The Past is Another Country

September 20, 2012 § 4 Comments

Arctic Ocean, September 2009

The Times had a front page article yesterday about arctic sea ice and climate change. It echoes, in a softer voice, what I’ve been reading on the blogs–fiercely concerned scientists concluding that because of this accelerating melt, the extreme weather of 2012 could get dramatically worse over the next five to eight years. The release of the methane in the Eastern Siberian ice shelf is the scariest of all the many scary possibilities. I’m not going to try to explain the science; read it here. But it occurs to me that if this happens—ever-worsening droughts and wildfires every summer from now on—food prices will soon rise to a point that I can’t afford to eat. So maybe it’s counterproductive to go on a diet, and I should finish the fudge cake now.

No, it’s not funny, but I have a hard time accepting that the election, the jobs situation, partisan hatred, the deficit, etc, will soon be dwarfed by the storms and droughts, the heat and cold that will descend upon us, irregardless of the fact that we are slowly beginning to change, that solar and wind hav emade such progress. Food riots, killing floods, wild inflation, huge numbers of refugees and wider wars over resources could easily occur within a dozen years. Or maybe not until 2030. But in any case, not very long. If I had money, I’d spend it now. I’d stop thinking long-term and do what I most wanted as soon as possible. (Travel.)

Jorgen Randers, one of the writers of the seminal book The Limits of Growth (1972) writes of learning to grieve for everything that is being and will be lost, of slowly getting over the shock and disbelief—taking the next emotional step, as one does after a death. “I had to learn to live with the loss. To accept that such-and-such a forest was gone—permanently, with no resurrection possible…I believe it will be calming to get to know the world that is likely to be our home in the future, rather than dreaming about the world that could have been. The first step down the road to mental peace is to obtain a precise description of what the world is likely to look like. Then to accept it. Finally, to stop grieving.”

I think that’s what I’m going through, although not being a scientist I can’t come up with my own answers, but veer wildly between different futures. But no matter how soon or how bad, I know that what hasn’t happened has already happened, as when you come back from the doctor with a terminal prognosis. There’s time left but you can’t change the outcome. The polar bears and elephants, the tigers, the lizards and birds and spiders I’ve never seen except on Facebook—those increasingly gorgeous pictures of nature that people seem obsessed with lately—will go. I wish I could see them in person, but maybe it’s better not to.

I don’t think the human race will go extinct or lose the knowledge we’ve gained, but the world of my childhood when the seasons proceeded in an order that felt timeless, following rules I learned a little something about each year— the mysteries of water and photosynthesis, of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary rock; the classifying of species, the magic of place names like Madagascar, the Sahara, Antarctica—and my youth when I could read poems from 200 or 1,000 years ago and recognize the earth, the sea, the weather, even when it was a country very much colder or hotter, because it was the same climate in the same place: that’s going. That’s gone. The child who wanted to explore that world won’t get a chance to—sob, sob—but neither will any child now living or to be born.

I’ve always had an apocalyptic bent. It comes more easily now because I’m not looking forward as much—I’m having trust issues with the world. So the natural human impulse to deny a terrifying future has been muted. A large part of me doesn’t believe it can be this bad, just as you don’t believe it. But the crash of 2008—long predicted, not prepared for—has made me more conversant with what the financial prophet Nassim Taleb calls the Black Swan (an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences). I can feel the foreshadowing because I’m less afraid of it; then it makes me more afraid.

It also reminds me to enjoy food while I have it. Yesterday I bought 4 for $10 boxes of raspberries at the Farmer’s Market: tiny, dark red, bursting with flavor. I bought lush, bulbous tomatoes, tight-skinned eggplants, palm-sized Macoun apples. I’ll go back tomorrow for green beans and okra, yellow and purple carrots, pears and plums. I think we’ll eat mostly vegetables and fruit through October.

Thinking about the possible very dark near future also makes me glad that several people close to me have been happy in recent years. My sister got married last week. My niece is getting married next summer. My other niece fell in love and my brother’s also happy in love. My husband is happy; my ex-lover is happy. (I’m not entirely glad about the latter, but I try.)

If the world ends in ice and fire in a dozen years, I wish everyone a little more pleasure, normalcy, joy. As for me, I had a beautiful walk last night, past the 19th century brownstones and the musicians in Washington Square Park. I get to play with words and have someone with whom to watch the election coverage. Charles is making me lunch.

Meanwhile, our governments jockey for oil rights in the Arctic. The stupidity is not only that an oil spill there heightens the climate effect significantly (black oil traps sunlight) and that it’s much harder to clean up (no ready fleet of private fishing boats) and so on—the worst part is planning to use that much oil in the first place. What we already have, the known supply in the ground, is enough to send the planet into post-human temperatures. Get used to it, folks: a lot of that oil has to stay there.

I chose this poem because of a part of this entry that I ended up deleting, but I’m going to leave it. It speaks to me.

The Ballad of Moll Magee

Come round me, little childer;
There, don’t fling stones at me
Because I mutter as I go;
But pity Moll Magee.

My man was a poor fisher
With shore lines in the say;
My work was saltin’ herrings
The whole of the long day.

And sometimes from the Saltin’ shed
I scarce could drag my feet,
Under the blessed moonlight,
Along thc pebbly street.

I’d always been but weakly,
And my baby was just born;
A neighbour minded her by day,
I minded her till morn.

I lay upon my baby;
Ye little childer dear,
I looked on my cold baby
When the morn grew frosty and clear.

A weary woman sleeps so hard!
My man grew red and pale,
And gave me money, and bade me go
To my own place, Kinsale.

He drove me out and shut the door.
And gave his curse to me;
I went away in silence,
No neighbour could I see.

The windows and the doors were shut,
One star shone faint and green,
The little straws were turnin round
Across the bare boreen.

I went away in silence:
Beyond old Martin’s byre
I saw a kindly neighbour
Blowin’ her mornin’ fire.

She drew from me my story –
My money’s all used up,
And still, with pityin’, scornin’ eye,
She gives me bite and sup.

She says my man will surely come
And fetch me home agin;
But always, as I’m movin’ round,
Without doors or within,

Pilin’ the wood or pilin’ the turf,
Or goin’ to the well,
I’m thinkin’ of my baby
And keenin’ to mysel’.

And Sometimes I am sure she knows
When, openin’ wide His door,
God lights the stats, His candles,
And looks upon the poor.

So now, ye little childer,
Ye won’t fling stones at me;
But gather with your shinin’ looks
And pity Moll Magee.

W.B. Yeats


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