A lesson too late for the learning*

“The beginning of atonement is the sense of its necessity.”

-Lord Byron

Photo by Rick Chamberlin

I first met John Ingham, the author of this post, at a poetry reading in Spring Green, Wisconsin several years ago, where he read aloud the poem I shared with readers in an earlier post. He reminded me then a little bit of John the Baptist, and it wasn’t just his facial hair and dusty clothes. He looked a little wild about the eyes–and a little defeated. He looked like a man who knew too much. John doesn’t wear hair shirts or eat wild locusts, but he does live close to the land and has long been a lonely voice crying in the wilderness. I believe he is a prophet for our times. It is written that a prophet is not without honor but in his own country. Here, John shares a little bit about his experience trying, with little apparent success, to get his neighbors to wake up and pay attention to what’s happening before it’s too late. Although he’s not getting in people’s faces anymore and urging them to repent–he’s really a soft-spoken man–we would all do well to heed his new message. I hope we will hear more from John in the days ahead.

-Rick

I think it’s all over for our civilization. We’ve twiddled our thumbs for too long, and global warming is rapidly approaching full rampage mode. Nevertheless, I continue to try to lower my “energy footprint.” And I make an effort to spread the word, to urge people to action.

Last week a friend asked why I bothered, if I thought things were hopeless. “Why not go on an orgy of consumption? Or hole up like a hermit, with a cache of ammo to beat back the starving hordes?”

It is tempting to give a flip answer. But after serious thought, I have to blame my perhaps irrational activities on Scrooge McDuck and Pimwee the Jungle Boy. This calls for further explanation and some backtracking.

I am a scribbler by trade and not a meteorologist. Nevertheless, it was during the 1980s that I started asking people, “Isn’t the weather changing? Isn’t it acting strange?”

There was a great shrug of shoulders. But I came across a theory which claimed that historically, we have experienced alternating patterns — 75 years of tame, temperate weather followed by 125 years of more extreme, less predictable stuff. Oh. Too bad, but not disastrous, I thought.

In the late 1990s I started paying fresh attention to alarming reports about dying coral reefs, vanishing phytoplankton, the migration of animals and plants as their preferred temperatures moved away from the equator. The riots of invasive species. The threat or eruption of pandemics. I found substantive information in the foreign press, and from books like Red Sky at Morning, by James Speth, The Future in Plain Sight, by Eugene Linden, and plenty more.

During the summer of 2000, the dime dropped. It became suddenly apparent that unless we did something drastic and soon, we humans were about to see our civilization disintegrate.  I started spreading the word, with editorials, articles, community action groups, even poetry and songs. Surely, I thought, people who so treasured their past (love of Civil War history, indiscriminate veneration of Shakespeare, fat scrapbooking of family trees) would equally treasure their future. For all of recorded time, each generation has struggled for the sake of better prospects for their children and grandchildren.

No more. Virtually none of the people I talked to cared to acknowledge or discuss global warming in any way whatsoever.

A Change of Strategy

In 2008, I gave up trying to spread the word, because the word was out everywhere — receiving lip service even in mainstream publications, alongside ads promoting exotic air travel to foreign fun spots and powerful new ATVs, alongside occasional political pledges to look into climate remedies that “wouldn’t hurt the economy.” Next to science articles touting magical technical advances and inventions that would make driving and healthcare and space travel more thrilling and rewarding in the years ahead.

Meanwhile, nature began turning nasty and started trying to peel our underwear off. Blizzards, violent rainstorms, tornadoes and floods began to increase rapidly; not just in the national news, but in my community. Floodwater filled our hillside basement. Critter-borne diseases spread. A mosquito carrying West Nile Virus killed my father-in-law.

People lined up for government disaster relief while they planned their annual summer vacations. When I mentioned at parties that we would all have to reduce our personal use of fossil-fueled energy by 80 percent, I could feel myself mentally crossed off guest lists.

And now, in 2010? If governments and citizens globally woke up tomorrow and acknowledged the threat and committed themselves to restructure their lives to accommodate the planet’s needs, perhaps we could preserve some semblance of our civilization. Otherwise, I think we’re done for. Game over. We’re riding a boat too big to turn around.

These days, instead of tugging people’s sleeves about global warming, I’m trying to promote the idea of public education that will help prepare those who care to survive the coming trials. How to feed, shelter and defend themselves when the current distribution systems and assistance programs crumble. Shockingly few people, especially young people, know how to grow or cook food. They don’t know how to use tools. They have no idea what the earth has to offer in the way of sustenance and shelter.  Public schools could help, but high school home ec and shop classes are largely a thing of the past. Our own school district, strapped for cash, would rather spend money on new $500 football uniforms than on practical education.

When I was little, Scrooge McDuck, in the popular graphic literature, was always visiting exotic places, trying to discover or retrieve lost fortunes. The people there — in the Tibetan mountains, or the jungles of Brazil, were depicted as exotic, primitive, totally unlike us. In second grade, our Social Studies text examined in depth the life of Pimwee, a fictitious “Indian” lad in the Amazon basin. Pimwee was happy living like an animal among the vines, and obviously would never have the same needs, desires or interests as we privileged children in America. We were a different breed.

Scrooge and Pimwee set the tone for a lifetime of propaganda that taught us we could consume as much of everything as we wanted, without worrying whether other people were getting their share. Because they weren’t really people like us. Or because their needs were simpler. Or because they could have what we had if they worked for it. Because there was plenty of everything and we would never run out. And if we did, we deserved the lion’s share because God favored us. And we could afford to pay for it.

As I grew up among these attitudes, something inside me kept whispering that it couldn’t be right. That it’s not all right to dump trash in your neighbor’s ravine. Or to kill animals for sport. Or to look on any group of people anywhere as somehow less important than yourself. That same voice protests waste. Consuming more than you need. Hoarding. Selfishness. Wanton destruction. Putting on airs.

Maybe you have grown up with a similar voice. It’s not very loud, so usually it’s easy to suppress, and model your behavior and beliefs by the actions of those around you. But as it turns out, people have been wrong. Dead wrong.

So now I promote elementary survival education — self-sufficiency and community building. I do this partly for self-preservation, because the better prepared the people around me are to survive tough times, the more likely it is that I will survive as well.

A Simple Focus

But my main motivation for caring about a future we probably don’t have is atonement. If I can make up, just a little, for the harm I have caused our planet, and the hardships I have helped deal our children, the better I will feel. When I embrace and talk to the ancient prairie oak in my yard, conversation is difficult.  When I stand on the ridge at the north edge of the pasture and confront the rumpled hills and the roiling sky, I feel ashamed. If there is time to improve that relationship, that’s all I can hope for at this unhappy stage.

So my message, after all this, is that we need to learn to provide for ourselves and our neighbors in these parlous times. But perhaps most of all, we need to learn how to say we’re sorry.

Singer Tom Paxton speaks to the earth for me:

You’ve got reasons aplenty for going,

This I know, this I know.

For the weeds have been steadily growing.

Please don’t go, please don’t go.

And also tenders my apology:

I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind.

That was the last thing on my mind.

*(from “Last Thing on My Mind,” by Tom Paxton)

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Cindy Anderson

    I hate to think you’re right, but I think you’re right. Watching my darling grandsons this morning, thinking about their future…I too am so sorry. Your message is hard to absorb because it is so sad. I will teach my grandchildren to love the earth as I do, but I will teach them more (by example I plan).

  2. Very powerful message. It mirrors what I’ve seen in my 64 years. If only we could have kept Jimmy Carter as President for another 4 years, we might have had a chance. Regan replaced him with an “We can have it all…and deserve to” attitude. That’s when the ticking clock picked up speed. Thanks for this amazing article.

  3. It is sad, but don’t you agree that it would be sadder if we felt nothing when we contemplated what we’ve done to the planet? Teaching your grandchildren by example really is a great way to teach, but I hope they get to hear your passion, too. And read your poetry. Thanks for reading and commenting, Cindy.

  4. I agree with you, Joan, that that’s when the ticking clock picked up speed. Bill McKibben writes as much in Eaarth when he says of Reagan’s election, “…we’d passed up our last good chance to brake our momentum and head in a new direction.” Reagan, and many of those who voted for him, laughed at the idea that there might be limits to growth. That kind of thinking at a time of scarcity is morally wrong, but sadly Reagan’s ghost haunts the White House still.

  5. Thank you John, for continuing to talk about this. For many years I’ve sensed much of what you have and tried hard to not be part of the mainstream. It feels so good to hear someone confirm that I’m not alone.

  6. Marie, I think those of us with a non-mainstream take on reality tend to feel painfully alone. Our society loves a majority — preferably a unanimity. Speaking out about what we know to be true has never been so important. I think it encourages others who have their doubts about our consumer society to make themselves known, and that’s the foundation of a community that can work together in the days ahead. You, of course, have lived your beliefs for many years, and that’s the best form of communication. Thank you.