Usually there is one image every week that burns itself into my memory and won’t let go. That’s the one I have to write about.
This week, this is it:
It’s coupled with a small, unheralded story, which I’m sure many people missed, about how soot is a much more dangerous contributor to the greenhouse effect than had previously been estimated.
I paid attention to this because I remember soot well.
In the luxurious enclaves in Manhattan where I lived as a child and young adult, soot was omnipresent.
It lay, black and unrepentant, on the white painted windowsills of our apartments. It got into your eyes when the wind blew. It came off black on the cotton balls I’d use to clean my face at night. It gradually turned the white starched window curtains and the elegant rugs and carpets a dingy gray.
Looking at the images from Beijing this week, I can hardly bear to imagine how heavily besmirched with soot everything in that city must be.
I have vivid memories of standing on the corner of 86th Street and Park Avenue in Manhattan as a child, and being totally engulfed with the hot black diesel smoke belching out of one of the public buses that ran the crosstown route.
It happened on a daily basis, and never failed to disgust me. I felt some small, inner part of myself wilting, just like I saw the spindly trees planted in iron cages on 86th street gradually giving up and dying, a little more each day.
I also had to contend with cigarette smoke at home. I remember long winter car rides in which my parents would pass a lighted cigarette back and forth between them in the front seat. I detested the smell of cigarette smoke, it made me feel like I was going to either faint or explode. I did neither, of course; just cracked my window in the back seat and sat there miserably with my nose to the wind, grateful for the short periods between cigarettes, when I could relax.
I’m in one of those short periods now.
Hurricane Sandy did not hit us here in the interior Northeast, and the weather has been relatively mild so far this winter.
Food prices are going up, for sure, but there are no shortages, no bread lines as of yet.
Except that every year there are fewer and fewer songbirds at my bird feeder.
Every summer fewer butterflies make it to the butterfly bush in my garden.
Every fall the leaves on the sugar maples get a little smaller and less shapely.
It’s a slow, steady decline that many people, less tuned into the natural world, probably don’t see at all.
But it’s there.
I don’t know if we in the US will ever get to the dramatic, disgusting air pollution levels of Beijing. But there will come a time when we can no longer count on the kind of abundance we’ve become accustomed to in the supermarkets.
Floods, droughts, lack of pollinators and an increase of superbugs will take their toll.
The climate thermometer will creep ever higher.
It will all accelerate—don’t think that we won’t see the beginnings of destabilization in our lifetimes. We are seeing them now.
“If we continue to refuse to deal with things in an orderly and rational way, we will head into some sort of major catastrophe, sooner or later,” Wright said. “If we are lucky it will be big enough to wake us up worldwide but not big enough to wipe us out. That is the best we can hope for.
“We must transcend our evolutionary history. We’re Ice Age hunters with a shave and a suit. We are not good long-term thinkers. We would much rather gorge ourselves on dead mammoths by driving a herd over a cliff than figure out how to conserve the herd so it can feed us and our children forever. That is the transition our civilization has to make. And we’re not doing that.”
What we need now is a rapid evolutionary acceleration of consciousness, so that we become the kind of long-term thinkers that can size up the terrible circumstances in which we find ourselves now, and do what needs to be done to successfully solve the problems.
We have the technology, we have the know-how, we have the ethical framework. We just need the will and determination to make it happen.
I am happy to see President Obama forging ahead on the gun control issue in the US. That is important work.
But it will be irrelevant and forgotten when climate destabilization leads to deprivation and social chaos.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again til I’m blue in the face: there is no more important issue to work on now than shifting to renewable energy and ending our cultural addiction to fossil fuels.
Not later. Now.