This has been an intense period of time for me. Half of my family, virtually everyone on my wife’s side, is recovering from the hurricane damage in Puerto Rico. Two weeks in, they have just gotten running water, but are still without power. Unless you have spent time in the islands, I don’t think you can fathom trying to sleep amidst the intense heat and humidity without so much as a fan to stir the air and nevermind the mosquitos. In most places, the vegetation is stripped bare, so there is no longer even shade from trees. It’s sweltering.
The other side of my family is running from wildfires in the wine country of California, where I grew up. One cousin so far has lost her home to the blaze. Others are displaced. It’s a horror show.
The common thread running through these disastrous events is not my family relations, but global climate change. It’s pretty nauseating to think that we put off the subject for decades under the guise of protecting the American economy. Recall the senior President Bush’s sage words, which laid the foundation for how we would address climate change in the ensuing decades since the 1992 Earth Summit – “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” Read: the profits of corporations shall not be compromised. Instead we will displace the costs to individual people, to families, who will endure tremendous suffering. Internalize the profits, externalize the costs. It’s a common theme in environmental issues.
I am bothered that our inaction has gotten us here. I am also bothered by my own approach to climate change over the years and it is giving me pause to rethink how I, we, all of us, address issues that matter to us. There was a time, several years in fact, during my career that I was put off by the antagonistic attitude many people had about climate change. Denial was rampant and I made a decision to avoid the controversy. I did not speak publicly or engage in debates on the issue beyond cursory lectures in my environmental science courses, despite having even at one time put together an edited volume on Climate Change.
I don’t think much would be different today if I had not taken this approach. Nevertheless, I am wholeheartedly aware that I compromised and backed down from what I knew and what science was telling us in no vague terms. And I am seeing this play out more and more as our nation grapples with issues like gun violence, racism, immigration, and the wholesale dismantling of nearly every environmental protection we have. I see people like me, who know better, being silent because the opposing narrative is so loud, dismissive, berating, antagonistic. In short, we cannot let the loudest angriest voice in the room overwhelm reason. Or our children’s future will be comprised of a whole lot more unprecedented hurricanes and firestorms.
So, I’ll segue into a related subject, the one I intended to address this week, and ask…
Will our mark on the planet, our great achievement, boil down to so much floating debris?
The climate change conversation seems to be high centered on the same old talking points. They are big issues. How will we deal with rising seas, environmental refugees, compromises to agricultural production or unprecedented wildfires? It’s hard to move beyond this to ponder or address the tangential concerns.
New data shows us that as tsunamis send floating mats of debris out to sea, there is an influx of migrant species, potentially invasive and damaging to ecosystems and biodiversity all around the world. This may be a natural means of dispersal as major disturbances send off floating rafts of vegetation, but it is exacerbated when our built environment and our material culture, our docks and piers and our mountains of plastic trash, so easily provide raft materials. And it is even more problematic when climate change makes storms more powerful and more frequent.
More recently, the Caribbean was confronted with its own reckoning with climate change as the islands were pounded by successive hurricanes. As a result, it is highly probable that much of the plastic refuse that pollutes the islands has made its way to sea, where it will add to the already deplorable levels of non-biodegradable trash that are polluting our oceans.
I addressed the issue of reliable access to clean water as a safeguard against the overconsumption of plastics in an earlier post. As we look to the new normal, it is in our interest to consider that the days of keeping our waste, the dregs of our capitalist quests, confined, may be behind us. Harvey taught us that chemicals don’t stay where we want them, another storm tells us that our alterations to the climate are changing the very composition of species diversity on earth, and now it’s time to also realize that the tons of plastic that are used daily on an island cannot be counted on to stay put.
In short, we have long become accustomed to the production and use of materials that are either toxic or non-biodegradable – both qualities that are bad for us and bad for our planet. Yet, we have justified their use by having proper disposal, or at least the guise of proper disposal. Chemicals are supposed to be put somewhere safe and kept away from our water; plastics are supposed to, I don’t know, be recycled or landfilled or something. But climate change reviles us with another new element of ‘normalcy.’ It diminishes our ability to put these things ‘away.’ It lambasts us with painful reminders of our short-sightedness as storms and fires set them loose again and create bigger messes than we had envisioned. No more tidy, no more gone, no more away.