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“Disaster Porn” and Composting

We have been at our house on the Cape for over a fortnight now and the days and nights have been beyond beautiful, fireworks nightly in the…

Sunset over Buzzards Bay, Falmouth, Massachusetts

We have been at our house on the Cape for over a fortnight now and the days and nights have been beyond beautiful, fireworks nightly in the distance, and sometimes a bit too close, but easily overshadowed by daily floral displays (especially, now, the hydrangea) and sunsets, reminding us that Nature remains the ultimate impresario of the Spectacular.

Meanwhile, I’ve been incubating this post, imagining it as the first in a series of reflections on what I‘ve been taking away from several months of focused reading on solutions to climate change and what the small steps — personal and political — I’ve started attempting here and now, this summer on Cape Cod, are teaching me about things any of us can be doing that might make a difference, however symbolic, quixotic, naive … hypocritical?

Nipping at the heels of the pragmatic ruminations have been the peskier ones, warring judgments implied in the string of four words and one ellipsis preceding the question mark above. What, if anything at all, can I be doing that might be plausible, possible, defensible, and even, one might hope, at least remotely efficacious, as opposed to pathetic, in light of “my big fat carbon footprint” — the title I was considering for the postponed post. A footprint for which my luxurious lifestyle renders me responsible and leaves me on porous moral ground. Wrestling such questions to some kind of ground might qualify as a summer project.

I spent much of last summer here at my desk looking out toward Megansett Harbor, researching and writing, with two California colleagues, a briefing paper on climate change and health, part of a project organized by a group of policy experts at Stanford University to help “set the climate agenda for the next administration.” After 11/9 produced a “next administration” unlike any our worst nightmares could have conjured up, much of that work went up in smoke, as vast swaths of forest across the Western U.S. are doing now, again this summer.

Our paper reviewed the literature on many documented threats to the public’s health from climate change and many ways in which a focus on human health might put a motivating “human face” on a looming crisis receiving far too little serious public attention. We concluded:

“This paper highlights the work of scholars and activists who have underscored health as an essential frame for comprehending the stakes in climate change and for encouraging Americans to grasp that it is within their power to advocate, collaborate and take actions that will protect their own health and that of their families, neighbors and communities. Writer and speaker Kathleen Dean Moore is invariably asked by audiences, “What can one person do?” “Stop being one person,” she replies.

“The climate crisis is a collective action problem that no single sector can solve alone. It presents a singular test, we believe, not only to global governance and leadership, most especially that of the next president of the United States whose wise action will be indispensable, but also to democracy, to cities, counties, states, and ordinary citizens of this and every nation. In our review of the literature, we find much we all might fear.

“But in it we find, as well, a measure of mature hope, the kind that is activated and amplified by a resolution to act. We offer these few recommendations in the hope that they may be of some service in the ongoing effort to arouse and orchestrate a worthy response to the formidable challenge of climate change, a response that may in time actualize the hope of an equitable, secure and sustainable future for Americans, for all citizens of the world and for generations to come.”

So this post I’m writing now was to have initiated a 2017 summer inventory of solutions in our current, vastly-different, political context a year later. But then I awoke on Monday morning, July 10 to an inbox lit up (as was the Internet) with the fallout from a blockbuster cover story by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine, a piece so apocalyptic as to strike me as the proverbial thirteenth strike of a clock; it cast such profound doubt on the previous twelve as to render my cheery “solutions” project silly at best.

Tuesday morning’s twitter- and blog-spheres brought a flood of reactions calling out inaccuracies and exaggerations in the Wallace-Wells (WW) piece — even dismissing it as “disaster porn” — and faulting its “scare mongering” as counterproductive. “Stop scaring people about climate change, it doesn’t work,” wrote meteorologist Eric Holthaus in Grist, supplying links to an earlier piece on the politics of optimism, and to that day’s Facebook page of Michael E. Mann. A Penn State climate scientist, Mann declared himself “not a fan of this doomist framing,” named two exaggerations and one error in the WW article and concluded:

“The evidence that climate change is a serious problem that we must contend with now, is overwhelming on its own. There is no need to overstate the evidence, particularly when it feeds a paralyzing narrative of doom and hopelessness.”

But wait; we’re not done. The next morning (Wednesday) Vox’s David Roberts, a veteran climate reporter, weighed in on the other side with a thorough review of all the bidding in the twitter-sphere. The headline to his piece signaled its conclusion:

“Did that New York magazine climate story freak you out? Good. It’s okay to talk about how scary climate change is. Really.”

Is the WW piece “mostly accurate,” Roberts asked, and is it “mostly useful?” Yes, and yes. It set out explicitly to descrive a worst-case scenario that it argued ought at least to be acknowledged (“an experiment in psychological anchoring”) lest we allow ourselves to believe that sea-level rise is the worst that may be in store.

Roberts then opened a window onto an ongoing debate among journalists and others positioned to translate scientific findings for the rest of us to absorb and use, if we choose. “It’s fine for activists to be congenitally positive — that’s their job,” Roberts observed, but:

“it’s just weird for journalists and analysts to worry about overly alarming people regarding the biggest, scariest problem humanity has ever faced. By any sane accounting, the ranks [of] the under-alarmed outnumber the over-alarmed by many multiples. The vast majority of people do not have an accurate understanding of how bad climate change has already gotten or how bad it is likely to get, much less how bad it could get if we keep electing crazy people.

“When there are important things that people don’t understand, journalists should explain those things. Attempts at dime-store social psychology are unlikely to lead to better journalism. … Most people simply have no idea how scary climate change is. However that terrible urgency is communicated, the world is better for it.”

Ending his post with a list of nine sources of “further reading” on this particular imbroglio, Roberts was, in effect, inviting his readers into the fascinating and rapidly emerging subfield of science communication that deals specifically with climate change. I’ve learned about that field from Susanne (Susi) Moser, a friend and fellow co-convener, with Sarah Buie and me, of the Council on the Uncertain Human Future, the group that was instrumental in my own initiation into the unvarnished realities of the climate crisis. Susi is a leader in that field and a skilled practitioner of the art of communicating the unthinkable in ways that respect our ability — each of us — to come to terms with even this toughest of existential challenges, one that will require us to summon all the intellectual and emotional resources we can muster, and then some more.

Is was through Susi that I observed a tendency Roberts mentioned in his Vox piece: “the worst-case scenario is treated by the very few people who understand it as a kind of forbidden occult knowledge to which ordinary people cannot survive exposure.” It was she who helped me see the burden being borne — unfairly — by experts in climate science who were constantly titrating how much bad news the rest of us could tolerate before we would simply check out and leave the problem to them. The work our Council did together was a process of “getting real” about the problem and then of resolving to take up our share of the burden.

It’s been said that the sixties slogan — “if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem,” has morphed to a more urgent one in the era of climate change. Now it is the case for every one of us that if we’re not part of the problem, there is no solution because the problem is each and every one of us, our beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, but even more so, our willingness to recognize the part of the responsibility we simply can’t escape for the quality of the lives that may be in store for our kids and theirs.

At the close of his review of the pros and cons of the approach David Wallace-Wells took in his New York Magazine wake up call, David Roberts said this:

“For my part, I’ve given up on speculating about how audiences will react. I just try to communicate like I would like to be communicated to, frankly and clearly, as though I’m talking to a friend in a bar. There are plenty of ways to communicate accurately — through hortatory rhetoric, poetry, painting, dance, “disaster porn,” whatever. Scientific data are not the only medium of communication or its only currency. Narrative and emotion matter too.”

Good advice. I too will stop speculating about what to say, and instead get on with my question of what to do. This morning I received a package from Amazon, a garden composter I decided I needed when I couldn’t bring myself to dump our kitchen scraps into the trash destined for the town dump. Living in California has spoiled me; it is so simple to add food scraps to the yard waste bin emptied weekly by Recology (“waste zero”) and delivered to San Francisco’s legendary composting facility.

My Yimby composter came in more than 20 pieces with no instruction manual. After several hours of trial and error left me with the contraption mostly assembled, except for the essential final piece that would not fit — and after the gardener and the housekeeper and my husband had all weighed in and given up — I went on line and found a set of instructions that made it painfully clear that I would have to start over — take out all 56 of the nuts and bolts that had already rubbed the skin off my thumbs — reorient the first two pieces and begin again. Two more hours. Rawer thumbs. Then voila! A functioning composter. Just as thunder clouds rolled in over Buzzard’s Bay.

I nestled it in a bed of hydrangea. They are in lavish bloom, everywhere on the Cape, in every kind of blue, pretty much all the shades Google serves up when asked for their names. A prose poem and a composter side by side.

So here they are:

The Google Ode to Blue:

Turquoise, Antwerp blue, robin egg blue, sky blue, royal blue, sapphire blue, indigo, teal, navy blue, aqua, asul, azure, Alice blue, baby blue, blue, blue-green, bondi blue, Carolina blue, Chartre Blue, cerulean blue, cobalt blue, Columbia blue, cornflower blue, cyan, dark blue, denim, dodger blue, Egyptian blue, electric blue, han purple, international klein blue, Maya blue, medium blue, midnight blue, navy blue, pale blue, Persian blue, Persian indigo, powder blue, smalt blue, steel blue, ultramarine blue, united nations blue, air force blue, brandeis blue, duke blue, majorelle blue, Prussian blue, yale blue, pigment blue, blue bell, wild blue yonder, pacific blue, blizzard blue, ultra blue, blueberry blue, blue bird blue.

And the Yimby (apparently named for the organizing acronym-“Yes, in my own backyard”–popular among affordable housing advocates in California, )


Whether it will produce compost remains to be seen. A small victory nevertheless. Stay tuned.

Originally published at medium.com

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