On climate change, politics, and the power of good women writers.
The last week has been pretty chilly for the Coast, especially for February. Where we should be seeing cherry blossoms and rain, we’ve been having nice clear skies and heavy frost—even snow.
Apparently, it’s because of a split in the polar vortex. Record warm temperatures have been recorded at the North Pole, as reported by Andrew Freedman at Mashable.
“Not only was the region near the North Pole the warmest it has been during the month of February since at least the 1950s, but one of the northernmost land-based weather stations…exceeded the freezing mark on an unprecedented nine separate days during the month.”
This warmth was associated with a sudden stratospheric warming event, and a subsequent splitting of the polar vortex, which is what caused our cold weather here on the west coast.
“The ultra-cold air typically found in the Arctic during February drained out of the region, as if someone opened the Northern Hemisphere’s freezer door and left it ajar.” (I love this metaphor)
These changes in the Arctic are the result of feedback effects driven by climate change, which have global impacts (see my upcoming review of Brave New Arctic in Science Magazine).
Sometimes it seems the environmental news is bad everywhere you turn, and it’s rapidly getting worse.
I recently read about “mass mortality events,” or MMEs, which have been increasing at a rate of one per year. A few examples included the sudden death (over a few days) of 200,000 saiga antelopes in Russia due to a bacterial infection that caused blood poisoning, or the deaths of 45,000 flying foxes in one day in south-east Queensland, Australia, due to a heat wave.
The human response to environmental issues isn’t really that heartening, especially when the Evangelical head of the EPA says:
“The biblical world view with respect to [environmental] issues is that we have a responsibility to manage and cultivate, harvest the natural resources that we’ve been blessed with to truly bless our fellow mankind.”
Add up Scott Pruitt’s changes to the EPA based on his religious beliefs (including cutting coal regulations by rolling back Obama’s Clean Power Rules, and cutting the organization that studies chemicals harmful to children), plus Trump’s cuts to most government agencies just to make up his billion-dollar tax bill (including cutting the Biological Survey Unit, which has records of flora and fauna since 1885), plus Zinke’s plans to shrink national monuments…I could go on, but you see where this is going.
The common theme is that the Trump government is sending the US back to the dark ages of environmental protection (and civil rights, immigration, etc.—but let’s not go there today), and there will be no easy way to fix it even if he’s removed from office. Though things are better here in Canada, we can’t ignore what’s happening south of the border.
At the same time, these changes are happening in the context of a digital revolution that’s moving faster than humans can keep up. A recent article by Charlie Warzel at Buzzfeed covers a range of technological advances that allow people to propagate fake news that looks real—but isn’t. Aviv Ovadya has been studying this trend, and says that we’re being subject to:
“A slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality…technologies that can be used to enhance and distort what is real are evolving faster than our ability to understand and control or mitigate [them].”
For example, Scott Galloway writes that Facebook was “weaponized” during the 2016 election. And, even now, Russia’s military-intelligence agency (GRU) is using Facebook, Google, and Twitter to foment racially motivated violence.
We can already see the effects of these technological tools, as in a recent Rand report titled “Truth Decay: the Diminishing Role of Facts and Analysis in American Public Life.” The authors argue that truth decay (caused by things like “an increasing disagreement about facts and analytical interpretations of facts and data”) leads to:
“the erosion of civil discourse, political paralysis, alienation and disengagement of individuals from political and civic institutions, and uncertainty over national policy.”
So at the same time that the environment south of the border is being subject to its biggest assault in probably 50 years, democratic institutions are crumbling under the weight of right-wing slash-and-burn policies, the news of those changes is subject to falsification and propagandization, and we have the continued blurring of fact vs. fiction and the increasing antipathy towards “experts” of any kind.
To add another layer to this unpalatable cake, the big four: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google, are working behind the scenes to collect reams of information about us and sell it to the highest bidder (note this linked article is from 2010—I imagine information collection has become more efficient and more pervasive since then).
We are no longer ourselves—we are merely zeroes and ones on a digital map that tracks our movement around the web and on these large social media platforms. We are blips on a pollster’s computer, decoding liberals versus conservatives—progressive versus regressive politics—so that the politicians know where to find sympathetic ears.
It all seems quite overwhelming.
What do we do? Throw away our phones to get away from social media? Move to the bush and hope that no one bothers us for the next 50 years and we can at least save a small piece of wilderness?
On The Last Word on Nothing blog, Michelle Nijhuis and Helen Fields talk about “breaking up” with their phones. As Fields writes:
“I find it a little sad that we all stare at our phones while we’re waiting. I don’t do it anymore, and I spend a lot of time looking at other people looking at their phones.”
My friend, Antonia Malchik, wrote a letter to Krista Tippett at On Being, asking how we should stand up for democracy, for human rights, for our communities, in a world that’s becoming increasingly polarized, and where there’s serious potential for personal harm by stating your truth and beliefs.
“I would really love to hear something that is focused directly on how to cope with fear…Especially for progressives living in small, rural, conservative-leaning towns with very little ethnic diversity, there can be a pervading sense of fear, both for ethnic minorities and for progressive activists. In addition, as a writer, I receive my fair share of troll attacks on Twitter. And while this isn’t uncommon, I struggle a great deal with carrying fear while trying to continue doing my work.”
Tippett read that letter to her guest, Brené Brown, who replied:
“while the inextricable connection between human beings cannot be severed, it can be forgotten [hence our fear of our neighbours]. And we need moments of collective joy, and we need moments and experiences of collective pain. We need to find ways to come together in those moments.”
This sentiment is mirrored in Ana Maria Spagna’s article in High Country News, in which she describes two moments when she was in a diverse group of people unexpectedly brought together by a single event. One was a group of travelers in an airport when a casket arrived, and the other was a group of people at an ocean lookout, watching whales go by. These are those moments that Brown described to Krista Tippett: moments of both collective pain and collective joy, respectively.
It’s those moments of togetherness that make people realize that, despite our differences in politics, gender, personal pronoun preferences, and more—we are all still people in a community who are connected by the very fact of being in close proximity to each other. We can’t put a wall up between us.
When I really despair about what’s happening in the world, I feel inspired by the many women out there whom I know are writing articles and books to help us understand both our past and our current trajectory.
Rebecca Altman is writing a book about the legacy of persistent pollutants, and wrote this wide-ranging story about plastics and how they run in her family. Altman draws a link between the volatility of plastic production and the volatility of politics at the time:
“the volatility my father described as inherent to plastics-making mirrored the social milieu of the decade in which he made it: the assassinations; the ignition of racism and racial inequalities in Plainfield, where he lived; and the Vietnam War.”
Antonia Malchick is writing “A Walking Life,” about an activity that we know is more important than ever to our well-being as we spend more time in front of screens and less time moving, less time in nature. And an activity that is becoming increasingly difficult in cities built for cars rather than people. Walking isn’t just an enjoyable activity—it’s a social justice issue.
Sarah Menkendick just published Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm. I remember reading an essay from the book on Vela Mag, about place and rootedness, and how that ties into motherhood. I’m not a parent, but her words about place stuck with me.
“For the first time in my life, I understand the concept of home: it is not a refuge, not necessarily a snuggly place of warmth and cheery domesticity, not some essential rightness like the satisfying click that releases a lock, but rather a sense of peace with contradiction. It is a giving in, an acceptance, the place where I finally strip life of all its decor of aspiration and regret and let it be what it is, where it is, and nothing more. It is the space in which I forgo both anticipation and nostalgia, the space to which I let myself belong, with the attendant responsibility, acceptance of the mundane, and comfortable beauty of belonging.”
Kelly J. Baker tackles issues around women in academia in a new book called Sexism Ed. This is the kind of work that will challenge the “system” as we know it:
“Pulling very few punches, Baker writes about gender inequity, precarious labor, misogyny, and structural oppression. Sexism and patriarchy define our work and our lives, within and outside of academia.”
Canadian Kate Harris (also a former scientist), has just published Land of Lost Borders, a tale of cycling along the Silk Road. It envisions a whole new world for explorers—female ones in particular.
“An explorer, in any day and age, is by definition the kind of person who refuses to live between the lines. Forget charting maps, naming peaks, leaving footprints on another planet: what [Harris] yearned for was the feeling of soaring completely out of bounds.”
This sense of adventure also resonates in Sarah Gilman’s post at The Last Word on Nothing, which takes Gilman and her friends away from the mess of the everyday world:
“It wasn’t an unusual backpacking trip, really. Just a good one. It felt like we’d managed to hike up out of a grimy, imperfect world into clean territory—a glimmer of persistent goodness amid endless reminders of how slow some things are to change.”
It even brings in Brown and Spagna’s ideas about the importance of sharing moments with each other:
“Here, there was only warmth and the camaraderie of strangers and friends drawn together by a moment of beauty before the endless rain of a Pacific Northwest winter.”
I started this blog post despairing at the state of the word: the environment, politics, our relationships with people in our communities, the data mining that follows our every click on the web. But I feel a bit better now with the words of these fabulous women writers echoing in my ears.
We must stick with what lifts us up, with what gives us the courage and hope to carry on in the face of what seem like insurmountable obstacles. It’s easy to get dragged down by the worst in the world. It’s harder to focus on the good, and hang on tight to move into a better future.