“The Worst Hard Time” was the title of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Great American Dust Bowl — a disaster that devastated a 100-million-acre area that reached from Texas to Nebraska and included southeastern Colorado.
Between 1930 and 1940, dust storms ruined crops, destroyed livelihoods and caused “dust pneumonia” that killed as many as several thousand — no one has a sure tally. Roughly 2.5 million desperate people fled Texas, New Mexico, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, creating the largest migration in American history.
The disaster resulted from four naturally occurring droughts that were worsened by federal land policies, farm economics and cultural beliefs. Many settlers lived by the motto that “rain follows the plow,” believing that agriculture would permanently affect the climate of the semi-arid Great Plains, improving it for farming.
As their plows broke the soil, the opposite happened. Topsoil fled in the wind as plows removed the native grasses that anchored it, rising in black blizzards that blew across the nation all the way to Washington, D.C. Forced out of business, farmers lost their livelihoods, their homes and sometimes their lives.
It wasn’t the first time that humans committed “ecocide.” It probably won’t be last time, or even the worst. That will probably occur in the lives of our descendants, who will have to deal with the effects of global warming: rising seas, flooding coastal cities, increasingly virulent storms, hurricanes, floods, droughts and fires.
If that list of climate-related woes sounds a lot like this summer’s headlines, it’s not incidental. This is what scientists — the 98 percent who agree that human-caused climate change is real and happening now — have told us to expect.
Environmentally speaking, we’re living in the “end times” — the end of a geologic era that is going to impact everything from where we live to what we eat and how we make a living.
The question that faces us now is how to deal with it. Denial is a common human response; despair is another.
I have written about climate change before, and I have gotten both hate mail and denigrating comments in response. (Shooting the messenger is another common human response to bad news.) In reply to one column I wrote about global warming, one online reader scoffed, “I suppose this wouldn’t be happening if we had elected Hillary instead of Trump!”
That one gave me pause. While Trump’s climate denial has been infuriating in a “let them eat cake” kind of way, in the larger view, he’s a footnote. Over the past 250 years, much of human progress — the changes in diet, health, working conditions and material well-being that lifted us out of the brutish Middle Ages — has been due to the burning of fossil fuels. In terms of human lifetimes, two centuries is a vast span. In the geologic view, it’s the blink of an eye.
It has only been a couple of decades since we humans noticed that, climatically, we might be in for a hot time. Our collective response to that news, regardless of who has been in the White House, has been too little and too late to change the global climate trajectory.
Like farmers who reaped the whirlwind in the Dust Bowl, we humans will be forced to cope: to move, to alter public policies, to change technology, to somehow find the moral courage to move forward with generosity and inclusiveness while avoiding greed and despair.
I’m an agnostic. Sometimes, deep in the shadows of fear, I pray, but I have to address those entreaties “to whom it may concern.”
I have found myself both surprised and heartened by Pope Francis, who has said that global warming is a symptom of spiritual poverty — a myopic mentality that has failed to address climate change.
Francis has warned that the rich world’s pursuit of short-term economic gain in the face of environmental destruction is part of “a throwaway culture” that threatens not just unwanted things but also unwanted people — the poor, the elderly and the unborn — as waste. Frances has asked us to “break with the logic of violence, exploitation and selfishness,” entreating us to stand before God, or personal conscience, and examine the consumerist lifestyle that most of us live.
I’m 65. Although I won’t live long enough to fully reap the coming whirlwind, I struggle daily with how to spiritually face the coming worst hard time. Frankly, buying an electric car, putting up solar panels and growing vegetables has proved easier than avoiding selfishness and despair.
Still I’m heeding the pope’s challenge, making daily changes that light a candle of hope, and remembering that wherever we’re going as a species, we’re in this together. Courage and cooperation is all that will save us.
Column published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent September 21, 2017