We’re Losing It

Earth Day 2019, Doug Seiter

Growing up in Central Ohio, I remember spring and summer, the anticipation of school being out and a summer of unscheduled events, from capturing bullfrog tadpoles to playing hide-and-seek into the evening, returning home on the calls from our mothers that rang through the neighborhood at dusk. Playing in the nearby woods was part of the fare. This particular wooded area was called Indian Mounds, a supposed Native American burial ground. These days, if it really were such a sacred spot, it might be marked as historic and appropriately protected. But the 1950s it was a place of fantasy games and, in the winter, killer sled paths. Today it’s a flattened subdivision. Alas, the “burial ground” was either an urban legend or ignored in deference to development; either is plausible. In any case, doing a Google Maps virtual trip down that residential street, the view of my old neighborhood is only marginally recognizable.

At that point in the history of this nation, life seemed pretty uncomplicated, as it would for most kids in that area. It also felt pretty safe. My mother may have had a different perspective, but then we didn’t have 24/7 news scaring the crap out of everyone. For a white lower middle class family, the American Dream was still out there, and a post-war America had everything going for it. Alarm bells were already going off for a small number of thinkers, but those bells wouldn’t be audible for most of us for at least a decade. Rachel Carson wrote her second book, The Sea Around Us, in 1951, embarking on a life-long aim to bring a general appreciation for the interconnection of life to her readers. As she was writing her third book in 1955, trouble was brewing that would motivate her final, and most widely read, book on the fragility of life, Silent Spring.

“We’re Losing It” isn’t a commentary on the state of the nation, the culture, or our reaction to 24/7 news, or of the human capacity for civil discourse, although that’s a valid list that is interconnected. This is about something more enduring, a literal existential crisis: the health of the planet. OK, I know that’s a dire subject, and isn’t likely to encourage further reading, but hang with me for a bit, because there are glimmers of renewal amidst the ashes of despair. The despair, of course, comes from the very real possibility that we are losing the planet’s life-sustaining systems as a result of poor stewardship and the shortcomings of human nature. Honestly, we don’t know, beyond predictions of those whose lives are devoted to patterns and trends and the outcomes thereof, whether, when, or if things will completely fall apart. There are plenty of canaries on life support, from climate-change-driven weather events, to dying coral reefs, to the incineration of wide swaths of the West. But we also know that Nature has a remarkable propensity toward balance. What we don’t know is if humans are going to get to participate in the renewal.

In the category of Hopeful Signs, in spite of current greed-driven dismantling of regulations that keep the worst inclinations of people in check, carbon-reducing proposals are emerging to contribute to solutions rather that accelerating our decline. There have been numerous technological “fixes” proposed to drop CO2 levels and begin the long climb to restoring ecological balance; we have a tendency toward fixing rather than preserving or preventing. At any rate, this crisis will test the innovation and imagination of our current and upcoming generations, should the engineering and biotech curricula get with the program sooner rather than later. That said, my money is on Mother Nature for the least costly and most effective solutions, if only we would enlist her help as an organizing principle. For example, the Marin Carbon Project has shown the multiple benefits of composting large expanses of grassland for a net reduction in CO2. A recent Op-Ed in The Guardian drives the natural solutions point home. The author correctly points out that these natural solutions – restoring wetlands, rebuilding topsoil, and others – are things we should be doing anyway for a healthy environment, and to give ecosystems a chance to recover from the damage of uninformed human activity.

Figure 1  Carbon Farming; Source: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC)

When I was growing up in Middle America in the 1950s, a post-war economic machine on steroids, there was no awareness in the general population that we were in the middle of trashing our nest, even though naturalists, Native Americans and visionaries like Rachel Carson saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall. We were “losing it” then, setting the stage for what we now experience on a regular cycle of climate disasters and ecological collapse. I contributed, as I dare say most of us did, and continue to. Making a dramatic shift in how we go forward will be painful at best, but staying the course is going to be a lot worse.