This is Not Normal

First of all, I’m not sure what “normal” even means anymore. Is it the “comfortable space” within which I putter about? Is it the selective memory of “normal” seasons? On the broader scale, is it the amalgamation of national and local news? Whatever the context, it doesn’t feel normal right now. Attempting to avoid the elephant in the room in the form of a president whose primary communication is weaponized in his Twitter account, I’ll take a quick trip down Memory Lane and capture “normal” through the convenience of selective recollection, not exactly romanticizing the Fifties as Bill Bryson did in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid (a delightful book, particularly for anyone who grew up in the Fifties), but recalling how life seemed in Small Town Middle America.

Harry Truman was President when I was born. Dwight Eisenhower took up the reins shortly after. Of course, none of this had any significance to me as a kid. We did, however, cover the structure of our government in school. During that time in elementary school, McCarthy exploited the sadly familiar Fear-of-the-other Circus – demonstrating that he, indeed, had “no sense of decency” – as he pitted Americans against each other, but I was oblivious to it, being from as normal a Midwestern family as humanly possible. We were insulated from any dire news, a characteristic of growing up that has been lost for kids these days. There was that “duck and cover” thing in the Fifties, but that was viewed by most of us as a distraction rather than an imminent existential threat. The first real awareness of our political system was around when John F. Kennedy was elected. I remember that election went long into the night, which was normal. No “Big Board” with real-time analysis and the calling of winners virtually milliseconds after the polls closed. I probably was aware of the angst of my parents during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but we were, again, generally protected from such disturbing news, in part because the “news” was only on during the late afternoon and early evening, and only on three channels. That was normal, at least for us. Not so much now, with the twenty-four-hour news cycle reminding us of every crime against humanity, however distant. What we did see when politicians stood in front of the media cameras was virtually always a balanced and civil verbal review of the issue of the day. We were not privy to whatever was actually going on in the head of the speaker, which I speculate was a good thing. Today, with our political theater in the new tradition of reality TV, we can’t escape the word salad and darkest impulses emanating from the President on down. This is not normal.

Indeed, not much about life these days seems normal, but just focusing on the weather, every part of the planet is experiencing some “anomaly” in their local weather patterns. The overlay is warmer temperatures, which is affecting climate (not the same as “weather”), which is affecting everything else, like ocean temperature and its effect on storm strength and oceanic eco-systems, or migratory patterns, or the introduction of flora and fauna to areas heretofore too chilly for occupation. Some say this is a good thing, with longer growing seasons in previously cold climates; those in areas where heat and drought have become oppressive might disagree. A combination of factors, not the least of which are higher average temperatures, has delivered to the West a year-round wildfire season. An excellent short documentary by the Story Group called “Unacceptable Risk: Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change,” gives a sobering look at the very real effects of a warming planet.

In my early days, climate change was not in the news at all, even though there were individuals who saw, early on, the handwriting on the wall regarding [at that point in history] slow-moving but steady impacts on global systems from the explosion of the Industrial Age. In 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius suggested that coal-burning would benefit future generations by creating a “man-made greenhouse.” He was at least half right. Almost a hundred years before that (in 1800) the planet’s human population reached one billion. Around the time we crammed another billion people onto the globe (1930), Guy Callendar posited that CO2 was causing a rise in global temperatures. He was poo-pooed by meteorologists. Leaping past the three-billion-people mark (1960) to 1965, a President’s Advisory Committee warned that the “greenhouse effect” is of “real concern.” The term “global warming” was entered into the public domain through a scientific paper by U.S. scientist Wallace Broecker in 1975; it is disappearing from government websites, along with “climate change,” under the Trump Administration, ostensibly because pretending that it’s a Chinese hoax will miraculously stabilize the planetary eco-thermostat.

There was a time when science and fact-based research were encouraged as means to understanding and for taking appropriate action through national and international policy. Now it appears those tools are treated as abstractions or, worse, obstructions to economic development or political advancement when, in fact, the natural systems that support economic development are collapsing. Denying science is not normal. Or wise.