Category: climate change denial

Alienated from Nature

cacti on Avondale ave. web
Cacti on my block in Dallas

In a recent blog post, I wrote briefly about a family that became disconnected from their past: their connection to the land, their cooking traditions, and their own bodies. This happened over three generations as the family members made radical changes to fit into the rapid revolution of the society around them. Like most Americans, they  believed that what everyone else was doing must be right, and progress can never be wrong.

Except in our present dilemma, the mainstays  of our progress “cheap, fast, & easy” are wrong; and they are sickening us and will eventually lead to our destruction. But why can’t most of us understand this, and why are we not focussed on saving ourselves and our planet (which are clearly the same thing)?!

Many people I know who are concerned about the destruction of our ecosphere are asking the same question, but many more are avoiding the whole subject. This is very troubling and makes me wonder if our species is suicidal or just hopelessly narcissistic. Happily, much smarter people than I have written books answering this question, the best of which are George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. (Margaret Heffernan’s Willful Blindness is also a good read on this topic.)

The bad news is that the ecodestruction we are experiencing is part of what is termed a “wicked problem” in opposition to a “tame problem.” A wicked problem is multivalent, incomplete, contradictory, constantly changing, and complex. It is also, in case you haven’t noticed, very anxiety-producing! And we humans have many strategies to cope with extreme anxiety, from denial to avoidance to willful blindness. The silence we see in main stream media is a reflection of the lack of discussion of environmental destruction and extreme climate change within families.

The good news is that many societies far less wealthy or technologically advanced than ours managed to create a healthy lifestyle over a very long period of time while maintaining and even improving their environment, and we can use them as templates for our own problems. The connections that can be found between a Highland New Guinean community that has been living well on the same ground for close on 46,000 years (!) and early 21st century Americans seems  to reside in a localization of information about the environment and how to best use it. The first necessity seems to me to pay a patient and profound attention to both the great and small expressions of the natural world.

And this brings me back to my typical American family: urbanized, insulated from Nature by technology (did I fail to mention that this family has a television in every room and runs the TV from the moment they awake to the minute they go to sleep?), and unaware of the changes in the natural world around them. But they are not alone in this. Most people in my neighborhood have their properties sprayed with pesticides and have the leaves that are falling at this time of year collected and carted off the grounds. My own daughter views a spider or a roach that has found its way into our apartment to be a terrifying apparition!

So what I am suggesting is not a radical “naturalization” (for want of a better word) of our lives, but, to begin with, a small more localized awareness of our environment. Pay attention to the trees, the birds, the insects, the small mammals that are your neighbors. One of the interesting things about going to live for a couple of months in a very different environment is how amazing the flora and fauna are here compared to where I come from!

One of the reasons that I moved to Montreal, Canada eight years ago (beside it being the best place to dance tango in North America!) was the amount of wild nature that can be seen even in the heart of the city. I have raccoons, skunks, foxes, raptors, ground hogs (what the French call marmots)  near my apartment in Verdun (though I would prefer a bit more distance from the skunks and raccoons!). There is an ethical value to letting a bit of wildness into your neighbourhood (and that includes not manicuring your garden into a green desert): it will give you a more realistic idea of our place in the natural order, and will work against the human folly of arrogance.

So take a break once in a while from the man-made world (I don’t call this the “unnatural” world: we, each and every one of us, are creatures of nature): turn off the machines, close down the screens, shut out the mechanical noise. Even at her most domestic and everyday level, Nature is far more engrossing, complex, and subtle than anything invented by humans. And for a wake up call on what is the real bedrock of our world and our health, check out The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health by David Montgomery & Anne Bilké!

Because if we are not even aware of the natural world around us today, if we don’t even pay attention to it in our everyday lives, how can we be expected to care about its future planetwide demise?!








Tango & Climate Change


When I get really sad about the state of the world, about the sixth extinction that is in progress, about the floods, fires, and famines to come, I dance tango.

I have been dancing a lot lately! Tango, for those of you who don’t know, is a peculiar social dance that is very difficult to learn to dance well and is done in a close embrace with one’s partner. The beautiful tango music and the intimate physical contact  does make me feel better, at least for the couple of minutes each song lasts.

Last night I was talking to a dance buddy (let’s call him Mr. T) after we had ended a tanda together. He was dreaming about moving to Florida. There is a whole community of Québecois retired in Florida, happily soaking up the sun and speaking French. Mr. T yearns to be by the beach and watch the bikini-clad girls go by (not an unusual desire for a Northern man as women in up here in Canada spend much of their time wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing!).

I had suggested to Mr. T that Florida, especially by the shore, might not be the safest place to retire. He was a bit taken aback by the scale of Hurricane Irma (and there are a couple more lining up behind her!), but he figured that an occasional storm was par for the course in that part of the world.

And here is the issue I have with this very usual insouciance: it represents a misunderstanding of the extreme effects of climate change, and a refusal to acknowledge the radical shifts we will need to make in our modes of living to survive under these changes! Sometime it feels to me as if no one is taking extreme global climate change to heart (except, of course, the climate scientists, but even some of these continue to live in places like Houston and Florida!).

For example, these “best places to live when you retire” sites are still touting Panama, Costa Rica, and Portugal among other tropical or warm place as best places to spend one’s golden years, without any mention about how rising waters, more violent hurricanes, out of control forest fires, and massive numbers of environmental refugees will strain those countries infrastructures and governments!

But to return to Florida and the unstable coastlines: the problem is not just a simple one of rising water. Florida has also been made vulnerable to coastline degradation and storm surges because of the death of the protective coral reefs near the shore.

And because unfettered building has been permitted, much of the wetlands have been paved over. These wetlands are the protection from flooding when there is tremendous rains, which are the natural result of the warmer air and water produced by global warming.

But how to explain complex environmental systems clearly enough to suggest what are the best choices in where and how to live in the coming years, especially to someone who is so distanced from the natural world as to be completely oblivious about it? Well, Mr. T, here is something to think about before you make that move to Florida:

And I’m off to another milonga!


Seasons of Fire & Water


Had an heartrending FB conversation this morning with a young friend in Portland Oregon who is mourning the destruction of her beloved Eagle Creek forest by a wild fire set by a group of careless stupid kids. Wild fires, she tells me, are not unexpected at this time of year (the end of the dry season), but this arson is presently burning 20,000 acres and is still out of control!

At the same time, on the other coast of this large country, a category 5 hurricane, Irma, is heading to the Eastern seaboard. The population of Florida is evacuating and has been told that they have until Friday to finish their emergency preparations. Hurricane Irma follows closely after Hurricane Harvey, which caused billions of dollars of damage and created a vast ongoing ecological disaster.

What I find unsettling about our reactions to these catastrophes is that they are seen as anomalies within expected seasonal occurrences. The extreme weather is being disguised, in a manner of speaking, by appearing where we expect it to appear. As it has been twelve years since a hurricane struck in the Gulf of Mexico, the thinking is that Hurricane Harvey may just be a fluke (and Hurricane Irma? and the hurricane after that?).

Strict no burn rules are in place in Oregon for wilderness that are prone to wild fires. The thinking is that the fire that is consuming Eagle Creek should not have happened; it was simply the result of unsupervised teens throwing firecrackers into the woods…a wood that was as dry as kindling! But what about the lands burning in British Colombia, Portugal, Greenland?!

What is not being understood in both these scenarios is the fundamental role that climate change is playing in both places. Yes, this is hurricane season in the southern Atlantic; but no, the water in that ocean has never been as warm as it is now and never so warm to such a depth which means that the hurricanes forming are going to be of a size and a ferocity never seen before! There may not be a larger number of storms, but they will drop much more water and last much longer.

Equally, in those parts of the world seeing the dry season, the heat is higher and, incrementally, it will be lasting longer and longer which will dry out not only the trees but the soil as well.…/global-warming-and-wildfire.html 

So what I am suggesting is that this is just the tip of the iceberg (a metaphor that may be obsolete in the not too distant future!), and it is important that we do two things: the first is to control our feelings of shock. Bill McKibben’s book, Eaarth, available from the library, is a good way to get used to the idea that our environment all over the planet is beginning, and will continue, to get harsher. Just how unsupportive and dangerous it will become will depend on whether we can get out act together to stop using fossil fuels and wasting the earth’s resources.

But as there is no guarantee that we will succeed at this, the second important thing for us to do- and this is the main focus of my blog- is to start to put in place the life style changes that will make us safe in both the short-term and long term. The US Federal government should be a help in this endeavour, but our government is, in fact, an impediment, cutting funding to such vital services as FEMA and the EPA! The state governments are very uneven: some, such as Texas being openly hostile to their people’s needs, and others, like California, being a good resource.

So, regardless, we will want to do what we can as householders to weather the extreme conditions that are beginning to be felt. I am suggesting that we become more proactive. If we know that hurricane season is approaching, emergency supplies should be put in early rather that scrambling to gather them at the last moment. Or, if you are a freelancer or your employer allows it, plan on living somewhere else for hurricane season!

Fire season will be more problematic as it is predicted to finally extend for most of the year. However California has a good emergency program in place for earthquakes: houses are built to be earthquake proof; earthquake drills are an accepted part of life, and evacuation plans are in place. Now substitute wildfires for earthquakes and you get a clear idea of how this would look.

Next post is on what to do to protect yourself from floods; the one after that on what to do in case of fire.

Please comment, especially if you have important information that I have missed. Thanks!