My favorite book as a toddler was Green Eggs and Ham. I asked my parents to read it to me so often that my father, in particular, wanted to beg off of the nightly duty because he felt like he had “green eggs on the brain.” Fortunately, my interests evolved, I started reading for myself, and a different Dr. Seuss work, The Lorax—a cautionary tale about the ravages of capitalism on the environment, particularly on trees—took hold of my consciousness. Its moving, pro-environmental message, written in Dr. Seuss’ characteristic lilting rhythm and rhyme, resonated with me, and I could not fathom how corporate destruction of the environment on which all life depends could be tolerated.
A few years after I grew out of daily doses of Seuss—and into the vernacular of adolescence during my high school tenure just outside of Baltimore—I took special note of how much I enjoyed sleeping with my window cracked open. Once fully awake, I would bask in the crisp autumn mornings, with the frost greeting me as I headed to the bus. Then, within just a few short years, I started a job with the organization Greenpeace in Washington, DC, and became increasingly aware that there were multiple threats to the environment. Yet still I was oblivious to the possibility that I would soon miss those brisk, autumn mornings because the fall weather would soon become less consistent.
My work with Greenpeace was eye-opening, of course, but what became a milestone in my view towards our rapidly changing climate was visiting Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, in 2013. Seeing glaciers was breathtaking enough but observing the distance of glacial retreat as measured by year markers drew gasps from nearly everyone in my tour group. I had long been convinced of anthropogenic climate change, but the gulf between where the glaciers in Jasper extended in the early 1900s to where they have drastically shrunk now, and with greater acceleration in recent years, convinced me that the climate was transforming much faster than predicted. Glacial retreat across the globe warrants retiring the expression “glacial pace” because it no longer means what it once did. Indeed, glaciers themselves might present the quintessential face of climate change.
Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Obscene
As the “glacial pace” example shows, the language that we use helps to frame ideas, and words may help convey the urgency to act on the embedded concepts. For instance, “anthropogenic” alludes to humans as a source of creation or causality. Following that concept, “Anthropocene” is a recently coined key word that refers to the current geologic era, because this era is characterized by human activities exerting measurable effects on the face and weather of our planet.
To help illustrate the seriousness of the challenge that humanity faces, “Anthropocene” was mentioned multiple times during the Climate Reality Leadership training convention that I attended this August in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This bustling city along the Mississippi River was an ideal location to reinforce the notion of a climate crisis—with “crisis” also serving as a salient descriptive word, as winters in Minnesota are warming faster than anywhere else in the United States, and Minneapolis is thought to be second only to New Orleans among U.S. cities that are suffering direct threats from our rapidly changing climate. Are residents of these two cities the only ones responsible, though, for the perilous positions in which they find themselves? The label “Anthropocene” generalizes and points to the cumulative effects on the environment and climate from industrialized human activity across the planet, especially with the burning of fossil fuels spurred by the global north over the last 150 years incurring destructive effects for all humanity and the breadth of other species.
On the other hand, is it fair to attribute the pervasive and measurable changes in climate and its host of catastrophic implications to all of humanity? Some writers have suggested we instead use the word “Capitalocene” to imply that it is the movers and shakers of global capitalism that are disproportionately to blame. The poorest in the world bear little to no responsibility for shifting the earth systems that are unleashing monster storms, droughts, wildfires, and unprecedented change, though such segments of the population are the most vulnerable to these obscene events and incommensurately among its earliest victims.
Ascribing blame, however, may very well be irrelevant at this stage. What was euphemistically termed “global warming”—making it sound almost cuddly or desirable on a cold day—has morphed into “climate change.” Environmental activists and some journalists are now using expressions such as “climate crisis,” “climate disaster,” “climate emergency,” “abrupt climate disruption,” and even “climate collapse.” Our situation is urgent. In this sense, “sustainability” should rightly be replaced by “survivability” for humans and the myriad endangered species, such as polar bears and so many others imperiled by the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, the only one driven by human industrialized activity. Not every person born since the Industrial Revolution has contributed to the stunning changes in our planetary climate, but any chance at keeping the Earth habitable for humanity and all remaining species will depend on a truly global effort from most people alive today.
What Can We Do?
What must we do to ensure that we survive and then build a sustainable future? For starters, use the stronger, more apt language to describe the wholesale rapid changes spreading over the Earth. The massive and unprecedented climatic, and possibly climactic, events occurring across the globe are not mere changes in weather patterns to which we can readily adapt.
Support forward initiatives in government, for another. Minnesota boasts not only a love for their traditional winter weather but a love for some of their forward-thinking mayors: the leaders of Minneapolis and the neighboring St. Paul have both directed efforts to commit to using only renewable electricity by 2030. California and Hawaii have prohibited plastic bags (plastic directly contributes to climate change), and several US municipalities have or are debating such bans. San Francisco’s city-owned airport has taken an additional step by banning plastic bottles as of the end of August, in the type of forward-thinking measure that can readily be emulated worldwide. Across the globe, Pakistan is poised to forbid the use of plastic bags, and Ethiopia recently planted 350 million trees in one day to combat drought. Ethiopia’s government does not plan to stop there—the country aims to plant one billion trees by the end of September. In the last two years, China and the United Kingdom also have embarked on ambitious tree-planting programs, and Ireland has recently promised to plant 440 million trees in the next 20 years.
These practices are considered the least expensive and most practical first steps to address the climate crisis. Sufficient? Of course not. Humanity must commit to eliminating the use of fossil fuels as quickly as possible. If individuals, municipalities, states, and countries devote themselves to multiple environmental actions, including eliminating fossil fuels and planting trees, the latter of which would extract a substantial portion of the excessive carbon dioxide heating our atmosphere, maybe we could start to turn the tide. Such actions will take the concerted and sustained energy of as much of humanity as possible. In a country like the U.S., which has long prided itself on rising to challenges, the least we can do is plant a few billion trees. We will need to do it at what is now the current glacial pace. It would make the Lorax proud.