democracy will challenge that force. It could in theory, but in practice, it is subverted by the money that guides our political choices. To be blunt, Congress, which would be the most powerful branch of government if it so chosed, is bought and paid for. Yes, both sides.

    Climate change is not the only problem coming head on at our hapless world. The threat of nuclear war did not go away with the collapse of the Soviet Union. There are presently about 4,100 active nuclear warheads available to the governments of the world. More than half belong to us. That they have not been used means one thing and only one thing: that they have not been used yet. It could happen without an overt attack. Most people think that the Cuban missle crisis was the closest we ever came to nuclear war. They might be right, but they probably don’t know HOW close it was. Curtis Lemay, Air Force Chief of Staff at the time, pushed the president to bomb the missle sites in Cuba. Unknown to Washington at the time ( and unknown for decades after ) was the fact that the local commanders in Cuba were authorized to fire their missles on their own authority. If they had sensed themselves under attack, it is likely they would have followed that basic military rule “use em or lose em.” Washington and major cities south would have been wiped out along with many military installations. New York was at the extreme range of the missles – maybe, maybe not. Imagine if the president of the time had been as easily manipulated as George W. Bush. Think he might have gone along with the hard-liners? But there’s more. There were 4 Foxtrot class Soviet submarines invloved in the blockade actions. Each had on board one nuclear tipped torpedo and, again, the authority to fire it in self-defense. These submarines were being hunted and harassed by the US navy which was dropping “practice” depth charges on them to try and force them to surface. Know how to tell a practice depth charge from a real one? When you have been sunk, then you know. One of the subs was limping along with bad air, unable to surface to recharge batteries and with a captain close to the breaking point who, at one point, called for the nuclear torpedo to be loaded and readied to fire. The only other officer on board who could prevent that action, the political commissar, stopped it. In other words, we were very, very lucky that October.
    We were lucky again in 1983 when a NATO exercise called Able Archer caused Soviet forces to go to high alert. During that episode, a Russian missle commander received erroneous reports of American ICBM launches. He decided that the information was wrong.
    The short story is that luck has played a large role in our 60 year run of nuclear roulette. If the weapons are with us forever, luck will run out someday. The people who thrive on and make a living from fear mongering love to invoke the threat of an Islamic nuclear attack. They are right about one thing; as long as the weapons are maintained and manufactured, they will be there for the taking, but a terroist attack is, by far, the least catastophic nuclear disaster that could happen.
    I digress far from Gillian’s topic, but I’ll try to return there. All these terrible possibilities could be remedied if enough of us wanted to make it happen. It’s that simple and that hard. How do you give people the wisdom to see problems as they are and the will to move governments to act on them? I don’t know. Maybe you can; maybe you cannot. A relevant observation is that you cannot do it by force feeding standardized test answers to school children. That anyone at all thinks that scoring high on a standardized test is a meaningful measure of success, knowledge and mental ability is a reflection of the intellectual paucity of those elected to run our government, and, by extension, the voters who elect them.
    Half full, half empty? I truly do not know. It’s that uncertainty you speak of. I can only give you the advice of the old, cynical instructor pilot from my unwritten novel. When asked how to escape a position of disadvantage which had no prescibed solution, he replied, “Whatever works.”

  3. wigginswordsandimages says :

    Wow, Tim. What do I think will happen? Humankind will muddle along, quality of life will eventually deteriorate to the point that the 20th and early 21st centuries will be the apogee of earthly civilization. Eventually humans will revert to small tribes living in isolated, unpolluted (or unbombed) enclaves. (Have you read “Cloud Atlas”? I think the final section is a pretty good guess.) The race will eventually die out–over hundreds or thousands of years–shorter, probably, than it evolved, and the earth will revert to a “natural” state until the sun blows up, or dies, or earth is hit by an asteroid or a comet or the core explodes, or dies, or something. It does make me sad for my descendants, but there you are.

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