Sunday, April 22, 2012

Earth Day 2012, Part 2: Living Here, Living Now

 As an antidote to yesterday's depressing assessment of the State of the World, I thought I'd offer a second look. I seldom stay down for long, and it didn't take much to set me on a more optimistic track this morning.

After slogging though the Sunday edition of the Daily Poop, I picked up the February/March edition of Mother Earth News (in preparation for a day in the garden), and read this from the "News from Mother" column:

These days, if you find yourself feeling negative about the future of humanity, you may find some solace in looking at the past.

Well, looking at the past is something I do for a living, so the invitation is a natural for me.  In fact, my Art History 2 lectures just last week focused on conditions in nineteenth-century England at a time when folks like William Morris, John Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites,  and other admirers of the Medieval world were all themselves looking to the past for better models of how to live.

As the Mom article pointed out, however, there are many aspects of human life that have actually improved since both the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century: life expectancies are way up, violence is (amazing, but true) way down, and we're generally kinder than at any previous moment in recorded history.  We don't hold slaves, we don't sanction cock fights, and we generally don't kill people we don't agree with (even though we might talk about doing so during election years).

The article ends with an acknowledgement that we've still got a way to go, but instead of throwing up our hands in despair (which is what I probably seemed to be doing yesterday) it notes that we actually have examples of how we've improved things in the past:

. . . looking at what we've achieved, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think we can solve present and future challenges. We can live on this planet in a sustainable way. We can preserve its health and vitality for future generations. And we can make the lives of future human beings even better than the lives we lead today--we have a track record for that kind of achievement.

So, instead of whining about what we haven't accomplished since 1970, perhaps it's time to note that some significant changes have occurred, and to relish them rather than keep complaining about what we still need to do. At least for today.

For example, when I first became a vegetarian back in the late seventies, I did so because I didn't like the way animals raised for food were treated.  I figured that if I couldn't take the responsibility for killing an animal myself, I didn't have the right to eat it.  Eventually, I relented when my kids started insisting that they were being deprived, but we still ate meat sparingly, and I did the best job I could in finding humanely treated animals.  Nowadays, we still eat meat infrequently, but when we do there are numerous outlets from which we can buy "happy" cows, pigs, and chickens.  I can buy eggs that are expensive but come from chickens raised more like the ones we had when I was a kid.  I'm quite willing to pay a premium to do so, even if it means that most of my diet needs to come from grains and vegetables (all organically and/or sustainably raised, some home-grown).  In truth, however, we could largely solve our national obesity problem by doing just that: changing our diets substantially, and weaning ourselves from overly-processed foods.

When I drive to buy my food, I can now do so in a fuel-efficient car that sips gas and causes far less particulate matter to enter the atmosphere than any car I've ever driven.  The good thing about high gas prices is, after all, that manufacturers are producing more and more automobiles with higher and higher levels of fuel economy and lower emissions.  These days I'm watching the highway fill up with hybrid cars, even though in this part of the world pickups will probably rule in perpetuity.

Advances in medicine, although expensive, mean that I got an extra twenty five years with my father, and have myself lived eighteen years longer than I might have done (and another three years than I might have from the valve problem).  New drugs have kept me essentially healthy, and will probably prevent my daughter from ever having to endure bypass surgery at all, even though she shares my crappy genes. Cures for various cancers are being developed, and we've already seen declines in occurrences based on improved ways of life; as drugs and diets and living habits improve, fewer people will have to suffer from them, and those who do may well see even more cures developed in the next several years. 

As much as I might rail against technology, I'm always aware of what I owe to innovation. We have lived in an old house (celebrating its 90th birthday this year) for the past twelve summers, relying on its solidly-built bones and dual attic fans to help keep us cool.  We've gotten by with three small air conditioning units for three rooms, and have stayed relatively comfortable.  This year, thanks to tax rebates and technological availability, we're hoping to install a geothermal heating and cooling system, in part to replace the aging gas furnace installed when we bought the house.  The plan is to wean ourselves as much as possible from fossil fuel consumption.  Of course, even ten years ago, this option would have been a mere pipe dream--so our fuel consumption options are improving rather rapidly.

These changes are, in truth, rather insignificant in light of the challenges that lie ahead.  Big Oil is still in charge, Big Consumption is still the economic model, and much of the world still has no access at all to any of the improvements we enjoy.

War, pestilence, pollution, and greed are all still there, lurking.  But we may be getting better at ridding ourselves of their threats--or we could be, if we can figure out how to meet the challenges of educating our kids well enough so that they can ensure their own futures.  As much as I complain about how little my students know, I can't help but think that they'll work it all out, as long as we can help them develop the tools. 

Image notes: this shot was taken facing east one evening last month with the Nikon D80.  We've had an abundance of rain this spring and the skies have been lovely.  Yesterday's post features a view west, probably taken later that same day.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Earth Day 2012, Part 1: Hunkering Down

I can't say that this Earth Day finds me particularly sanguine about the future of this planet.  My puny efforts to shore up my half acre and shield it from encroaching doom seem almost like a bad science fiction novel about the end of the world.  Continuing efforts to learn to love the prairie (of which there is really very little left) aren't working especially well--and I frequently find myself indulging in "real estate porn," looking for affordable properties in the desert west.

In the meantime, the carbon sink is wilder than ever except for the patch I've cleared out for tomatoes. We'll have to do a bit of work tomorrow to open up a little more sunny space, but if I can remember to water them, they should do well enough.  But the abundant rain this spring, along with the lack of a true winter, have both meant that the whole place is lush and jungley. I'll have to clear out a mass of mint soon, because it's taking over the entire potager. A lettuce plant from last year has taken over the entire pot, is now nearly three feet tall, and has bolted, producing rather lovely yellow flowers.  The leaves, alas, are too tough to eat.  My Swiss chard is massive and not particularly tasty, but pretty to look at.  The few things I've planted seem to be doing well, and there will be banana peppers for salads along with the tomatoes--but I'm skeptical about my ability to get anything else in before it's too  late. But all this what's going well.

The truly depressing news has to do with oil and gas and tar sands and fracking. There seems to be no end to the American lust for fossil fuels, and the Obama administration is too interested in re-election to buck it.  I'm not sure anyone there really wants to anyway.  I do have to laugh at the far-right characterization of Obama as a Socialist, because he wouldn't know one if it bit him. Hard. On the nose. The Keystone pipeline has been delayed, for "further study," but the lower half of it has received a go-ahead. So now we can expect a large chunk of what's left of the prairie in East Texas to be plowed under in service of transporting oil to the Gulf for processing and (inevitably) to be shipped off to China.  So much for ensuring the energy future of the United States.

I truly long for some really convincing report to announce the arrival of Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas so that the oil industry (which is, of course, a Person, with rights equivalent to mine--or better) might finally put its mighty weight behind alternative energy sources. But it most likely won't happen in my lifetime, and I'm becoming quite thankful that I won't have grandchildren who'll have to deal with the consequences.

Last year's Earth Day post was far more optimistic, and I apologize for being so gloomy this time. But the evidence for climate change mounts daily, and its increasing rapidity is daunting.  All that old crabby utopian social-anarchists like me will be able do do in the future is to sit baking in our lawn chairs under the ravaged no-longer-bearing pecan trees and say "I told you so."

When I think back to that first Earth Day nearly forty years ago, I remember some of the cranky folk I knew then: long-haired hippies crying doomsday slogans and warning of environmental devastation if we continued on our wicked, planet-destroying paths.  For much of the last thirty years we've been wrapped in a cocoon of possibility, insulated against reality, and even gigantic oil spills (the most recent Gulf spill, as Rachel Maddow pointed out on her show last night, has taught us no appreciable lessons) and devastating weather can't shake us out of our complacency.

My only recourse seems to be to build a thicker cocoon.  I've already let the birds plant a perimeter forest around this small plot, and during the summer I can hide out in the back yard between teaching assignments. In the winter I can draw insulated curtains to hold out the cold, if it ever really gets cold again. In a couple of years I can retire and take a trip out west, because Vera's 56 miles per gallon  will probably be enough to make one last visit possible.  At the rate we're pumping oil, there should be more than enough for another decade, especially if the price keeps rising and fewer people drive. 

But it's difficult to muster any optimism at all when the real price of all this pumping will be smuttier skies, less breathable air, smoggier sunsets, and universal lung problems. 

Ever hopeful,  however, I'll spend Earth Weekend in the garden, communing with the bees and butterflies that are still around, enjoying the sultry southern aromas of spring, mowing down prairie grasses, re-reading Morris, and dreaming of utopia. 

May the next year prove me wrong and provide us with a path toward change.