Fire in Our Back Yards and Our Children’s Future

I’m doing a slow burn. The Lake Christine Fire — which [as of this writing] has again flared up and prompted evacuation notices — strikes me as an apt metaphor for the reason why.

Our democracy, our shared future and our small planet are all aflame, but it seems that nothing immediate can be done to contain the blaze.

Like the firefighters who have convened to save our homes, we’re constrained: The flames are burning in territory too inaccessible for us to reach. The conditions were set by climactic forces long in play and largely beyond our control. They were sparked by dangerous attitudes. They will burn far too long.

All we can do is to carve out distant firebreaks, wait and tamp down the outbreaks.

Photo of the Lake Christine fire by my friend Jae Gregory. This was taken from her deck!

Appalled as I was by hearing the president toady up to Vladimir Putin and deny (again) that Russia tampered with the 2016 election — a crime now substantiated by 13 criminal indictments and four U.S. security agencies — those treasonous acts pale in comparison with ignoring the climactic conflagration breaking out near and far.

On June 28, Denver tied its all-time high at 105 degrees. On July 2, Montreal recorded its highest temperature ever. On July 5, the planet’s hottest continent reached the highest temperature ever recorded on earth, as the thermometer in Ouragla, Algeria soared to 124.3 degrees.

Global warming is here. It’s visible from my driveway in Carbondale.

I can see smoke from the Lake Christine Fire, which has now burned 12,000 acres, as it continues to consume Basalt Mountain. The pines and pinions there are tinder-dry due to drought. That drought, classified as “moderate” in our neck of the woods and “extreme” in Southern Colorado, came about because our snowpack was the poorest in 30 years.

This year’s skiing was often rocky, our season having shrunk by more than a month since I was a kid. Our views are currently hazy due to wildfires. Our rivers have shrunk, affecting boating and fishing. But we’re the lucky ones.

This month, international diplomats met in New York and Geneva to discuss what to do with a worldwide surge in refugees. There’s no official agreement yet on how to define a “climate refugee.” But since 2008, an average of 24 million people have been displaced by weather disasters every year. Those numbers are growing annually, and rapidly.

In our valley, the fire forced 1,793 people to evacuate. Three families lost their homes. Dozens of Basalt businesses had to close temporarily. The Temporary canceled several concerts, and dozens of flights to the Aspen Airport were scratched.

Those losses and inconveniences are related to global warming.

So are these: 2,300 Puerto Rican families have remained homeless since Hurricane Maria. Two million U.S. homes will be lost to a very-possible six-foot ocean rise by 2020. And climate change will likely displace 143 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America over the next 30 years.

That last number comes from a report entitled “Groundswell — Preparing for Climate Migration,” published by the World Bank early this year. In its introduction, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva writes, “Increasingly, we are seeing climate change become an engine of migration, forcing individuals, families and even whole communities to seek more viable and less vulnerable places to live.”

The earth is doing a slow burn. But our president is responding as Nero was fabled to have done while Rome burned: The U.S. pulled out of the United Nations-led Global Compact on Migration in December, just as our nation pulled out the Paris agreement on climate change in 2017.

The two issues are interdependent. We have seen that in microcosms since our local fire began (ironically enough) on Independence Day.

Although treasonous statements and refugee children in cages have fanned the current political flames white hot, I fear the worst damage wrought by this administration will come from fiddling away while the earth smolders.

By failing to act, we’re allowing parts of the globe to become uninhabitable. We’re sentencing millions to famine, disease and dislocation. And we’re saddling our “own” children (those of wealthy nations), with a debt of $585 trillion. That’s how much it will cost to mop up the extra CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere and return earth to livability, according to an international team of experts, headed by James Hansen, former director of NASA’s Goddard Institute.

It’s the hottest summer on record, and the feds should be responding to the climate crisis in the same way that local governments have responded to the Lake Christine Fire.

But they aren’t.

I, for one, can’t imagine how to explain this to the children.

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Originally published in the Glenwood Springs Independent on July 26, 2018

How do we face the coming worst hard time?

“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.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm, Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936. Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy US Library of Congress.

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.

Results of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma, April 1936, Arthur Rothstein, photographer. Courtesy of US Library of Congress.

 

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

Of Painting, Pikas and Politics – The Personal is Political

Right now, I’m pursuing two long-deferred callings: writing a personal column and becoming a fine-art painter.

Those two activities feel like yin and yang, emotionally balancing the scales: painting is a right-brain activity, writing is left-brain. When I’m writing, my mind is full of words. I never miss a publication deadline. While I’m painting, mind chatter disappears. I lose track of time. I sometimes even miss meals.

I started writing a column – this one – because all through my journalistic career, my first-person pieces have always seemed to resonate most with readers. I will soon stop editing a regional magazine not just because the writing I do there is less personal, but also because the editor’s role has kept me, in indirect ways, from expressing a political opinion. While this column isn’t intended to be political per se, recent events call to mind a phrase I remember from the seventies: “The personal is political.”

 Until recently, I thought that my painting was not political. I don’t make political posters like Shepard Fairey, nor satirical graffiti like Banksy. My paintings celebrate light and color, the natural world. I like to paint mountain landscapes and Colorado wildlife. When I resumed painting seriously last fall, I first painted a bighorn sheep, then a mountain lion. Then a pika.

Perhaps you’ve seen or heard the pika. It’s a small round-eared relative of the rabbit. Pikas live in boulder fields above timberline, grazing on grasses and flowers, signaling one another with high-pitched whistles.

Because this cute, baked-potato-sized creature can be cooked by temperatures above 78 degrees, it’s considered an “indicator species” for global warming. The pika is desperately seeking higher ground. We still have pikas in Colorado, but in many western states, they have topped out of livable habit. They may be the first species that North America loses to climate change.

After learning that, it began to dawn on me that all of the mountain animals I was painting are threatened. Every life zone in the Rockies is warming, and the range of all our plants and animals is changing. That’s why scientists project that Aspen may become too warm for its namesake tree by 2030.

Considering all this, I began to think my paintings as an “elegy for the anthropocene.” That name has been coined to describe the current geological age, a time period when human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment. I decided that when I exhibited the paintings as an ensemble, I would include a brief artist’s statement explaining that title.

It wasn’t until I began looking at an application for an artist’s residency in Glacier National Park that I realized that my paintings, are—or have become—unintentionally, but inescapably, political!

Glacier offers artists a chance to spend a month living and painting in the park. They’re expected to share their work by giving talks or demonstrations to visitors, and their art must support Glacier’s educational, environmental and cultural goals. Sounds benign…

But as I was pondering Glacier’s application, Scott Pruitt, a climate-change denier, was being vetted to head the EPA. The new president was muzzling science-based government agencies, ranging from the EPA to the NOAA and the Forest Service. Republicans were also vowing to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. (That’s a political rather than a fiscal goal, since the combined budgets of the two agencies equal less than .001 percent of the nation’s annual spending.)

It’s hard to even talk about Glacier National Park without acknowledging global warming. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that there were approximately 150 glaciers present in 1850, but only 25 larger than 25 acres remained by 2010. By 2030, the place may be known as Glacier-free National Park! I began to wonder whether painting Glacier’s scenery—let alone explaining the term “Elegy for the Anthropocene”—might be construed as political resistance.

My artistic goals this year are modest: to sell enough to pay for my materials and to become known as artist. The residency at Glacier would have helped me become more widely known; the work produced by resident artists is used in the park’s public outreach.

But in the end, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want to be away from home for a full month, so I decided to save this adventure for summer 2018.

I think the glaciers will withstand the planet’s climate that long. I’m wondering how well Glacier’s residency will hold up given the nation’s political climate.


Seeking Higher Ground column
Published in The Sopris Sun on Feb. 16, 2017.