Staring at a climate catastrophe without blinking
You’d expect a father to be proud of his children. But I’m proud of their friends, too. I realize this is a sweeping generalization. But I’ve been impressed by their intellects, mobilization on social issues, and willingness to put their sweat and money behind the causes they believe in-- even if many don’t have a lot of discretionary income as they start families and careers.
And all of this action in the face of daily news stories that things are going to get worse and probably much worse over the coming decades – worse droughts; famines; ever more powerful hurricanes; downpours and floods replacing rain showers; and deadly heat waves.
Until recently I lamented that I wouldn’t be around to see how things turned out. I mean that all of us have to go eventually and I don’t want to miss all the great stuff that’s going to come down the pike after I’m gone. Also, there’s still so much beauty in the world that one can’t help but regret the thought of not being around to experience the fragrance of a spring morning, or watch snow fall, or enjoy a summer sunset through the amber prism of a glass of excellent IPA.
But lately I’ve been telling myself that, in my sixties, I’m lucky I won’t be around to witness the worst of what’s coming. However, these thoughts aren’t entirely comforting since my children will be and also their children, commonly referred to as one’s grandchildren. “If the climate continues to warm on its current trajectory,” warns a story last week in the Washington Post based on findings reported in the journal Science, “the average six-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents.”
So out of morbid curiosity I decided to ask my daughter Lucy, who will be around to experience the worst, how she gets out of bed in the morning? She thinks of these issues because she’s been cautious since she was a toddler, because I like to think she was raised right, and also because she does nature for a living, working for the Prospect Park Alliance, the organization that partners with New York City to protect and maintain Brooklyn’s Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux masterpiece, their Ninth Symphony. Also, she surprised us recently by announcing that she’d enrolled in a master’s degree program in environmental conservation.
Actually, I wanted to know her thoughts about bringing children into the world; which she and her husband Malcolm, a school teacher, hope to do at this precarious moment. She described her decision less as a resounding yes than as a jump ball. One could argue, she explained, that not having kids would provide a net benefit to the planet because there would be fewer people to pollute it. On the other hand, she said “There’s got to be someone around to make things better.”
She went on, “My biological imperative coupled with the sense that I will probably do my best to create someone who appreciates the need for a different way of life slightly tips the balance towards having children. But it’s very scary to think of having kids and having them witness the end of civilization.”
Her younger sister Gracie told me, “All signs point to not having a child and seemingly everyone I know is having on anyway. Choosing to have a child is the most radical act of hope. It’s choosing life. It’s choosing humanity. I’m inclined to live my life that way.”
I wondered whether Lucy holds my generation to blame for the dire straits we find ourselves in? Because I don’t, at least not entirely. I attended the first Earth Day in New York City in 1970, at least in spirit. I believed Al Gore when he predicted the planet was on the road to Armageddon. I recycle and collect the trash from our road. Of course, I could do a lot more, starting with installing solar panels. But all that’s a drop in the bucket when the U.S. Congress continues to vacuum up campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry and China burns coal with abandon.
“Blame you? No,” Lucy said, making Thanksgiving dinner sound easier than it might have been otherwise. “I do think you can all be doing more now. But I blame executives: the fact that Exxon thirty years ago built their oil platforms extremely high to account for sea level rise while fighting the acknowledgement that climate change is real.”
Lucy said she doesn’t feel comfortable lecturing others – her parents aside when it comes to single-use plastics and going cold turkey buying from Amazon – preferring to put her beliefs into action. “But from a certain point of view,” she noted, “there’s few things you can do better than living in a city,” as she does. That’s because it lessens the pressure on ecological systems and because things like dense housing and mass transit can reduce energy use.
Though it would impact her quality of life if we followed her lead and moved back to the city permanently, depriving her access to our modest Columbia County mushroom foraging kingdom. That’s also an act of affirmation. Last week she returned to the house bearing a cascade of lion’s mane, an alabaster coral-like fungus that when breaded and fried tastes remarkably like crab cakes. It’s said to be great for the brain, too. “It’s a function of my appreciation for the planet,” she said of her afternoon foraging expeditions. “I feel very lucky to feel closely aware of the biological cycles going on around me.”
Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com
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