Possibly because I taught late adolescents and post-adolescents for 30+ years, almost since I WAS one, or possibly because I remember so well how I was at that moment in life, I have a hard time when one of them pops off a lot of half-baked opinions from their well of passion and ignorance. I know about that. I did it all the time. I remember doing it very often, very loudly, and usually at the dinner table.
When I was trying to get over my fear of public speaking, I joined the speech club at my school. My senior year I competed in Original Oratory and took second place in the state of Colorado. My speech was about caring for what we so glibly now call “the environment.” At the very least it should be “our” environment. My speech was ten minutes long. It was well reasoned and researched. It was about what I felt then — have always felt and still feel — is the only important issue in our world today.
What my mother tried to explain to me back then and what I learned watching China attempt to develop (for the welfare of its people) is that it really is not so simple. I didn’t believe then — and I don’t believe now — that the intrinsic complexity means we should stop trying. Far from it. Every day in some news source I follow on Facebook or via my email (I like printed magazines, but…) I learn of progress being made in myriad areas.
It’s slow, but it’s progress.
In 1970, the year of the first Earth Day and the year my speech won a trophy, there was only leaded gasoline and cars got about 9 miles to the gallon. Anything else was considered impossible. By the 70s there was unleaded gas (you could choose it) and the catalytic converter — which reduced emissions — was becoming standard equipment in new cars. People resisted, but it happened. In 1970, Lake Michigan was essentially dead and you could not see the sun most days in LA. The EPA was formed and went to work.
It’s been a constant tug-o-war between assholes and conservationists (a term I like a little better than “environmentalists” though I’m doubtless splitting hairs). The expense of reversing the 1950s philosophy of progress (which I also get) was astronomical both economically and politically. We’re still fighting that (“clean coal is beautiful, they wash it before they use it”).
Technology to make changes had to be developed and the public needed to be educated (nudged, forced) to accept it. I live in a place — an impoverished rural area which is a microcosm of the efforts to transform our tools for production and agriculture — which is working hard in every area to make and use new technology. On example is that we have and use an enormous solar farm, another is the constant fighting (usually successful) against drilling for oil in all the areas surrounding my valley. Last year all of us were offered the option of choosing different percentages of our electricity from renewable energy sources. I opted for 100% and I don’t really care if that ends up costing me more.
NONE OF THIS EXISTED in 1970 when I made my speech. In the grand scheme the 50 years it’s taken to get to this point isn’t such a long time, but I also feel (wish?) it should be faster. I also wonder if faster is even possible.
Factors I didn’t understand at 18 were the cost of developing technology, the resistance of the general public to change, the difference between the options of a developed country and an under-developed country. I could not begin to understand the complexity.
Right now one of my things is bewilderment over the fact that now my supermarket offers us paper bags into which we put all the plastic shit our food is packed in. That makes NO sense to me. I’m performing an experiment with my trash hauler. I put all the frost-killed plants from my garden in a paper bag and closed the top. Then I put it in a bin that says, “All trash packed in plastic bags. No loose trash.” The landfill where the trash goes also offers recycling… Putting dog shit in a plastic back seems REALLY dumb, but…
This is just to illustrate the efforts and attempts on the scale of one little lady in Monte Vista, Colorado. Do I think I’m going to change the world this way? NO. I get it now, at 67, that the best I can do is not make things worse. When I was teaching, however, I taught critical thinking through nature writing. It was my little effort to awaken at least my students to a world bigger than their car, family, house and dreams of material prosperity. I guess it might have worked with some students. No teacher reaches everyone. I also worked in the establishment of an urban wilderness park on 5800 acres of chaparral in San Diego that was slated for development. It mattered to me, mostly for the sake of the beautiful land itself, but also for the future — so kids in 20 years (which is now) could know the indigenous landscape of their world.
I was appalled when OFFAL (Our Fearless Leader) pulled out of the Paris Accord. Yeah, the Paris Accord is little more than a gesture in the right direction, but like me choosing to get my electricity from renewable sources, it’s not NOTHING.
On the other hand, all around me is a living paradox. Until 1960, potatoes (the main crop of the San Luis Valley) were stored in very beautiful and functional adobe potato cellars which, all by themselves, without any air conditioning or other electrical climate control, kept the potatoes at EXACTLY the right temperature and humidity BECAUSE, though above ground, those potato cellars were essential big piles of dirt. Sometime in the early 60s farmers changed from these lovely, though laboriously built, structures to buildings of concrete or steel. The new buildings will need to be destroyed someday and then what? Where does all that steel and concrete go? The adobe? All by itself will return from whence it came.
The same with water. Water here in the San Luis Valley is — well, there’s nothing more important. We sit above a gigantic ancient lake, an immense aquifer, much of which is still there, but very far down. Our climate is a legitimate desert. Now the “Front Range” — an alien world comprising Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs, Boulder, Pueblo, cities, in other words — wants to “buy” our water. It’s impossible to overstate how fucked up that is.
Some aquifers are depleted. Potatoes, grain and alfalfa are heavy water users and they are the predominate crops. So what? Some farmers are switching to hemp, both industrial hemp and help for CBD oil. Hemp is a great crop because it uses comparatively little water and doesn’t deplete the soil of nutrients BUT the anti-marijuana posse are against it, unwilling to recognize the chemical difference between some intoxicating herbage and a fiber that can be made into clothing.
And, again, back in the old days the farmers had a method for ensuring water and that was the acequia. The use of acequias meant little reliance on dug wells. The moral of THIS part of the story is, “Those old-timers understood shit we’ve forgotten.”
So, today on the egregious platform of Twitter I heard the vapid angry shrieking of a child. I was appalled at the reception she was getting. Where are her parents? If I could talk to that child, I would tell her, “You have not earned that podium. Go home and go back to school in your country which, be grateful, has an excellent education system. Put your skinny Asperger’s shoulder to the wheel and learn history, learn science, become aware of the challenges that face a world that’s far more complex that you can possibly know yet. Allow your frontal lobe to mature. Travel, with some humility, and see what’s going on, first hand. Learn what has been tried, what has been not, what has proven unfeasible (now but maybe not for someday), learn what is slated (hoped) for the future. Learn about progress that has been made and learn about the historic challenges to that progress. Experience the struggles of the under-developed world in achieving even the smallest benefits of technology and why people there might resist the kind of progress the world needs. Anyone can scream. Not everyone can dedicate a life to change, can accept that there are no guarantees, that your efforts might be futile or bear limited fruit, they might not be in the shape you imagine, and work anyway. It’s not MY job to preserve the world for YOU. What the fuck do you think I (and others) have been doing for the last fucking 50 years? The world is as much yours as mine. Pick up that baton, accept the challenge and keep going.”
The last time angry youth took over anywhere we had the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Good times, good times.