I was born on May 23, 1946, into a middle class Reformed Jewish family in New York City.
Today, my half-birthday, I am a Quaker married to an Orthodox Christian, living in a middle class neighborhood in Arlington VA.
I have remarked to my wonderful spouse, Leaves on the Current, that in 2 months, when I reach 66 2/3, I will qualify as a Long Playing Record of some sort :-) - for those of you old enough to remember when LPs were the dominant form of hove music entertainment.
At this stage of my life, I often find myself reflecting on the past, particularly on the anniversary of important occasions, such as yesterday, the 49th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Yet merely reflecting upon the past, distant or recent, seems so insufficient. Perhaps that is an artifact of the 17 years previously spend in the classroom, teaching adolescents from 7th through 12 grades. It seems even more insufficient when I prepare to teach the students into whose lives I have just been inserted as a replacement teacher for the rest of the year. I will not revisit the details I offered in a previous diary about the kinds of students we have in our school, why it is a situation that stretches me both as a teacher and as a person.
I want these children - I want all children - to have a future full of hope and opportunity.
I do not want to see the world become less welcoming, more restrictive.
I do not want them to be lamenting what has already been lost, what is disappearing before they have the opportunity to experience, to wonder.
Yes, I am talking about the exploding economic inequity in our nation, the decrease of personal liberty and privacy. These are important.
Most of all I am lamenting the loss of the natural world.
Allow me on this half-birthday to look back and forward as I consider where we may now be.
I am not scientist. Yesterday we had Thanksgiving at the home of my wife's only brother, his wife (expecting their 2nd) and daughter, a delightful young lady, who shyly offered me a present of a green stuffed bear - I thanked her, but since she does not yet really understand the idea of giving, I left it there for her with my thanks when we departed in mid-evening.
My brother-in-law is a scientist, a wild-life biologist who has been trying to build a research program at a historically black college/university. His father, who is currently returning from an expedition in Central America, after he retired as a math professor from an elite private college, became a naturalist. He has passed on his love of the natural world to several of his children: among my wife's passions are birding with her dad on the Atlantic flyway and spending several days trout-fishing on a stream in central Pennsylvania.
When I was a child, growing up in Larchmont, New York, we were still somewhat close to the natural world, even though we lived in a long-established suburb of New York City, in a house built in the 1920s (0f which we were only the 3rd owners when we moved in during September of 1948 when I was 2+ and my sister was not quite 5).
There was a tract of land directly across Lafayette Road, the back street on our corner lot, that was several acres of woodlands that had never been cleared. When we became older we could even swing on vines over the downslope, feeling as if we were very far from the civilized world. In either direction from our house, we only had to go a few blocks to find other areas that were not yet cleared or developed, and some people had purchased land adjacent to their homes and kept it as it was, so there was an abundance of wild creatures and birds - and of course poison ivy, to which I quickly discovered my serious allergy!
By the time I graduated from high school, most of the land near us had been cleared and developed. One large tract served as part of an exit for the new Interstate, I-95 as most know it, the New England Thruway as we first called it when it was developed in the 1950s. I have memories when it had been paved but not yet open having bicycle races thereupon.
I spent 8 summers at what was then National Music Camp in Interlochen Michigan. We were planted between two lakes, having to walk through part of a state forest to get from where the boys' camps were to the main camp, on the other side of which were the girls' camps. A few hundred yards from our cabins in the junior division was the cabin and the museum of Walter Hastings. He had consulted on several Disney movies on the natural world, and had a fascinating collection which inevitably delighted especially those in that elementary age division, Junior Boys. We would go canoeing and camping. I first learned to cook over an outdoor fire with a cast-iron frying pan, and how to back potatoes by wrapping them in aluminum foil and burying them with hot rocks adjacent to the fire.
I started in the camp in 1954. By 1962 one could no longer safely fill one's canteens from the rivulets running down the sopes along the Pine or Manatee or Little Platte rivers, because so many residences has been built, and too often people also put in lawns - the runoff from those residences was not safe to drink, and even some of the fish began to disappear.
As the world's population has exploded in my lifetime, from 2.5 billion in 1950 to something around 7 billions today, much of the natural world has disappeared with it. Jungles have been cleared in South America and Africa, sometimes to grow cattle for the American market, other times because people are desperate for land on which they can grow food to feed their families. Slopes have been cleared of trees because burgeoning populations need firewood to feed and heat their families, leading to erosion and polluting of rivers.
Our exploding use of carbon-based energy has further altered the world, not only with emissions ranging from lead in older gasoline and heavy metals from the burning of coal and of course increasing levels of CO2, but also in the despoiling of even more of the natural world. It is not just mountain top removal for cheap access to coal, it is also the clearing of land for access roads and for development bases to obtain petroleum and other resources from otherwise inaccessible places, ranging from fragile desert environments to the pristine Arctic landscape of Alaska's North Slope. We have overfished our streams and lakes and oceans, we have wasted and polluted sources of water, so that lakes and inland seas that appeared large on the maps of my youth may now be largely mudflats, and the remaining water is unable to sustain aquatic life and the avian populations common to such environments.
There are now perhaps more tigers in zoos around the world than remain in the wild, even though they used to be common across a wide swath of the warmer parts of our world.
As we drove home last night my wife lamented that even the President did not seem willing to clearly emphasize the environmental crises we face.
Perhaps he could at least use the argument that national security is very much at stake. Here I might note that the natural world is still more powerful than the greatest forces man can bring to bear on it. When Mount Pinatubo exploded in the Philippines, the US lost Clark, what was then its largest airfield in the Western Pacific, buried under volcanic ash and lava.
There will be wars over water sources, especially in environments where there are few potable sources, and/or where the population is exploding beyond the carrying capacities of the available resources.
As one involved in politics, it is saddening to see how many whose livelihood or residence is embedded in places at environmental risk seem unwilling to recognize that these may no longer be sustainable. My wife is very fond of the Outer Banks of NC, but wonders how we can continue to attempt to have people live there, when new inlets are regularly cut through, when the main road regularly gets washed out or covered by sands. How do we justify continuing to rebuild beaches, to reimburse people for losses due to weather and what now seems inevitable change from the damage to the environment we have already created?
In this country, rising sea levels, loss of protective wetlands, and increasing severity of storms already threaten some heavily populated areas, as many in the Northeast found out during Sandy. This was personal for me, since my grandparents had a summer/weekend place in Long Beach, NY, and several members of the extended family, including an aunt in her 80s and cousins of my mother, lived in Lido Beach. I did write "lived" because it not yet clear what will happen to these people now in their late 80s. My aunt's home, several hundred yards from the Atlantic, is still standing, but suffered serious damage, and much of her neighborhood was destroyed.
Yet there are entire nations that consist of islands that rise only a few feet above ocean levels. There are millions of people on coasts already at risk not only from tsunamis, but from storm surges from cyclones driving water not only on the coasts but up the river valleys along which millions live, millions who already suffer catastrophic floods because the slopes that used to be wooded further upstream and absorbed some of the rainfall now see the water flow downhill unabated gorging the rivers with more water than can be held within their banks.
Yesterday we drove from Arlington Virginia to Newark Delaware for a few hours with family. There were two of us in a car, my wife's relatively new Honda Insight Hybrid. What I wonder was the carbon footprint of that trip? What about that of those driving further in SUVs getting less than half our MPG?
If we acknowledge that it is not one action of any of us, but the cumulative effects of all of us, do we not still have a responsibility to minimize what we do that is adding to the destruction of the natural word?
What about how we eat? How far does that food travel to get to our tables? How much fuel is consumed thereby? How much more for the heating and lighting of the huge stores from which most of us obtain most of the sources of nutritional sustenance?
Most American schools do not teach our young people about the environment, the real natural world, and what we are doing thereto.
The young people in my current classroom live in a densely populated part of Washington DC. Few have access even to gardens, and while there are some parks nearby, their communities are not embedded in a larger natural world. Where I live, in Arlington, only about 12 mile drive by the shortest (albeit not quickest) route, we still have enough patches of semi-natural setting that within half a mile of my house I have in the 28+ years I have lived there seen beaver, raccoons, possums, otters, chipmunks, foxes, coyotes, the ever present squirrels and voles, a few snakes, and more. Within a ten minute drive from our home we have seen deer. We are only an hour or sofrom places where bear have been seen.
And yet - when was the last time someone in Baltimore actually had an avian Oriole alight upon a tree in their yard? We have seen the occasional bluebird and cardinal, the latter being the state bird of Virginia, but with decreasing frequency over the almost three decades of our residence in our home.
I see a moral crisis on many grounds.
We do not hold people and corporations to account for the damage they do environmentally, for the destruction of what should be a common heritage.
We become increasingly removed from the natural world to the point that it becomes easy to claim relative ignorance about what is happening: it is not part of our everyday consciousness.
We do not teach our children well, even when we have the resources to do so.
The natural world has always been subject to change and loss, but at levels neither as rapid nor as devastating as what we can trace to our anthropogenic causes.
We are destroying what is not ours to treat with such impunity.
We are robbing future generations, including the young people who are already with us,lof what should be their common heritage.
We have a world at risk, yet too many of the political and intellectual leaders of the world refuse to act with responsibility.
This is a crisis.
In the past, one phrase that many of us learned was to think globally but act locally. We need to consider the impact across the world of the decisions we make, and then take such actions as are within our power.
I acknowledge that for many there currently is little choice - they have no way of getting to employment except via the internal combustion engine that powers their means of transportation. They cannot afford to use more efficient means of heating and powering their homes, even were they offered the choice and understood the impact. But that does not mean that we should throw up our hands and give up. No, instead, it means that we should recognize the scope of the problem and insist upon those controlling the levers of power to fix the entire problem, including the poverty in which many live.
I do not have much hope for this, perhaps because I have seen what has happened over my 66.5 years. And yet, and yet . . . .
we HAVE made many changes. Our hybrid vehicles get multiples of the MPG of the vehicles my parents drove in Larchmont when we first moved there. Our appliances are far more energy efficient. Except we now have multiplied the number of vehicles and the damages of home appliances by a factor several times larger than that used to make our newer versions more efficient, and thus we have fallen further behind.
There is much we can fix by retrofitting existing buildings, by created neighborhoods that encourage walking, by having regulations that limit the destruction of what open space is left.
It becomes more possible to be environmentally responsible when one has no choice because of economic desperation.
Those who parents may want to think of the world they will leave their progeny and their progeny.
I am 66.5
I have perhaps another 20 or years.
May I be aware enough of what I do and use that I not mindlessly contribute to the further destruction of our habitat, our shared commons of the natural world.
Just a thought or two this day after Thanksgiving.