Silent Spring Dawns Hot, Dry and Merciless

This week, turning the corner into the astronomical Spring, we have gone abruptly from warm winter to hot summer.  And I mean hot: it was 84 degrees Farenheit in western Massachusetts today, brightly sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds against a brilliant blue sky, unobstructed by any leaves.  No shade.

Today reminded me of a wax model: beautiful but blank.  The façade of beauty, with the crucial vital spark missing.

When I went for a walk up the mountain early this morning, the woods were eerily silent.  I remembered mournfully the spring mornings of my childhood, where I would be awakened by the joyful singing of the dawn chorus of thousands of birds each happily greeting each other and the new day.  Reaching the top of the mountain having heard only the distant cry of a single phoebe, I stopped to sit on a rock and listen for a few minutes.  All I heard was the dim rushing of the traffic on the road far below me, and the drone of an airplane churning its way across the sky.

Coming down again, a few chipmunks hurried out of sight along the path, and I was keenly aware that there were no acorns underfoot, despite the oak trees towering overhead. Last fall was a terrible year for acorns, so all the animals that depend on them for overwintering must be very hungry now.  I know the bears are on the move, as one came and pulled down my bird feeder yesterday. I am thinking of bringing some sunflower seeds along on my walk tomorrow, to spread by the path as an offering of atonement.

While no one of us can shoulder personal responsibility for this tragedy of the commons, all of us who have benefited from the heedless extraction of oil and relentless destruction of the forests and the oceans must be aware of the extent to which we have brought this on ourselves, and taken the rest of the natural world along with us.

Will there come a day when the sun rises in the brilliant blue sky and looks down on a hot, dry planet, silent except for the hardiest of species, like the cockroaches and the ants, who survived previous major extinction events, and will once again continue about their business single-mindedly, able to wait out the eons while life reboots and resurges again anew?

***

Rigoberta Menchu Tum, who bore witness to genocide in Guatemala, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992

This weekend filmmaker Pamela Yates came to Bard College at Simon’s Rock to screen her film GRANITO: HOW TO NAIL A DICTATOR, as part of the Berkshire Festival of Women Writers.

This powerful film makes quite clear how the genocide in Guatemala was about land rights, with U.S.-backed military juntas working for the landowners and the corporations to clear the land of indigenous people and peasants so that big internationally funded projects like dams and mines could proceed unobstructed.

Two hundred thousand people, mostly indigenous Mayans, were massacred in the 1970s and 1980s in the service of American-fueled greed, in Guatemala alone.

It strikes me that this story is repeating now—if indeed it ever stopped—as we continue to fight over resources and land on our finite planet.

It is happening now in the forests of Indonesia, where on the island of Sumatra plantations the size of the United Kingdom, the size of Belgium—unimaginably huge tracts of magnificent rain forest with some of the richest stores of biodiversity on the planet—are being bulldozed and replanted with palms to feed international demand for palm oil.

The indigenous people who made the forest their home for millennia are being mercilessly deprived of their natural habitat just as surely as the rest of the flora and fauna there.

Endangered Sumatran Orangutan

The loss of biodiversity, including the loss of ancient indigenous human cultures, is a tragedy that cannot be quantified.  What is being lost is priceless.

It may seem like it’s all very sad, but all very far away, too.

But our summer temperatures in March have everything to do with the destruction of the last remaining old-growth forests in Indonesia, in Africa, in South America, in Canada.

Once the forest is gone, the topsoil will begin to erode.

Desert will prowl the borders of what used to be forest.

When, as in the Indonesian palm oil plantations, diverse ecosystems are replaced with monocultures, those monocultures more vulnerable to pest and climate disruption.

And then?

***

Lately I have been having recurring waking nightmares about food shortages.  Already I am concerned, as a backyard gardener, that these hot, dry spring days will not provide the proper growing conditions for spring crops like peas and lettuce.

Imagine conditions like these being replicated across the globe.

Imagine a growing season where all over the planet we lurched from heat and drought to torrential rains and tornadoes.

In the US we have become accustomed to thinking of food insecurity as something that happens in other parts of the world.

Famine stalks Asia and Africa.  It doesn’t come near us.

Or it hasn’t come near us for a very long time.

This year, as I see how the natural world around me is struggling to provide for the chipmunks, the bear and the turkeys; as I greet the arrival of the few straggling migrant birds who have managed to run the gauntlet of a landscape devastated by chemical warfare and industrial agriculture; as I gaze out at the bare trees shimmering in the unnatural midday heat, I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before our turn comes.

Today it is the indigenous people of Indonesia who are going down with their forests.

It is the desert people of North Africa who are starving, and the teeming masses of Asia who are fleeing the floods of torrential rains.

We in the huge, pampered gated communities of North America and Europe will be insulated from these shocks for much longer than those on the outside.

But our time will come.

And when it comes, it will be with the full force of every violent futuristic film we’ve ever dreamed up.

Waterworld, anyone?  Mad Max?

***

Usually I try to stay positive and keep the flame of hope burning brightly, a beacon for myself and for others.

But today this stark, in-your-face, first-day-of-spring evidence of the coming train wreck of climate change has guttered my hope.

Time is running short for us, just as it is for the bears and the birds and the native peoples of the forest.

We are coming inexorably into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

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4 Comments

  1. I’m so glad I read your article on Common Dreams a week or so ago… Your writing is so precise, sincere, and inspiring–please keep up the good work and I’ll keep coming back for more! I feel so moved to do something about the state of the world…but oh, what a long haul changing the world will be.

    We keep hearing the alarms but maybe people are so resistant because change is difficult. Stop for a moment and think “what type of change would humanity have to go through for all this destruction to disappear?” Looking at the journey ahead is daunting. Personally I’m up for the challenge but I’m not so sure others are.

    Reply
  2. Martin Lack

     /  March 21, 2012

    Hi Jennifer. You’re in western Massachusetts, huh? Definitely better than the Western Sahel. See my Have you a distorted world view? (15 March 2012).

    Also, it is over a year since the New Scientist pointed out that people in sub-Saharan Africa have no time for climate change “scepticism”.

    On another tack altogether, I hope you have been keeping up with my complaint to MIT regarding Professor Richard Lindzen? If not, please try and review my two most recent posts in advance of publication (tomorrow) of MIT’s astonishing refusal to take my complaint seriously (I have now appealed to the Executive Director of the AGU in the hope that sanity may yet prevail)….

    Reply
  3. John McMahon

     /  March 22, 2012

    Mention of the acorn shortage prompts me to mention a couple of recent news items that reveal how the interconnectedness of the natural world can have significant effects on humans even at a very personal/individual level.

    1) Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies via PhysOrg (3/16/12):

    “Lyme disease surge predicted for the northeastern US”

    “The northeastern U.S. should prepare for a surge in Lyme disease this spring. And we can blame fluctuations in acorns and mouse populations, not the mild winter. So reports Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, NY.

    What do acorns have to do with illness? Acorn crops vary from year-to-year, with boom-and-bust cycles influencing the winter survival and breeding success of white-footed mice. These small mammals pack a one-two punch: they are preferred hosts for black-legged ticks and they are very effective at transmitting Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease.

    ‘We had a boom in acorns, followed by a boom in mice. And now, on the heels of one of the smallest acorn crops we’ve ever seen, the mouse population is crashing,’ Ostfeld explains. Adding, ‘This spring, there will be a lot of Borrelia burgdorferi-infected black-legged ticks in our forests looking for a blood meal. And instead of finding a white-footed mouse, they are going to find other mammals—like us.'”

    Lots more good info:

    http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-03-lyme-disease-surge-northeastern.html

    2) UConn via PhysOrg (2/23/12):

    “Controlling Japanese barberry helps stop spread of tick-borne diseases”

    “A nature-themed drama is unfolding in a corner of the UConn Forest in Storrs. The story contains elements of surprise as well as a glimpse of the region’s agrarian past.

    The protagonist in the drama is the invasive Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii), and Tom Worthley, assistant extension professor in the Department of Extension in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, provides a couple of interesting twists in the plot as he explains why eliminating the pest will also help control the spread of the tick-borne diseases of Lyme, granulocytic anaplasmosis, and babesiosis.”

    [snip]

    “Deer are often considered to be the prime source in spreading Lyme disease because they act as hosts to adult ticks; however they are not the only culprit in the forest. Since mice love the Barberry’s habitat as much as the hungry little arachnids do, they are an efficient vector for distributing immature ticks, those in their nymph stage, over a wide area.”

    More:

    http://www.physorg.com/news/2012-02-japanese-barberry-tick-borne-diseases.html

    Reply
  4. I live in the Pacific Northwest where the crocus and daffodils are blooming up through snow. I listened to Mike Malloy read your post on the air last night and I went to bed filled with despair. Yet I know that despair isn’t useful, only action is. Blogging is something that can raise consciousness, and you are certainly doing your part. But those of us in the “advanced” world have been in obedient denial for so long all of this seems inevitable to me.

    Your post is a powerful reminder of how tiny our planet really is and how interconnected everything and everyone is. There’s a ring of inevitability to all of this I think. Those of us who rail against the petroleum industry, for example, who blog and use social networks to raise consciousness and inspire us to act, forget that our computers mostly run on oil and coal energy that is bringing us over the brink. Like Anonymous’ Guy Fawkes masks that line Warner Brothers coffers at $6.50, £5.16, or €10.50 a pop.

    I liken the whole thing to pushers (the oil and coal industries) and junkies (we who who don’t want to give up our wasteful use of energy and our cars) who sleep through the cries for innovation and the dethronement of trans-global interests.

    Sometimes I think this disaster is so unthinkably huge that we will inevitably go down with it because we do so little so late and the Machine that runs things is not about to allow them to change.

    Reply

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