Preparing for climate change: it's about time

Time is of the essence, yes, but how can we make time now to face a future that's coming all too fast?

How many people would say that the United States should not have fought in World War II?

I asked my daughter if there’s anyone around today who would deny that it was right to stop Hitler. “Of course there are,” she said. “Nazis.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious that action against the National Socialist regime was essential.

But it was not obvious at the time.

There was enormous resistance in the United States. The educated elite - people like most of the people I know, people perhaps very much like you and me - were staunchly opposed to “intervention.”

Sophia Mumford, whom I am writing a book about, was drawn into the effort to get Americans to help the British and to join the war effort by her husband Lewis Mumford. Lewis began writing and speaking about the danger posed by German fascism in the early 1930s. He lost friends, including Frank Lloyd Wright, over his activism with the Committee to Defend America by Aiding the Allies.

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Two weeks ago, I discovered a cache of letters in the archives at University of Colorado Boulder between Sophia and Florence Becker Lennon, a childhood friend and well-known Boulder poet. In February 1941, Sophia wrote to Florence about the war being fought in Europe, trying to persuade Florence to her point of view. Sophia began by saying she knew she was unlikely to succeed, that people like Florence, most of their friends and colleagues, were on the other side: pacifists and isolationists.

. . . so many of the people I once felt understood what I wanted and wanted similar or understandably different things are now are bitterly opposed to what to me is the only course of action possible — that I find more and more I have abandoned personal attachments, and have tried to work in the community in which I am living.

It seemed somehow the only possible way to live and not break one's heart and one's  head over what one couldn't alter; and all the energy I can spare from being Lewis's secretary and Alison's mother I have found ample use for up here in trying to make a lethargic countryside aware.

Instead I've been . . . talking to Parent-Teacher Groups, to ladies' clubs, to the children in the high school, over the Poughkeepsie radio - an endless lot of small attempts. It makes almost no dent, and is I suppose very good for the practice of humility. But I can't not work to make my neighbors see the overthrow of fascism is the first essential in the re-building of civilization, which of them don't even seem to realize is threatened.

This letter was written 18 months after Germany invaded Poland and 6 months after the Battle of Britain.

Climate change and fascism are not the same thing, but here’s what connects them: most people just don’t want to admit the scale of the problem, and we resist taking action because it just seems too hard, too uncertain, too complex.

Some think the answer is information. For example, when I went to a conference at the Columbia School of Journalism just before the pandemic, the speakers focused on getting more articles about environmental issues into the media, and making sure the press about heatwaves, floods, and fires includes information on climate change.

Media coverage matters, of course. The big oil companies taken a beating of late in the Dutch courts and Exxon shareholders elected climate activists to the board. This is great news.

But we’ve spent the last fifteen months feeling isolated and uncertain and scared. We want life just to be normal.

Instead, we’re hearing about wars and threats of war, genocide, drought, loss of biodiversity, and about massive changes ahead to deal with climate change.

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I’ve been reading a book called How to Prepare for Climate Change, by technology writer David Pogue. It’s basically a preppers manual, and very American. It starts with a chapter on where to move (Madison, Wisconsin heads the list). Half the book consists of advice on dealing with flood, heat waves, drought, wildfires, mosquitoes and ticks, and even social breakdown. It seems a little ironic that he ends with a chapter called “Where to Find Hope.”

I found when I started writing about green living that information is not enough. In fact, it can turn people off.

I believe in citizen action and political change, and went to the Climate March in New York in September 2019 because I wanted to see the young people leading on this issue. The US focus on infrastructure is immensely important because transportation and buildings are our largest source of carbon emissions. (I’m getting ready for the Train Campaign’s first in-person event in a long time, at the historic Union Depot in Canaan, CT during Railroad Days. Click here for news about the event and our inclusion in the North Atlantic Rail initiative.)

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But we also need to adapt, to live and eat and travel differently. I have 3 tips for you today that actually make a difference and don’t take much time at all.

  1. If you are using A/C, compare the setting to the heat setting you use in the winter. In the US, it’s common to set A/C to a lower temperature, which makes no sense at all. Surely we can agree that we should feel a bit warmer in summer than in winter? Adapting to temperature fluctuations is something human bodies are good at, and it’s good for our health. (I’m not talking about the extremes we’ve been seeing, of course.) Even a few degrees up or down will make a difference in energy use.

  1. (This is a water-saving tip, too.) Scrape rather than rinse dishes before putting them in a dishwasher. Some people use a spatula, but I just grab a fork that’s going in anyway. And when the wash cycle is done, turn the machine off, open the door, and let the dishes air dry.

  2. During this week’s heatwave in the northeast (nothing like the extreme heat of the west, admittedly), I’ve been conscious of the heat put out by the dryer. Sure, it might be running on green electricity, but it’s heating the house, and the outdoors as it vents hot air. I have never had the time or patience to take laundry outside to a clothesline (or, heaven forbid, to use clothespin as my grandmothers did). What I do instead is to pull out only the big items, like jeans and towels, which take a lot of machine drying but are easy to hang. I have a Victorian-style rack above the bathtub, just down the hall from the laundry, but even more practical is this wall-mounted drying rack in the laundry room itself.

No idea is going to work for everyone, but we can all make small adjustments as well as doing the bigger things, like choosing public transport and reducing red meat consumption.

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Speaking of meat, here’s food for thought. When I look at a diet plan (keto or paleo, for example) or a health recommendation (use olive oil), I find myself wondering how it would work for the whole wide world. If it wouldn’t, or couldn’t, we have a problem of sustainability, and equity.

I asked about global implications at a UN mini-conference on sustainable gastronomy last week. The physician who was promoting a Mediterranean diet had to think about it, then said there was a great deal of research on olive oil, but the important thing is probably to switch from animal to vegetable fats. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I think Chinese and other Asian cuisines are the best solution we have to sustainable eating.

There is a saying often attributed to the Chinese that I first heard from C. S. Kiang at that conference in Beijing: “The best time to plant a tree is 100 years ago. The second best time is right now.” I thought of it when I saw this oak seedling in my garden yesterday. I’m going to find a place for it to settle and grow, hoping it will provide shade and habitat a century from now. Meanwhile, we have a lot of work to do.

If you’re experiencing extreme weather, I’d love to hear how you’re coping, and what changes you see ahead. Warm, but not too warm, regards from Great Barrington.