Hot, Dry, and Merciless — Can We Keep the Flame of Hope Alive?
by Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez
Last week, turning the corner into the astronomical Spring, we went abruptly from warm winter to hot summer. And I mean hot: it was 84 degrees Farenheit in western Massachusetts, brightly sunny, with puffy white cumulus clouds against a brilliant blue sky, unobstructed by any leaves. No shade.
When I went for a walk up the mountain early that morning, the woods were eerily silent. I remembered mournfully the spring mornings of my childhood, where I would be awakened by the joyful singing of the dawn chorus of thousands of birds each happily greeting each other and the new day.
Reaching the top of the mountain having heard only the distant cry of a single phoebe, I stopped to sit on a rock and listen for a few minutes. All I heard was the dim rushing of the traffic on the road far below me, and the drone of an airplane churning its way across the sky.
Coming down again, a few chipmunks hurried out of sight along the path, and I was keenly aware that there were no acorns underfoot, despite the oak trees towering overhead. Last fall was a terrible year for acorns, so all the animals that depend on them for overwintering must be very hungry now. I know the bears are on the move, as one came and pulled down my bird feeder yesterday. I am thinking of bringing some sunflower seeds along on my walk tomorrow, to spread by the path as an offering of atonement.
While no one of us can shoulder personal responsibility for this tragedy of the commons, all of us who have benefited from the heedless extraction of oil and relentless destruction of the forests and the oceans must be aware of the extent to which we have brought this on ourselves, and taken the rest of the natural world along with us.
Will there come a day when the sun rises in the brilliant blue sky and looks down on a hot, dry planet, silent except for the hardiest of species, like the cockroaches and the ants, who survived previous major extinction events, and will once again continue about their business single-mindedly, able to wait out the eons while life reboots and resurges again anew?
* * *
Last weekend I had the chance to see the new documentary film by Pamela Yates, Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which powerfully makes the point that the genocide in Guatemala was about land rights, with U.S.-backed military juntas working for the landowners and the corporations to clear the land of indigenous people and peasants so that big internationally funded projects like dams and mines could proceed unobstructed.
Two hundred thousand people, mostly indigenous Mayans, were massacred in the 1970s and 1980s in the service of American-fueled greed, in Guatemala alone.
It strikes me that this story is repeating now — if indeed it ever stopped — as we continue to fight over resources and land on our finite planet.
It is happening now in the forests of Indonesia, where on the island of Sumatra plantations the size of the United Kingdom, the size of Belgium — unimaginably huge tracts of magnificent rain forest with some of the richest stores of biodiversity on the planet — are being bulldozed and replanted with palms to feed international demand for palm oil.
The indigenous people who made the forest their home for millennia are being mercilessly deprived of their natural habitat just as surely as the rest of the flora and fauna there.
The loss of biodiversity, including the loss of ancient indigenous human cultures, is a tragedy that cannot be quantified. What is being lost is priceless.
It’s all very sad, you may say, but all very far away, too.
But our summer temperatures in March have everything to do with the destruction of the last remaining old-growth forests in Indonesia, in Africa, in South America, in Canada.
Once the forest is gone, the topsoil will begin to erode.
Desert will prowl the borders of what used to be forest.
When, as in the Indonesian palm oil plantations, diverse ecosystems are replaced with monocultures, those monocultures more vulnerable to pest and climate disruption.
* * *
Lately I have been having recurring waking nightmares about food shortages. Already I am concerned, as a backyard gardener, that these hot, dry spring days will not provide the proper growing conditions for spring crops like peas and lettuce.
Imagine conditions like these being replicated across the globe.
Imagine a growing season where all over the planet we lurched from heat and drought to torrential rains and tornadoes.
In the US we have become accustomed to thinking of food insecurity as something that happens in other parts of the world.
Famine stalks Asia and Africa. It doesn’t come near us.
This year, as I see how the natural world around me is struggling to provide for the chipmunks, the bear and the turkeys; as I greet the arrival of the few straggling migrant birds who have managed to run the gauntlet of a landscape devastated by chemical warfare and industrial agriculture; as I gaze out at the bare trees shimmering in the unnatural midday heat, I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before our turn comes.
Today it is the indigenous people of Indonesia who are going down with their forests.
It is the desert people of North Africa who are starving, and the teeming masses of Asia who are fleeing the floods of torrential rains.
We in the huge, pampered gated communities of North America and Europe will be insulated from these shocks for much longer than those on the outside.
But our time will come.
And when it comes, it will be with the full force of every violent futuristic film we’ve ever dreamed up.
Waterworld, anyone? Mad Max?
* * *
Usually I try to stay positive and keep the flame of hope burning brightly, a beacon for myself and for others.
But today this stark, in-your-face, first-day-of-spring evidence of the coming train wreck of climate change has guttered my hope.
Time is running short for us, just as it is for the bears and the birds and the native peoples of the forest.
We are coming inexorably into Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez, Ph.D., teaches comparative literature, media studies, and human rights with an activist bent at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, and directs the annual Berkshire Festival of Women Writers and the new Citizen Journalism Project at WBCR-LP. She is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, and blogs at Transition Times.