Balancing Despair and Hope
It was summer of 2021. I walked out to my deck on a hot muggy morning. Two of my six koi were gasping for air, heads out of the water. The power had surged in the night and the pump motor seized. I was helpless to save them. I restarted the pump, a futile effort because within minutes, three, of my two-pound koi, were dead. I was shocked. This is a large suburban five-foot deep, pond! I had never had an issue like this before. With research, I discovered that a rise in temperature reduces the dissolved oxygen in water. Six large koi would be considered overcrowding in the space of my pond. My safe world no longer seemed secure.
There are almost 8 billion people in the world today.
My question is, how can this planet sustain itself?
My idea when proposing this project, Letters to the Earth: Between Despair and Hope, was to learn as much as I could about ecology and issues regarding the environment and the politics and policies around that subject. Like the project itself, this is an overwhelming task. I am not a scientist, nor am I a politician, and do not intend to move in those directions. My passion is the creative arts. As an artist, I asked myself the question, “What can I do about the future of the environment?” Being inexperienced, I searched for answers in literature, journals, videos and presentations. I have read through literature, articles and documentaries produced over the last 20 years to examine the findings and hopefully gain some of the solutions for coming to terms with the climate crisis.
Initially my focus was water. Water has been an ongoing theme in much of my artwork. I love to take photographs after a rainfall on the surface of my pond or, capture an image of rain droplets on an old tarp.
Water is crucial to human existence.
Here are my thoughts about some of the literature I have been reading.
BLUE COVENANT by Maude Barlow
Maude Barlow states in 2007, that the world believed, as did I, that Canada had twenty percent of the world’s freshwater. (Barlow, 2007:177) A national magazine urged federal and provincial governments to sell water before the U.S. took it! Do you remember the fights over water in the 1995 post-apocalyptic action film, Waterworld, starring Kevin Costner?
Barlow explained that we actually have not twenty percent but, under seven percent of the world’s fresh water and are already selling it off to multi-national corporations. As Barlow claims “exports of water from the US are a major factor in the drying of the American Midwest and Southwest.” (ibid:18) These exports may not be what we think of as water, but they are in products that require great amounts of water to produce and therefore the result is less water for human consumption. “If a country exports a water-intensive product to another country, it amounts to exporting water in a virtual form even though no water is technically being traded or sold” (ibid:16)
Even in countries like Canada, clean water is not always a reality. In May of 2000, in the town of Walkerton, Ontario, Escherichia coli (E. coli) contaminated the drinking water supply. Seven people died and more than 2,000 became ill as a result and many people are still suffering the side effects even today in 2022. This was not an isolated incident.
Over 20 years later, in the fall of 2021, Iqaluit residents were bothered by the smell of gasoline fumes in their water. They had been bathing their children in this water for weeks and cooking and drinking with it. Over 30 communities have suffered with boil water advisories for the last 20 years. And this is Canada, not a third world country.
Maude Barlow’s writing is compelling; she raised alarms in 2007 to take action against selling off water. She points the finger at corporations who get government support for their profitable private ventures. Blue Covenant is a horror story, an apocalyptic nightmare come to fruition. Because it deals with the world at large, and global perspective was not manageable for me at this particular time, I had to look elsewhere for information. I needed to narrow my focus.
In a Ted Talk in 2017, Norwegian politician, Per Espen Stoknes, suggested that when the general public hear about climate change, we feel helpless and distanced. Many of us have become more comfortable using social media for distraction. When one thinks about the conditions of the last two years under the pandemic, we do tire of the fear needed to be aware.
A Good War by Seth Klein
Seth Klein proposes some very practical solutions for dealing with the climate crisis. With all the disasters, major wildfires in Australia in South America, and in California and Colorado, we know that something serious is happening around the world. Disastrous hurricanes, increasingly rapid melting ice, flooding and extinctions, all happening, it appears at once and yet, there is no constant push to challenge these events. It is as if the general public lives in a bubble and politicians cannot work together to deal with this looming crisis.
The younger generation has realized that we have to do something in order to make changes. We have to learn to work by the principle of collaboration rather than competition. In free democratic countries, we have been taught to be individuals, to strive for our own success. We need to change. Reflecting on the Jan. 6th, 2021, demonstrations in Washington D.C. and the 2022 Ottawa blockades by truckers, the focus is on freedom of choice, personal rights, not about the collective good. If only that energy could be harnessed to mobilize against the looming crisis of the environment.
Seth Klein is quite specific in his approach – he compares the action necessary to slow climate change to the way Canada mobilized towards emergencies in the past. Klein describes ways Canada can organize in a way similar to the country’s response in the Second World War. In Klein ‘s interpretation, war is understood as an actual threat. As opposed to this, climate change is an abstract idea unless you are directly affected by disaster, as those who experience fires every year in British Columbia or floods and fires as in Merritt, B.C. Klein urges us to treat the situation as an emergency: a war, a disaster, a catastrophe, and take action as a whole country. It is a non-partisan call to action. His approach is practical especially keeping in mind the way we had mobilize in the last two years to deal with a global pandemic. Coincidentally, Klein’s book was published in 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic and Canada did an excellent job mobilizing against this viral threat. If the population would accept the reality of the emergency situation of this climate crisis, Klein’s approach could work. The problem I see is, that politicians make lots of promises before they are elected and once established in their elected positions, they vote with their parties.
At this point, I do not feel positive about the future. The deniers are still there even among elected officials and they do have a very loud voice.
In 2018, Canada ranked as the tenth Greenhouse Gas emitting country in the world, and it is not yet on a path to change.
On Fire by Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein, Seth Klein’s sister, attacks the issues from a different point of view in her collection of essays in, On Fire. Does this sound familiar to you? “One minute we’re sharing articles about the insect apocalypse and viral videos of walruses falling off cliffs because of sea ice loss has destroyed their habitat, and the next we’re online shopping and willfully turning our minds into Swiss cheese by scrolling through Twitter or Instagram.”(Klein 2020: 15) This statement visualizes our current society vacillating between real issues such as the war in Ukraine, the disasters all around the world, the now famous, Will Smith slap at the Oscars and the other incidences happening with stars in Hollywood.
Klein proposes a Green New Deal, one that not only tackles the climate crisis but also works to re-balance the inequality that happens with populations who are marginalized, certain racial groups, immigrants, the disabled, the unemployed. Furthermore, she adds,
“In disasters, people do not come together as “one fuzzy family”; the prior divides widen and deepen further so that the poor and disadvantaged are more affected. (ibid:215)
Canada is failing in its plans to fight climate change. Klein claims, that Prime Minister Trudeau while praising the beauty of British Columbia forests, makes plans to build another pipeline to push oil across the country and thus gain the votes of the Western provinces where he is unpopular. A politician’s goal is to be re-elected.
Donald Trump in the USA chose a summer of floods and fires to disband the Federal Advisory panel assessing the impacts of climate change on the US. (ibid: 227)
“The drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels.” (ibid: 251) As Naomi Klein puts together her publication of essays, she thinks about the 2020 US political election. If Trump is re-elected, the Green New Deal will be thrown out the window. She hopes for a Sanders or Warren win to keep the promised Deal alive. With the Biden win and the emergency of the high infection numbers in the Pandemic all deals are shelved. Moreover, now, it is the Russian aggression against Ukraine that is taking the focus.
What is appealing is, that the contemporary works of literature are more approachable for the non-scientific audience, filling in the gaps need to approach the conversations about the environmental crisis. I wonder about those marginalized populations. How do they reach an understanding and an ability to challenge the future, when their basic needs are so precarious?
The Unhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells
Author David Wallace-Wells, paints an apocalyptic future in bleak proportions. His book is a terrifying image projected within a single human lifetime and that single lifetime is exactly how long we have to do something about stalling the progress of climate change. Page after page of facts that form a stark reality that would easily make a reader turn away and distract oneself with social media platforms. That is exactly what I wanted to do! What we think we know about the progress of climate change, this book outlines how much worse it actually is.
“Half of the Great Barrier Reef has already died, methane is leaking from Arctic permafrost that may never freeze again, and what the high-end estimates will mean for cereal crops suggest that just four degrees of warming could reduce yields by 50 per cent. If this strikes you as tragic…consider that we have all the tools…to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to aggressively phase out dirty energy.” (Wallace-Wells 2020:252)
Wallace Wells is not a scientist however, this book arose from his need to learn more about climate change. He is a columnist and a deputy editor at New York magazine. His research is well founded with a broad list of current references. As the author says we have the tools to fight the rapid progression, but will we act on them? There is no time to waste.
In Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World by Katharine Hayhoe
Canadian climate scientist, Katharine Hayhoe, has the most practical approach for people to tackle climate change. She sums up her tactics in three simple words: “Talk about it.” Her writing filled the gaps for me, in all the areas missing in literature and programs focussing on the environment in the last thirty years. This is what I needed to work. Hayhoe focusses on things that people share in common rather than delivering proof and facts as a scientist would. She focusses on conversation and demonstrates the ability for the average citizen to make an impact. The areas people can have in common are where we live, what we love doing, where we’re from, those we love, and she urges us to be who we are. Most of us don’t really care about an increase in temperature of two or three or even four degrees. What we care about is the fact that if it causes a “cascade of events triggered by that warming affects everything we already care about.” That is an issue to which we can relate. Does dirty air bother us, is there enough food, hunger, disease, no more skiing or fishing-those are the things we care about. (Hayhoe 2021:32) Her work doesn’t create fear, cause denial, or create distance with the listener or reader. She doesn’t overload her readers with data. Hayhoe teaches at Texas Tech University, and lectures at several sites around the country. An important skill she cautions, is to be aware of is to know your audience. “Climate change public engagement efforts must start with the fundamental recognition that people are different and have different psychological, cultural, and political reasons for acting – or not acting – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Our research has identified “Global Warming’s Six Americas”: six unique audiences within the American public that each responds to the issue in their own distinct way.”
1. The Alarmed – OMG!!! What can I do?
2. The Concerned – Maybe…we have time. What’s the rush?
3. The Cautious – Is it serious?
4. The Disengaged -I haven’t heard about global warming.
5. The Doubtful-It’s all natural. Relax.
6. The Dismissive. It’s a hoax!
Personally, I can approach Hayhoe’s method of talking without any accreditation. In conversations with people from all walks of life and all political stripes, I automatically zero in on common elements: gardening, birds, beer, wine, coffee, beaches, chocolate – all affected by climate change. As Hayhoe says: “Bring your heart to the table not just our heads.” This approach would have worked well in avoiding some of my awkward conversations during the pandemic when tempers were high over the to vaccinate or not to vaccinate debate.
An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore
Al Gore’s, 2006, book and documentary film, were well known in the first decade of the new millennium. As a former US Vice President, and a once Presidential candidate, he was celebrated for his intense concern for the environment. When Gore lost the election to George Bush Jr. in an extremely tight race, he switched careers away from politics to being an environmental activist. His book became part of the coffee table collection of many middleclass N. American families. The 2006, DVD documentary, covered Gore’s worldwide talks with audiences in the following years. Gore repeatedly urges his audiences to pay attention to the higher temperatures being experienced all around the globe. Higher temperatures mean the oceans get warmer and that surge means greater, more intense tornadoes, hurricanes and storms. Gore in his presentation, appropriately quotes from a November,1936 speech by Winston Churchill: “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” This particular speech was considered alarmist by British Conservatives in Churchill’s day but the years after the release of Gore’s book and the documentary, Gore was also being challenged over and over by deniers of the climate crisis.
Gore divides his most convincing arguments between “two canaries in the coal mine”. The first canary is in the Arctic. Over a thirty-year span Gore demonstrates with graphs and graphic photographs, how the permafrost is thawing. In 1970, trucks could travel for over 200 days across the frozen highways of Alaska. By 2005 the number of days had dropped to 80. “The nation’s pipeline is in trouble due to melting permafrost.” (Gore 2006:138)
The other canary is in Antarctica, where the ice shelves are melting. Sea levels worldwide could rise by about 20 feet if these shelves melt. (ibid:190)
Both the book, Inconvenient Truth, and the film are convincing, compelling testaments to the proven facts that the environmental crisis is real. One would wonder why people are still not convinced.
The 2016 documentary sequel to An Inconvenient Truth with Al Gore, Truth to Power, was released just about the same time that Donald Trump was taking his oath of office as President of the United States. Trump was a new style of leader to be elected to office, a populist. Immediately on inauguration, Trump cancelled the limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the US by signing an executive order. Most of his cabinet were made up of friends, representatives of companies who produce fossil fuels. Additionally, Trump promptly removed the US from the Paris climate agreement, calling climate change a Chinese hoax. As many of us were well aware during the first year of the pandemic, Trump blamed China for the Corona virus and was totally ineffectual in his country’s response to dealing with this disaster.
At this point in my research, I was spiralling downward deliberating what the point was of worrying about climate change.
Al Gore deserves great respect for his continued effort despite the resistance, to talk about what we can still do to stall the disasters. In the ten years from Gore’s first film to the second documentary, disasters have multiplied. Gore’s prediction of flooding in Manhattan, near the former site of the World Trade Centre, happened last September,2021. Gore knows he’s not a scientist and he is careful to be absolutely specific about the events that he has seen around the world, careful not to label them as human caused events because of global warming. His suggestions and illustrations, however, put his ideas across; most audiences appear convinced that his claims are legitimate. For Gore, reacting to climate change is a moral non-partisan issue and at the end of his presentation he claims that there is still time. But as he still insists, we need a political will.
I was pleased to respond to this sequel documentary to Gore’s initial project. I subtitled our project, Letters to the Earth: Between Despair and Hope and the scales were often unfortunately tipping toward the side of despair. In summarizing the literature and research I have explored, it is difficult to maintain hope for the future. And then I think of Gore’s stamina, and sense of purpose and I feel more determined.
My initial question, “What can I do about the future of the environment?”, has been answered satisfactorily at this point. I will immediately take on Katharine Hayhoe’s practical method of responding by talking about what we can do. “Bond, connect, and inspire.” (Hayhoe 2021:224) Seth Klein’s approach has definite merit for all of us. We mobilized against a dangerous virus over the last two years; we can do something about the ways we impact the environment in our daily lives. We have all the available tools.
And we all have the opportunity to vote and lobby our politicians to make better choices. As Al Gore says, political will is important.
In his introduction to Being Ecological, Timothy Morton describes his book as: Not Another Informational Dump.” (Morton 2018:3) Sorry Tim, I needed the informational dump in order to sort my way through the published material. I am happy that you advised me by the end of your work, to pause and think, and listen to the birds and realize that I can just keep going because I am ecological! (ibid:215)