The Planet’s Still Warming, Covid or Not

From an article by Bill McKibben, whose work I’ve been following ever since he founded 350.org and started writing the New Yorker’s Climate Crisis newsletter:

Seventh Generation, the recycled-paper-towel and household-products company, commissioned a survey, released in April. It showed that seventy-one per cent of millennials and sixty-seven per cent of Generation Z feel that climate change has negatively affected their mental health. How upset were they? Four in five people in the eighteen-to-twenty-three age cohort “aren’t planning—or didn’t want—to have children of their own as a result of climate change.” Even if the survey were off by fifty per cent, that would still be an astonishing number.

Let us think about the children. Please.

In The Emissary by Yoko Tawada, children have been enfeebled by an unnamed disaster, Japan has been sealed off from the rest of the world, and language has begun to vanish. The elderly remain curiously strong as everyone contemplates a reality in which children will not make it to adulthood.

There’s a kind of frail beauty in the book, and I was especially fascinated by the course of the shifting of language–Tawada herself writes in both Japanese and German–and in the horror of the young Mumei’s growing inevitably sicker.

There was a time when a novel like this would have been thought-provoking but safely in the realm of fiction. These days, not so much. We’re living in a dystopia, and storytelling’s not going to be enough to get us out of it. As McKibben puts it, One Crisis Doesn’t Stop Because Another Starts:

For perspective, April was the four hundred and twenty-fourth consecutive month with temperatures above the twentieth-century average, meaning that, if you’re under thirty-five, you’ve never lived through a cooler-than-usual month.

Is there any good news on this front? Paradoxically, McKibben writes:

…a burst of installation of new solar and wind power last year meant that, for roughly forty straight days this spring, the United States produced more electricity from wind, water, and sun than it did from coal.

All right, hold that thought, and let your elected representatives know it matters, for the sake of young people.

On Earth Day: Reading Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life was a masterpiece of vision and heart, published in 1941, and overshadowed by the events of World War II. Knowing of Carson’s life and work, it’s possible to see a parallel between that largely unsung book launch and today’s pendemic overshadowing the earth and its crisis of climate.

Under the Sea-Wind was the first book by a genius whose life was too short.n It’s the tender, minutely detailed chronicling of a coastline and the lives it nourishes.

I looked at how the opening and ending speak to one another. Here’s the first paragraph:

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

It places readers at the shoreline, making us suddenly aware of an unknown landscape coexisting with our own. That landscape, we know from the beginning, lives by its own rules. If we cannot even see where water ends and land begins, how will we step wisely?

The ending, too, makes us feel our proper size in the bigger scheme of things:

As the waiting of the eels off the mouth of the bay was only an interlude in a long life filled with constant change, so the relation of sea and coast and mountain ranges was that of a moment in geologic time. For once more the mountains would be worn away by the endless erosion of water and carried in silt to the sea, and once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea.

A moment in geologic time. That’s the span we occupy. In the end, the earth will keep turning, the mountains eroding, the shoreline shifting. We have seen already what happens (fake news notwithstanding) when we remove our clumsy selves from city streets–or is it at least in part that when we’re not rushing around, we have time to pay attention?

When we are through the pandemic, we will have to think about what kind of tomorrow we want. While everyone longs nostagically to get back to normal, we will need to understand that there will be no going back. Carson’s book is about time as much as place, and time will keep on moving, whether we take helpful actions or harmful ones.

Tell Them We Are Nothing Without Our Islands

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By Stefan Lins from Tokyo, Japan (Laura beach n’ tree) [CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

The Marshall Islands were settled by master navigators three thousand years ago, fought over by European powers, Imperial Japan, and the United States of America, then bludgeoned during the cold war by the infamous US Bikini Atoll atomic explosions. I’d venture to say most people in North America still have no idea where they are. But we should care, because these islands are the canaries in the mine where we all find ourselves, like it or not.

Here, from Marshall Islands poet and activist Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, chronicler of her fragile homeland, is an eloquent plea:

Barbie Gets a Hijab and Other Good News

In the midst of the world spiraling into chaos, Christina Brinkley’s New Yorker article on the new Barbie made me smile.

And in the good news department, the young people’s climate change lawsuit is moving forward. There’s a story for our time, taking shape in the real world.

In another space, the kind that exists in real time but places the mind somewhere between reality and story, I am revising like a maniac. This is necessary in practical terms, on account of the project at hand that calls for manic revising. In the weird world of what we call writing process for lack of any better term, it leaves me exhausted while simultaneously tapping unknown reserves of enthusiasm and energy.

IMG_2144But in between bursts of revision, I’m reading Philip Pullman’s glorious new book, The Book of Dust #1: La Belle Sauvage. It’s right there on the little rug next to my treadmill desk, where I can snatch it up and indulge as needed. At the moment, the hard part is putting it down. It will likely go on my rereading list in the future. Pullman’s fictional world at once closes in on human frailties and offers hope in the form of its smallest, most seemingly instinctive acts of empathy.

“Water is another matter”

Pablo Neruda wrote, relative to the “bristling” earth:

Water is another matter,
has no direction but its own bright grace,
runs through all imaginable colors,
takes limpid lessons
from stone,

MonsoonI’m feeling drawn to thinking about water today. It’s the same sort of impulse that led me to write Monsoon, my very first picture book, which was published all of fourteen years ago. It seems more imperative now.

Maybe it’s just that in the time that’s passed, water has become ever more precious, an ever more fragile resource. Look at what they’re finding out about the delicate dance of ocean currents in maintaining the planet’s temperature.

Annapurna trek.JPGMaybe I’m missing the ice-cold waterfall I walked through, barefoot, three years ago in Nepal.

Whatever the reason, I find myself pulling this book down from my shelf: All the Water in the World by George Ella Lyon, illustrated by Katherine Tillotson.

Start with the jacket, with the small fish leaping in one corner, the tumultuous wash of blue and the swoop of the title and byline into the book’s interior.

all the waterThe title page takes this further. The fish have wings. The waves take on a purple hue.

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Still, it’s pretty straightforward. But turn the page and this is what you see:

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There it is.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.

Simple. Elegant. And in the light of the slowing currents, deeply true. There’s more. I can’t quote the text without showing the images, and I don’t want to spoil the effect of the page turn. But between the art and the words, this book delivers its message with power and grace.

And now I think again about that waterfall. How I walked gasping through it. How it made me feel, for the next few hours, as if I were walking on clouds. How such things are gifts to us from the universe.

There are quite a few books for young readers now that address environmental issues including climate change, but it’s rare to find one that drives home the interconnectedness of living things with the systems and forces that keep the planet capable of sustaining life. Maybe we should be sending copies to policymakers in the United States.

It is Time to be Alarmed

Last week I went to see An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. I thought I’d be depressed. After all, I’ve seen the Al Gore charts in the original movie. I know the facts. I feel helpless to do anything about them.

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NASA Earth Observatory image by Robert Simmon, using Suomi NPP VIIRS imagery from NOAA’s Environmental Visualization Laboratory

But I watched this one with Houston and the Caribbean fresh in my mind, along with the uncomfortable awareness that while North American eyes were first on Texas and then on Florida, 45 million people were affected by floods in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India. And I felt a curious consolation that Gore, in his journey to understanding, somehow gets this global perspective. The image of the blue marble, Earth, made me think long and hard. When are we going to get beyond boundaries of nationality and language, politics and borders? What will it take to make us quit flag-waving and nationalistic jingoism? How many floods will it take? How much drought? How many climate change refugees?

Last year saw the publication of a nonfiction book about climate change for teens. In It’s Getting Hot in Here: The Past, Present and Future of Climate Change, Bridget Heos tackles the issue of global warming head-on for a teen audience. In a review of this title from last year, Publishers Weekly says:

Heos (Stronger than Silk) doesn’t mince words in this self-described “call to action,” as she clearly and effectively details the greenhouse effect, the ice ages and mass extinctions of Earth’s history, the scientific evidence behind climate change, the ways human activities contributes to it, and the politicization of the topic.

So there. Talk to your politicians. Talk to each other. Get the dirt on oil in your neighborhood and your community. Find out who’s blocking alternative energy. Find an environmental NGO to support. At the very least, go to the United Nations site and offset your carbon emissions for the last year. It is time to be alarmed.