Our Worst Nightmare

As a life-long environmentalist (“environmentalism” was once known as “simple common-sense”), I’m accustomed to trying to convince others that plastic detritus is suffocating the planet, recycling is A Good Thing and those who live on the coast run the very real risk of drowning in rising waters even as drought and cataclysmic storms decimate other areas of the nation.

“But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” – Rachel Carson

Ms. Carson wrote her seminal work Silent Spring in 1962 so we’ve had at least half-century in which to consider the impacts of mankind’s voracious “slash and burn” approach to the maintenance of the land, air and water.

But we’re odd, solipsistic creatures who are addicted to instant gratification and measure success by our level of consumerism. He/she who buys the most, wastes the most, lives in the largest house and drives the biggest car wins.

These days there is much discussion of the environmental “tipping point”: that Alice in Wonderland moment of plummeting down the rabbit hole with nothing but our worst nightmares at the end of the fall.

But what, exactly is that “tipping point”? Is it the 350ppm level of CO2 in the atmosphere under which we must stay if we are to thrive? If it is, we’ve tipped already because the current level is over 391ppm.

Perhaps the critical point is found in the rate of polar ice melt. If so, we’ve taken a big step off that cliff. From March to September this year the ice loss was a mind-boggling 4.57 million square miles (an area that is larger than the United States). Meanwhile, Greenland and two of the three ice sheets that cover Antarctica have lost an estimated 237 billion metric tons of ice in the past two decades alone. And the rate of melt is accelerating… fast.

Half way down the rabbit hole some scream in protest while others calmly deny that they’re falling.

I imagine a vast stadium with millions (trillions? centillions?) of carefully placed dominoes. They stand in endless rows of elegant precision – the creation of a mind that grasps the concept of cause and effect. Like nature itself, it all appears to be so perfectly ordered that nothing could disturb the field.

And then it happens: a man carelessly topples the first domino. From there it is an unstoppable avalanche of logical sequence – unless the Brobdingnagian foot of “collective human will” steps firmly down upon the floor and ends the chaos. (At which point that which went before is left in disarray and that which remains standing is the only hope).

Following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, there is much media chatter about sea level rise and its ramifications for coastal areas. Oh, the shock! Who knew? (Okay, yes, scientists and sane people did… but they’re “anti-progress” cranks who don’t understand the joys of driving a Hummer).

Ignore those annoying EPA people. Disregard those silly NOAA wonks and global scientists. Let’s, instead, dance like star-struck rats behind the Pied Piper parade of politicians who delight in the “kick the can down the road” game while waving banners inscribed with catchy mottos e.g. “It Ain’t My Problem!,” “Drill, baby drill!,” “Who Gives a Frack?” or the oh-so-common one, “What the Heck – I’ll be Dead by Then, Suckers!”

Some communities are actually trying to be proactive by doing their best to seek out and disseminate information via public symposiums and ongoing educational out-reach efforts.

Others are “armoring” the beaches or replacing existing artificial barriers such as bulkheads and rock walls with biodegradable bags filled with oyster shells. (In time, oysters begin to thrive and do an admirable job of stabilizing the shoreline. This is being tried on Sapelo Island, Georgia). Yet, still, despite overwhelming evidence and the consensus of the global scientific community, many people are either skeptical or uncaring.

And then, of course, we have the rabid “climate change denialists” who will remain adamantly ignorant even as the rising waters wash away their placards and “Global Warming Is A Hoax” tee shirts.

Never mind our responsibilities to present and future generations. Never mind the tragic loss of life. Never mind the crushing economic costs: billions of dollars lost during last summer’s drought in the Midwest; Hurricane Sandy at $50 billion and mounting; the coastal cities like Hallandale Beach, FL, (9 ft above sea level) where $10 million was spent on new city wells because salt water had seeped into six of the wells that were close to sea. The list goes on.

One would think that all of this would be alarming enough to have, long ago, caused a concerted international response – but most people can’t even be bothered to forgo plastic grocery bags in favor of cloth ones. They “forget to bring them to the store.”

And so the dominoes fall and I doubt that mankind possesses the will or the way to avert the inexorable finale. It will take a sudden moment of global shock – a collective “Uh oh! We have to turn this around… fast!” – to produce meaningful change. But one wonders what unimaginably devastating event would precipitate such an awakening.

Right now we’re just modern-day versions of the small Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, praying that he can hold back the sea.

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Image: this photo is presumed in the public domain as it is offered as a free download.
Alex Kearns

Alex Kearns

Alex writes for a variety of national and international publications. A relative newcomer to the United States, she co-founded her town's first environmental organization (The St. Marys EarthKeepers, Inc.). In turns bemused, confused, entranced, frustrated and delighted, she enjoys unravelling the eternal enigma that is the Deep South.