My garden club recently sent out an environmental questionnaire. The club's program committee wanted to know what we would like to learn more about, in order of preference: air and water quality, public lands and parks, native plants or climate change?
I was stumped. How to chose just one when they were all so interconnected? My gut tilted me toward water quality because I'd proposed a speaker on that topic. A guy I know in Iowa is suing the feds over hog confinement pollution. He'd give a rousing talk. Iowa's befouled air and water pose an immediate threat to living people. He would conjure up frightful images of asthmatic children wheezing, of piglets wriggling in their own antibiotic- and growth-hormone-laden excrement.
He would not talk about climate change, though — not because he isn't spooked by the role agriculture plays in the crisis, but because it isn't his area of expertise.
What with even the pope now pushing for action on fossil fuels as a moral imperative (the vulnerable poor are already suffering from what he calls, unequivocally, a man-made disaster), I should click on the climate-change box, right?
Wrong, writes the acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen. His essay "Carbon Capture," published in the April 6 issue of the New Yorker, begins with a story about Minneapolis. Franzen was sickened by the Vikings stadium commission's decision to not spend a tenth of a tenth of the cost of the shiny new sports palace on a type of glass that would prevent thousands of birds from crashing into the stadium's transparent façade and plunging to their deaths.
Worse for Franzen than the decision itself was the sentiment expressed by the Star Tribune's environmental blogger, who wrote that these deaths were nothing compared with what climate change would do to bird populations at some later date, so why bother with now?
Franzen's defense of actual living birds gave way to a broader discussion of why climate change gets no respect. His transition from emotional certainty about birds to intellectual uncertainty about global warming reminded me of my response to the garden club questionnaire. Were the catastrophic and sweeping implications of global warming distracting us from solving fixable problems, like improving Iowans' water quality (not to mention hogs' quality of life) and saving a specific group of birds from death by window glass, just because we didn't have a clue how we'd save whole species from vanishing habitats?
Franzen tells how he traveled to Latin America to visit a pair of conservation projects where endangered bird species are nurtured in nature sanctuaries that were themselves rescued from industrial plantation overkill. Amazon Conservation is a sustainable park and farm on public land in Peru. Costa Rica's Area de Conservación Guanacaste (A.C.G.) is a sizable swath of tropical rainforest that a pair of American scientists began restoring in 1985, training locals to perform meticulous experiments, record data and care for the place.
Franzen believes that putting ordinary people to work protecting large, lush pockets of nature will, in the end, prove more useful to the planet than designing solutions along the same market-driven, large-scale industrial lines (think wind farms) as the ones that created both global warming and the mind-set that put man in charge of nature and capital in charge of man. If these pockets survive in some dark future when the electric grid and the World Wide Web and possibly mankind itself have vanished, then surely there's a better chance of the planet rebooting than if they didn't exist.
There's another rationale for this approach. People are unique in that we need a sense of purpose to be happy. No other species invents higher powers or makes art. Our relentless search for meaning drives some of us to imagine a material heaven on Earth with man in control. Others are content to earn their reward through unselfish acts. The heroes of Franzen's piece are of the Franciscan persuasion (albeit not religious). They seek only to love.
Franzen credits philosopher Dale Jamieson, author of "Reason in a Dark Time," with clarifying his own sense of paralysis in the face of climate change. "Ordinarily, I avoid books on the subject, but .… I was intrigued by its subtitle, 'Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed — And What It Means for Our Future.' "
Jamieson is skeptical that humans will "solve" climate change, partly because those willing to admit its existence, progressive liberals like me, think our democratic institutions have been undermined by corporate money. While that may be true as far as it goes, a more insidious force against change is democracy itself, Jamieson contends, which dovetails perfectly with consumer-driven economics policy. Routinely we vote down measures to levy a gasoline tax, for instance. In a democracy, the individual's perception of his or her immediate best interests comes first.
"A good democracy, after all, acts in the interests of its citizens," Franzen writes, "and it's precisely the citizens of the major carbon-emitting democracies who benefit from cheap gasoline and global trade, while the main costs of our polluting are borne by those who have no vote: poorer countries, future generations, other species. The American electorate, in other words, is rationally self-interested."
(It should be noted that in the U.S. energy and agriculture products are heavily subsidized for the benefit of corporations, too. Industry lobbying and campaign spending, as well as consumer advertising, strongly influence the voting public.)
Obama's Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen earlier this year recommended further study of human traits that contribute to economic success. If we only knew what motivates people to succeed, we could harness this knowledge and everyone would prosper, she says. Really? How could an economist not know that in an era of finite resources, economic success for some comes at the expense of others? When there are more people than dollars created in the world, the ambitious and driven (and privileged and educated) will appropriate more and more of those dollars. It's a zero-sum game.
Climate change has made one thing very clear to me if not to Janet Yellen. Her model of advancement is unsustainable.
Both Franzen and Naomi Klein, author of "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate," envision a transition from capitalism and mass production of goods to more labor-intensive, community-based governance that would radically reduce the power of banking and the Fed. This system would require voters to be willing to raise tariffs and adopt trade laws that favor local over global commerce, and bartering over borrowing.
Such measures may sound ridiculous now, but catastrophes can be transformative. It was a crippling Depression that ushered in the New Deal. It was the very real threat of a nuclear holocaust that launched the space program that landed a man on the moon. It was nations pulling together, people willing to ration and share and recycle and conserve, that saved the world from the Nazis.
Railing against the corporate takeover of the universe is not going to fix our environmental problems any more than embracing global market-driven solutions will. We can be skeptical, and we can exhort others to be skeptical and to push for regulations that would curb emissions and get the money out of politics and all the rest — but we should also roll up our sleeves. I am not asking people to reduce their carbon footprint yet again. I am proposing that they throw themselves into some kind of hands-on, real-world project that will actually make them care again.
For you, if your expertise is medicine, it might be working pro bono in Third World countries. For me, because I'm a garden writer, it's tending my plants and sharing with readers the lessons they teach. For Franzen, it's chasing after birds. (His bestseller "Freedom" was about a progressive liberal who "sold out" to a right-wing organization so as to save a bird sanctuary.)
The sustainable-farm movement shows that young people are ahead of the curve on this. They already get how important it is to develop meaningful relationships with nonhuman species. Many of them also believe that our species' extinction offers the rest of nature's best hope.
We have a lot of time to kill before this happens. Nuclear war, not climate change, is still the likeliest near-term case of human extinction. And we still have that other problem, the problem of meaning.
The conservationists in Franzen's piece answer his questions by telling stories. There was the story of "the discovery that dry-forest moth species spend part of [its] life cycle in humid forest, and how this led … to [expanding] the scope of their already ambitious project. And the story of the thousand truckloads of orange peel that [Costa Rica's] A.C.G. took off the hands of an orange-juice plant in exchange for fourteen hundred hectares of prime forest, and how a mischief-making environmentalist then sued the juice company for illegally dumping the peels on public land, even though, by the time the suit was settled, they'd decayed into a rich, reforestation-promoting loam."
Franzen is a novelist and may be biased. But I'm inclined to agree that telling stories is crucial to our happiness and even our survival. It may be our only way out of this.
Stories begin with commitment. Roll up your sleeves. Care about something. What have you got to lose?
Bonnie Blodgett is a writer in St. Paul. Reach her at email@example.com.