If worry is a misuse of imagination, as an old teacher of mine used to say, then what are we supposed to do about evidence of our coming extinction—the climate crisis, gun violence, poverty, pollution, ocean acidification, destruction of the rainforests, the demise of insects, government corruption, war, drug abuse, exotic diseases, micro-plastics in the food chain, mass migration, homelessness....
Sorry, but I worry about the future, that is, the continuation of human civilization. Nature will surely recover, given enough time. The planet is a self-healing, living system having undergone five previous extinction events that wiped out almost everything alive, yet, over millions of years, recovered quite nicely.1 So, I don’t worry about Mother Earth; she’ll be fine.
If I also get tied up in knots about reindeer, redwoods, elephants, monarch butterflies, and all the other plants and animals that will probably go down with us, it’s because I can’t imagine a civilized world without them, or, for that matter, without gender, racial, and opportunity equity, or restrictions on gun ownership, or protecting our soils, air, water, and food, or giving a helping hand to the sick, poor, and displaced, or all the other causes keeping me up at night.
If knowledge is liberating, as another of my teachers said, is that also true when it comes to evil and doom? Would knowledge of Hitler’s intentions have helped the German people stop his rise to power? There were certainly signs. Weren’t there plenty of red flags raised about our current US president and his long history of scams and self-dealing? Did warnings of icebergs deter the captain of the Titanic? Apparently not. He retired to his quarters shortly before impact. Similarly, scientists first identified the warming potential of atmospheric CO2 in the 1900s and created models 50 years ago that accurately predicted what we see today.2
Just considering environmental issues, is it better to be armed with facts or shielded by ignorance? Sarah Gibbens of National Geographic apparently sides with the former and lists 15 decisions made by the present administration in Washington, D.C. that could wreak havoc long into the future.3
- Pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement
- Rolling back President Obama’s clean power plan, to favor coal instead
- Reducing regulations on toxic air pollution
- Removing federal oversight of methane-flaring rules
- Loosening automobile emissions standards
- Revoking executive order to factor rising sea levels into construction projects
- Narrowing the definition of federally protected rivers or wetlands to favor business development
- Green-lighting seismic air-gun blasts for undersea oil and gas drilling, despite evidence of harm to marine life
- Easing restrictions on mining and drilling
- Changing the Endangered Species Act to favor economic considerations
- Reinterpreting the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to benefit companies constructing power lines, installing large wind turbines, or leaving oil exposed
- Downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, two national monuments, to open them for development
- Increasing logging on public lands
- Dropping climate change from list of national security threats
- Lowering EPA criminal enforcement of pollution violations by 30 percent
Notably, the list lacks environmental specificity, such as: rising seas from melting glaciers will leave some of the world’s great cities uninhabitable by 2050;4 October 2019 was the hottest October in recorded history;5 North America has lost 29 percent of its bird population;6 forty percent of insect species are in decline;7 and the permafrost is melting, so that the “entire Arctic now emits more carbon than it absorbs, a fact that can only be described as worse than bad news.”8 In sum, the world has less than two years to avoid “runaway climate change,” said António Guterres, UN Secretary General, in an address to global leaders—and that was in 2018!9
The Gibbens’ list also does not include every area of neglect or inaction, such as refusal to strengthen climate-change curricula and science education in the public schools so our children can grow up to solve problems and prepare for consequences over the next 30 years; not endorsing a diet of less meat and more plants even though it is healthier for both people and the planet; failure to enforce food safety regulations or to rein in the agri-chemical industry; and failure even to bring the Green New Deal up for discussion let alone for a vote. Additionally, as of last year, almost no country was doing a good job of meeting the relatively modest goals agreed upon in the Paris Climate accords, and only seven out of 32 critical countries had made commitments or efforts toward compliance.10
Still, the future is not all grim. Tesla reports that it has received 200,000 orders for its futuristic Cybertruck, which fits a hard-to-reach, gas-guzzling segment of the vehicle market despite its heavy lithium-ion battery.11 And recently, a company called First Mode announced the introduction of a giant, hydrogen-powered mining vehicle to reduce carbon emissions when hauling copper, nickel, iron, and other ores. It could be the beginning of a pollution-free industrial revolution, even if the refining and manufacturing operations continue to be a dirty business until they are forced to clean up as well.12
According to climatesolutions.org, Native Americans have jumped into the energy sector big time with utility-scale solar installations on Western tribal lands.13 One tribe, the Umatilla along the Columbia River, has installed solar carports and a 50-kilowatt wind turbine that are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual energy costs. And, to everyone’s relief, that ocean boom developed by Dutch scientists to scoop up plastic, has finally done what it was supposed to do: scoop up plastic. The goal is to gather half the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is three times the size of France.14 Food-wise, the consumer insight company Numerator, which tracks 450,000 shoppers, found that 21 percent of Americans plan to replace meat with vegan options in 2020, a figure that doesn’t include the 11 percent who already don’t eat animals.15
On the political front, the courts are holding up certain gas and oil leases until the Bureau of Land Management assesses the climate impact of drilling as required by the National Environmental Policy Act,16 a rare victory for the good guys. And, speaking of the good, the U.S. House of Representatives has moved to impeach the president, who has set the country back on so many scientific, educational, and diplomatic fronts—and, even if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office, the 2020 elections offer the chance to replace him and his associates with law-abiding citizens who think globally, act locally, and dedicate their lives to the common good.
I have to admit, staying focused on solutions makes me feel a bit better. Even so, by that all-important year 2050, the world’s population is expected to increase by two billion persons, from 7.7 billion currently to 9.7 billion.17 What then? Will we have the capacity and restraint to keep each other and Nature healthy and productive? I wonder.
In the immortal words of the famous ant scientist Edward O. Wilson, “In two or three centuries, with humans gone, the ecosystems of the world would regenerate back to the rich state of near-equilibrium that existed ten thousand or so years ago.... But if insects were to vanish, the terrestrial environment would soon collapse into chaos.”18
Is there a scarier word than chaos?
is the author of the poetry collection Across My Silence (World Audience,
Inc., 2007). His poetry, flash fiction, essays, and mini-plays have appeared in more
than 70 publications, including bosque, Bryant Literary Review, Connecticut River
Review, North American Review, Rattle, Santa Fe Literary Review, Slab, Slant, The
Briar Cliff Review, The MacGuffin, The Main Street Rag, and The South Dakota
Recent awards include Grand Prize Winner in Crosswinds Poetry Journal’s
2016 poetry contest, and the poem was published in their Spring 2017 issue.
Cooper’s poetry has also been selected for Ted Kooser’s “American
Life in Poetry” and Tweetspeak Poetry’s “Every Day
Poems,” and his work has been nominated four times for a Pushcart Prize. One
of his micro-fictions (Options, republished in Issue 3 of KYSO Flash) was
selected in April 2015 as winner of the annual String-of-10 Contest, sponsored by
Flash Fiction Chronicles. His play, That Perfect Moment (with
co-writer Charles Bartlett), was a headliner at the NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood
and The Little Victory in the 2009-10 seasons.
Cooper is a Contributing Editor here at MacQ and served as Co-editor of KYSO
Flash from 2016 thru 2019 (Issues 6–12).