A Yankee Notebook

NUMBER 1844
November 21, 2016

AN EXISTENTIAL THREAT

MONTPELIER – A friend of mine, hiking Spruce Mountain in Plainfield, Vermont, on a winter day, sensed a sudden movement off to his right, and turned to see a moose that he’d jumped from its bed in the snow. He walked over to the hole and found it completely stained with fresh blood. In starting up, the moose had crushed a myriad of winter ticks that had been feasting upon it.

Another friend, paddling a kayak down the east coast, remarked on the damage done to the fabled Jersey Shore by the combination of a rising sea level and Hurricane Sandy. “The storm just destroyed long lines of beach and beach-front houses. There’s no way many of them are ever going to be rebuilt. And what company will insure them if they are?”

People who pride themselves on figuring out magicians’ tricks always counsel, “Keep your eye on his other hand; that’s where the action is. The moving hand is just a distraction.” In the aftermath of the recent presidential campaign, it’s obvious the old trick is in full flower. The would-be leaders of the United States argued issues that the audience (and they) could get their heads and arms around – national security, the military, taxes, the economy, unsecure e-mails, disrespect for women – while looming over everything, and utterly undiscussed, was probably the greatest existential threat to modern civilization: global warming.

I’ve long espoused the notion that rules and regulations should not be promulgated by people with no direct experience of the probable results. Millionaires, for example (a significant proportion of Congresspeople), most likely should not be designing welfare programs. By the same token, men and women who spend the majority of their lives in safely air-conditioned offices, homes, and conveyances – who are not, in short, folks with a regular acquaintance with the outdoors – are most likely unequipped to make intelligent decisions about the preservation and future of our natural environment.

Nor do they have the authority or standing to declare climate change a “natural, cyclical phenomenon,” a myth perpetrated by dishonest scientists, or “a hoax invented by the Chinese.” The puritan strain that so infused our colonial forebears is still alive and well in our national culture, and is most likely the one feature that most clearly distinguishes us from our equally idealistic, but more realistic neighbors to the north. In American culture, faith still trumps science. Appalling percentages of our fellow countrymen believe that evolution is a crock, that the 1969 moon landing by US astronauts was for some obscure reason faked, and even that the sun, like the moon, revolves around the earth.

I don’t know how many times I’ve been challenged by the faithful with the question, “Do you actually believe in evolution?” Depending upon the apparent sophistication of the questioner, I sometimes try to explain the difference between a theory (in which it’s impossible to “believe,” as it may be modified at any time by further empirical evidence) and a genuine belief (as in God opening the Red Sea for the Hebrew children or Christ changing water into wine, neither of which it’s possible to prove empirically).

Like the proverbial frog in the slowly warming sauce pan, we’ve paltered with the evidence and resisted the solutions. Many of us, to be fair, are taking both seriously: Energy-efficient houses, automobiles, and appliances are a growing part of our lives; “old” energy has been overtaken, in terms of jobs provided, by renewable resources (the central generating plant at my old prep school smells like a McDonald’s on a winter day because it’s now burning recycled cooking oil); many seaside cities are designing Netherlands-style dykes to keep the rising sea off their streets and out of their subways. It’s only a tiny and temporary part of the solution, of course, and does nothing, for example, to prevent the continued salination of Florida’s aquifer by the encroaching ocean.

In the face of the divided response to the near-unanimous warnings of scientists, it’s easy to be discouraged. Our new President-Elect, while obsessing in his Twitter account over First Amendment guarantees of free speech, has almost offhandedly appointed Myron Ebell, a prominent climate change denier, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mr. Ebell belongs to a group “focused on dispelling the myths of global warming by exposing flawed economic, scientific, and risk analysis.” Why in the world would the new President bother to make such a stick-in-your-eye appointment? Especially when his own Florida estate has been invaded by the rising surf in recent storms? The earth may, in fact, already have passed the tipping point beyond which further and ever swifter degradation is inevitable.

The Gospel of Luke’s parable of Lazarus and the rich man springs to mind. The rich man, in torment after death for his treatment of the beggar Lazarus, begs the shade of Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers to warn them of his fate. No, answers Abraham, they won’t believe or change even if somebody rises from the dead to tell them.

In that regard, I think the recent and ongoing campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders may hold some hope. It’s not that he may or may not be right on any particular issue (though he is on this one); it’s that he’s advocating for a coalescence of the unempowered as a means to effect real change. We’re reading this month of the confrontation in the Dakotas between armed troops protecting corporate interests and native Americans and their supporters opposed to the alleged desecration of their land. It’s not pretty, but if enough of us holler loudly enough for long enough...

Photo by Willem lange