Niedner: Remaining optimistic about our planet’s future
October 5, 2012 4:14PM
Updated: November 7, 2012 6:05AM
Color me worried, although you might not want to get too close. My clothes may yet smell of the smoke that filled the beautiful valley in Washington’s Cascade Mountains where I attended a conference last week. In a hikers’ and photographers’ paradise, we mostly heeded warnings to stay indoors between sessions. In the few outdoor photos some of us bothered to shoot, people stand about wearing safety masks, clustered like survivors of a quiet apocalypse.
On Sunday, 6 miles above that valley in an airplane headed home, one could see the many fires burning throughout the region and follow the blanket of smoke half-way across Montana. This experience, added to such things as our bizarre, Midwest spring that teased out fruit trees’ blossoms in March only to freeze them in April, and then a summer of drought and record-setting heat, leaves some of us having to battle our inner Chicken Little. What if this time the sky is really falling?
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the polar ice caps have disappeared at astonishing rates in recent years, but coral polyps and polar bears aren’t the only ones losing their habitat as oceans warm and rise. Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, a vital agricultural area and home to 20 million people, sits a mere meter above sea level and could become uninhabitable in a decade or so. Salt water has already invaded some of its rice paddies.
From a cosmic perspective, this is the only nest we have. If, as some suspect, we have irreparably fouled it, we can’t move to another tree. Centuries of pillaging the planet to enrich ourselves in the short term will leave our grandchildren, if not our children, living like doomed inhabitants of an ancient city under siege. This time, however, the enemy will be those of us already resting silently in our graves. Our victims will find us hard to punish but easy to curse.
Plenty among us care about these things, of course. The recycling bins many of us set at the curbside regularly outweigh the containers filled with waste headed for the landfill. Businesses of all kinds have moved beyond the notion that protecting the environment is bad for business and recognized that apart from sustainability there won’t be any business at all.
The ecological restoration movement also provides reasons for hope. Concerted, cooperative efforts on the part of scientists, ethicists, farmers and industries have demonstrated that ruined, degraded places can recover, although genuine help from the human cohort among Earth’s inhabitants requires plenty of painstaking work and our very best thinking.
Last week, up in the smoky Cascades, I heard an environmental expert and ethicist who teaches at the University of Montana report on his state’s promising Clark Fork River restoration project. After decades of wrangling and seemingly endless litigation, it now appears that the scenic waterways devastated from Butte to Missoula by heavy metals and mine tailings will one day be safe again for all the species that depend on them, including us two-legged critters.
Later, in a private moment, I asked the presenter if he remains optimistic about the planet’s overall health and future. He paused for a brief moment and said, “No. Frankly, at this point, I’m not. But my students are. They have to be.”
Indeed. They cannot concede, and they must hope that somehow the Earth itself won’t either. As for those of us among the generation of teachers, we have little recourse but to trust those students, pray for them perhaps, and get out of their way.