Rain. It started early this morning before I awoke, earlier than I expected. The weather report predicts highs of 40°F, and rain throughout Vermont. All the snow that fell yesterday is melting and compacting, and when a cold front moves through in a few days, we will have more ice. It seems that each time we get a good snowfall the air warms up enough to melt it within a week. Up and down, snow and rain, cold and warm. The winter is riding a teeter-totter.
Last Saturday at the Laundromat, I overheard a friendly conversation between a man and a woman. It went like this:
man: T-shirts in January! I’m happy.
woman: Yeah, who’d a thunk it?
man: Well, people want to chalk it up to this and that, and that we’re payin’ for something now, but I say it is what it is. Just let’s say it’s mild weather.
woman: Oh yeah.
man: Well, the debate is on if it’s going to be a mild spring. We’ll see.
His buoyant voice hid the smallest amount of defense—it is what it is, but it is not climate change. I wonder if he is happy with rain? After this past summer, I suspect many Vermonters cringe at the falling water. Maybe he is happy for the warm weather, but businesses all over the state are not. The ski resorts have been aching for snow all season. Out-of-state snowmobilers are staying out of state. Lake Champlain is not yet frozen over, leaving an empty stretch of water where ice-fishers and skiers should be. This means that tourists are not coming, they’re not eating at restaurants, they’re not buying gifts in local shops, they are not putting money into the Vermont economy. It goes far beyond this state, though. My boss, who competes in snowshoe races, just returned from Ottawa and told me there’s no snow from Burlington to North of Montreal. Winter carnival organizers are scrambling as ice sculptures melt before they are finished, and the canals are not frozen enough to skate or ski on.
What I’m getting at is this: our entire economy is built around a particular climate, and when that climate shifts and de-stabilizes, so does everything else. Of course, our economy also depends on consumption, but everything we consume can be traced back to the earth. Everything we buy began as a raw material, be it water, clay, metals, rocks, wood, or human energy. As long as we continue living as if happiness comes from the amount of money we have and stuff we buy, as long as we continue consuming, polluting and wasting the raw materials that sustain us, as long we continue believing that we will have time tomorrow to fix today’s problems, our once-stable climate will continue to de-stabilize at a faster and faster rate.
The paradoxical beauty to be found here is the connection between people and climate, between people and the earth. Our society has been forgetting this connection since the industrial revolution began, but now as we reach a point of despair we are forced to remember: we are not separate from this world.
I recently read a conversation between Terry Tempest Williams and Tim DeChristopher, the man who disrupted a BLM auction and therefore saved Utah’s public lands from being sold to oil and gas companies. In it, Tim tells the story of meeting Terry Root, who helped author the IPCC report:
She presented all the IPCC data, and I went up to her afterwards and said, “That graph that you showed, with the possible emission scenarios in the twenty-first century? It looked like the best case was that carbon peaked around 2030 and started coming back down.” She said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said, “But didn’t the report that you guys just put out say that if we didn’t peak by 2015 and then start coming back down that we were pretty much all screwed, and we wouldn’t even recognize the planet?” And she said, “Yeah, that’s right.” And I said: “So, what am I missing? It seems like you guys are saying there’s no way we can make it.” And she said, “You’re not missing anything. There are things we could have done in the ’80s, there are some things we could have done in the ’90s—but it’s probably too late to avoid any of the worst-case scenarios that we’re talking about.” And she literally put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry my generation failed yours.” That was shattering to me.
This was in March of 2008. And I said, “You just gave a speech to four hundred people and you didn’t say anything like that. Why aren’t you telling people this?” And she said, “Oh, I don’t want to scare people into paralysis. I feel like if I told people the truth, people would just give up.” And I talked to her a couple years later, and she’s still not telling people the truth. But with me, it did the exact opposite. Once I realized that there was no hope in any sort of normal future, there’s no hope for me to have anything my parents or grandparents would have considered a normal future—of a career and a retirement and all that stuff—I realized that I have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting back. Because it was all going to be lost anyway.
Maybe the man in the Laundromat is scared. Scared to admit the enormity of the change, and scared to admit his complicity. I have felt the same things. There are times I do feel paralyzed, unsure of what steps to take, but in the end I’ve kept moving. Still, I ask myself, what do I do now? The best I’ve done is to live simply. My home is a yurt with no running water, solar electricity for two lamps, and an outhouse for a bathroom. My home is an organic farm that encompasses 150 acres of pasture and an equal amount of forest. Still, I am complicit, and accepting this is freeing because there is so much opportunity for positive change. I believe we can shift our focus and see again how natural resources like rivers, forests and grasslands sustain us simply by being there, without human alteration. I believe we can move through this deep despair together and remember the relationships that hold us together. I believe we can let go of our fear and hold onto the earth instead.