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The beginning of the beginning

Part One

For a time I was a high school English teacher and the literary genre I especially enjoyed teaching was science fiction. The novels and short stories, in all their permutations, can be a compelling if not a chilling window into a dystopian, post-apocalyptic future (Ray Bradbury, William Golding, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Aldous Huxley, to name but a few).

To supplement these works, I was constantly in the hunt for short or feature-length films. I recall showing my students a dystopian black-and-white tale about a solitary man who lived alone in a greenhouse filled with thriving plants and fronds. He wandered among them, pausing to examine a leaf or pick a cherry tomato from a vine, slowly taking a bite and savoring the taste. Each day before leaving, he put on a clear plastic coat, a hat, and a mask to filter the air. The sun was obscured by a grey haze, the surrounding streets bordered with refuse. He carried a small mouthpiece, SCUBA-like, and often stopped, placing the device in his mouth, pulling in a lung-full of filtered air.

Like the narrative fiction we read, I also used films as springboards for discussion, pushing my students to suspend their disbelief while considering what life might be like in, say, the 21st century. Would our environment be so distressed that a man would find it necessary to seek refuge in a greenhouse?

Of course, in such films and concomitant literature man’s survival is a given, the result of our remarkable ability to reason and adapt and create technologies that are limited only by the writer’s vision. We can fix it. We can save the whales, so to speak. The planet and man will prevail, no matter how dark and ominous the path or forbidding the struggle (“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy, for example).

But what if we have waited too long to address an existential crisis unlike any that writers of futuristic fiction could ever have imagined? What if we stood at an environmental crossroads decades ago and our response was a mere mendacious shrug or outright denial? What if we are now experiencing globally the beginning of the beginning of the noticeable effects of our planet warming? And still we hear the familiar reminder by climatologists that the last time there has been this much carbon in the earth’s atmosphere was 800,000 years ago.

What if we can taste each breath? What if the blue skies and stretching white clouds that we take for granted are now hidden by a haze of smoky gray? What if the setting sun is an unsettling crimson ball? What if the white noise we hear, day and night, is that of an air conditioner? What if this is simply prologue? And it isn’t just here, in Ashland, but worldwide.

Recently, the New York Times published a photograph of denizens sleeping on a sidewalk in New Delhi, unable to escape, even outside, an unrelenting June heat wave. The accompanying article, “The Year Global Warming Turned Model Into Menace,” began, “This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change, and it is underscoring how unprepared much of the world remains for life on a hotter planet. The disruptions to everyday life have been devastating and far-reaching ... Even if there are variations in weather patterns in the coming years, with some cooler years mixed in, the trend is clear: 17 of the warmest years since modern record-keeping began have occurred since 2001.”

The key word is “trend.” What we are becoming disconcertingly cognizant of is that this is, in fact, not the “new normal,” for unless something transformative takes place that dramatically addresses greenhouse emissions, climate change will not plateau but continue and “normal” will only be a hopeful construct and not a reality. According to Cynthia Rosenzweig, head of the Climate Impact Group at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, “The days of a one-event wakeup call are long gone.” That is our new normal.

Chris Honoré is a Daily Tidings columnist.

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