knowing, forgetting, and making change

As the fall season settles in, I'm finding myself with a little more time to read in the evenings.  I've got a few things on the bedside table, but the one that's occupying my thoughts most right now is a book by Elizabeth Kolbert called Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature and Climate Change.  It's a journalistic account of what's happening to our planet, with first-hand reporting and interviews with residents and scientists around the globe, in the Arctic, in Holland, in Costa Rica, in Vermont...

I've just started the book, and I'll tell you, it's a challenging read. I had read a series of Kolbert's articles in the New Yorker, a few years ago, and they were shocking, actually.  I mean, we hear about global warming and climate change, and we have been experiencing increasingly unsettled weather in recent years. I've read about vanishing glaciers, and endangered polar bears.  But this knowledge hasn't really penetrated my visceral, immediate worldview.  Somehow, it's possible to know something--in this case, the vast dangers of global warming to our planetary ecosystem--but then to compartmentalize that knowledge away from everyday decisionmaking.  Kolbert's articles were shocking, they hit me hard, and I tried to share them with people ("You've got to read this!"), but soon thereafter, I forgot about them.

Our ability to forget such things, or compartmentalize them, is one of our real human weaknesses.  I smoked cigarettes for years.  I knew they were toxic, I knew they were lethal.  Yet I continued.  In the final year that I smoked, I would treat myself to a smoke after going to the gym, some kind of sick reward.  We humans are strange and complicated beings.

When we allow ourselves to fully integrate such scary knowledges--like the dangers of smoking, and the vulnerability of our planet--we can make real changes in our behavior.  But this is hard work, and perhaps why there is so much resistance to acting to slow down climate change.  (I'm referring here to change at the individual level, not the corporate/organizational/political level, which has another order of challenges...)

Personally, I'm working to integrate the knowledge that I've been gaining about eating meat: the tremendous strain placed on our environment from producing a meat-heavy diet, the miserable and fetid lives of animals that are raised in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (and the diseases that thrive unders such conditions), the difficulty in finding meat that is sustainably and humanely raised and slaughtered...

We can take smaller steps, like participating in Meatless Monday, a campaign to cut out meat one day a week in order to improve our health and reduce the stress on the environment.  We can make sure we understand the manifold connections between food production and climate change (watch Food, Inc, if you haven't already), and pass on what we know.  We can support local farmers, and get to know the people who produce our food (check out the USDA's new website, "Know Your Farmer" and find farmer's markets near you).  We can choose organic, pesticide-free and heirloom varieties of food, to diversify our food supply and reduce the number of toxins added to our food and to the earth.  And we can start, all of us, to grow a little of our own food.  (There's an app for that: "Botanical Interests" can help you start gardening with your iPhone; thanks Urban Gardens for the find!) 

There's so much more we can do--we can step away from plastics, carpool and buy fuel efficient cars, press our government to invest in public transportation, and compost our vegetable waste, just for starters...

But mostly I think we have to let ourselves deeply integrate the intellectual knowledge we already have, and let a global perspective shape our vision.  The scientific community is very concerned, as each year, new research is outpacing earlier projections.  The icecaps are melting faster than we thought, there are redoubling effects that were unforeseen, and each year we are breaking more and more funky weather records...(If you haven't seen An Inconvenient Truth, the movie explains why weather will get more and more extreme and unsettled, rather than simply getting hotter.) 

All the knowledge in the world, though, isn't going to change our behavior, until we see ourselves as part of, integrated into, the natural world, rather than separate from it.  We are each of us organic matter, part of the universe, connected through the air we breathe and water we drink.  These elements cycle through us and swirl around us.  What I do to the air and the water impacts that planetary swirl.  We are woven together, and we are creating our future, at every moment, with every breath.

(This post is in alliance with Blog Action Day, focused on Climate Change)