…Sliding into the Twenties

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As 2019 fades away into the past, surely the best news about what has been accomplished this year is the story of Greta Thunberg and her crusade to make people aware of the climate crisis. Thunberg sailed across the North Atlantic to speak to world leaders about those changes and how they will affect young people. Government leaders listened politely, young people mounted parades and protests, but almost no government or individual did anything to confront the crisis. Young people heard her voice, but the older people who control the world seem to be deaf to it.

Greta Thunberg

If world leaders could not hear the protests of young people, they might at least look across the world to see some of the reasons for the protests. Australia has been suffering from massive wildfires and days of record-breaking high temperatures. Antarctica is losing ice at triple the rate of only five years ago. Whether it is heat or cold that you worry about, both are growing more extreme. The thousands of people who have been displaced by changes in the climate will swell to millions. And those people will keep moving as their homelands become unlivable.

Wildfires in Australia 2019

Meanwhile, two yellow-haired men, one in Britain and one in America swell up and bellow at the world to stop turning and retreat backward. Denying climate change and the global changes it will bring, they long to return to a patchwork of tiny national states huddled behind flimsy walls. Like King Canute ordering the ocean to stop its incoming tides, the forces of change won’t listen or care. Bob Dylan was right when he told us half a century ago, “the times, they are a-changing”.

But there are still signs of hope in the world. We still have young people like Greta Thunberg and her followers. And we still have the voices of writers who remind us of our shared humanity. Two books that I’ve read in the last month are especially hopeful. One is Patti Smith’s The Year of the Monkey, and the other is Hisham Matar’s A Month in Siena. Both of them are meditative works that tell of journeys—the kind of journeys that writers and artists have been taking for centuries. Where would we be without individuals who can share their thoughts with us?  

In Year of the Monkey, Patti Smith tells us about a trip across the country from California to New York and back again. She travels through dreams and reality, as she thinks about friends who are dying and people both living and dead who are still part of her life.

A Month in Siena also tells of a journey. Hisham Matar goes to Siena to look at paintings and at the city. His trip comes after other trips he has made to his native Libya attempting to discover what happened to his father, a political activist who disappeared into prison years ago. Both the centuries-old paintings he absorbs and the people he meets in the city make it possible for him to connect with the world he lives in and shares with us.

Both Smith and Matar give us a humane view of how people can meet one another and share feelings and ideas. Perhaps the best news we can find as 2019 ends and the new decade begins, is that books and art survive. Perhaps they will help us all to confront the inevitable changes coming as the century grows older.     

Why Are Humans Such Slow Learners?

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Here in California, the prospect of Thanksgiving has been tarnished by the series of disasters that have hit the state. Wildfires are raging in both Northern and Southern  parts of the state. And the effects of the fires are felt widely. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the smell of smoke hovers over us and this week the sky has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue, schools are closed, people wear masks and still they cough.

The wildfires are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Climate change is an undeniable fact, yet we still elect politicians who refuse to recognize what’s going on. Why do some politicians find it so difficult to accept scientific facts?  And why do voters, even in a year of Democratic triumphs like these midterms, continue to vote against measures that might help? A recent article in the Atlantic Monthly tells us how difficult it has been to confront the realities of climate change.

It’s not as though the idea of climate change hasn’t been discussed for years. The medieval idea that the world is unchanging and that human beings have no influence on it was challenged more than 200 years ago by Alexander von Humboldt, one of the greatest scientists the world has ever known, although much of his work has been forgotten.

Born in 1769, Humboldt traveled to South America in 1800 to explore nature and culture in the Spanish colonies there. When he saw the changes that Europeans has brought to the country by cutting down forests and cultivating lands, he developed his theories of how men affect climate. “When forests are destroyed, as they are everywhere in America by the European planters, …the springs are dried up or become less abundant.”  He noted how this allowed the soil to be washed away during heavy rains, causing erosion and a loss of fertile soil

Knowledge is a slow-growing plant, but Humboldt was one of those people who planted ideas that have blossomed during the centuries since he started his explorations. We are lucky this year to have a new biography of Alexander von Humboldt available. Andrea Wulf, has explored Humboldt’s life and ideas in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how scientific ideas have developed over the years and learning more about the people who have given us our modern view of the world. 

Scientists have known for many years that people are changing the world and that much of that change makes the world smaller and less livable. Our demand for fossil fuels have fostered changes in the climate that threaten us all. For a while there was hope that America would act to lower our carbon impact, but instead we are turning away from all the facts that scientists have been explaining to us for centuries. For a recent update on how the world is going, you can read Bill McKibbon’s article in the current New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps if enough people read that article, Americans will come together and push their politicians into action. Then by next Thanksgiving we might truly have something to be thankful for.

What’s the weather like?

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Here in northern California we have been preoccupied by the wildfires that are threatening homes and property in many parts of the state. Even in San Francisco, which is miles away from the nearest fire, the vague smell of smoke hovers over us and on weather_Wildfiressome days the sky in the morning has an ominous yellowy-greenish hue. City dwellers are sometimes thought to be immune to changes in the natural world, but nature has intruded on us this year and we have become preoccupied by it.

The wildfires in so many western states—made much worse by the hot, dry weather that has prevailed—are only one example of the way the natural world has been changing our view of the power of nature. The long, hot summer and the disastrous hurricanes have affected the lives of people throughout the country. And the hurricane season has only started. All the measures that we have taken to tailor weather to our preferences are failing us. We can’t spend all of our time hunkering down in our air-conditioned houses and cars. Nature is taking its revenge and forcing us to consider how we live and work.

Last year when I visited London, I bought a book called Weatherland: Writers and artists under English Skies. The author, Alexandra Harris, traces the history of the way writers and artists have been influenced by English weather over the centuries. The ever-changing British weather has encouraged a deep interested in tracking the vagaries of

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Georgian drawing room

 

changes in the weather. Even architecture has been impacted. The warm summers of the 1720s and 1730s, as reported by Harris, have been suggested as an incentive to introduce the neoclassical style buildings in cities like Bath. Although as she explains the “high ceilings and open colonnades were considerably less appealing” when the average chilly English climate reappeared in later years.

The 19th century was one that brought dampness and rain to much of England. Byron wrote “Morn came and went and came, and brought no day,/And men forgot their passions in the dread…” As the century went on and cities grew in size and density, rain and fog became a part of the plot as in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House  in which rain falls throughout the first twelve chapters and weather seems to become an integral character in the story.

It wasn’t until the 20th century that the influence of people on the weather was recognized as being as important as the influence of weather on people. The use of fossil fuels and the growth

weather_smog1952

Smog 1952

of manufacturing led to increasing episodes of smog both in England and America. The culmination, for London, was the great smog of  December 1952 which killed several thousand people. At last the general public began to pay attention and the first Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.

Now we are again to be in an era when mankind is impacting weather so strongly that once again people throughout the world are in danger. Climate change is causing rising temperatures for oceans and land. Unprecedented storms are increasing in numbers and violence. Deserts are expanding in Africa and coastlines are receding as the oceans rise. Although our national government has become reluctant to act on the clear danger, if enough people push hard enough, we will be able to stop the reckless policies of our so-called leaders and insist on regulations to limit the worst effects of these changes.

Reading Wonderland won’t give you a background in climate science, but it is a great reminder of how important weather has always been in the life of human beings.