Nestled into my favorite spot in the dunes overlooking San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the sun is bright, the wind coming off the Pacific is brisk and refreshing. The unceasing roar of crashing waves suspends time with its assurance of infinite repetition. Withdrawing into the magnificence of my surroundings, it’s impossible to believe that anything is wrong.
All the reports of climate catastrophe seem like science fiction. The measurements of excessive CO2 trapped in the atmosphere seem like an abstraction. Looking out over the vast expanse of the Pacific and the endless sky above, we humans seem too small and insignificant to harm it. Even when I think about all the traffic coursing through the neighborhoods behind me, it seems ridiculous to blame their exhaust, much less believe that it has destabilized the planet’s climate.
A fellow blogger sends me daily reminders of the unending variety of our planet’s beauty. He calls his photos Earth Porn. I subscribe to his site to offset my daily feed of climate news. I have to occasionally look away from this —
and feast my eyes on this —
This afternoon I’m indulging in the real thing.
I see why some people don’t want to look at the data and the articles that I spend hours poring over every day. I see why they prefer looking at their own version of earthly paradise.
I visualize the beauty my old South Dakota uncle sees looking out at his cattle grazing in knee-high grass. And I picture my Wisconsin brothers sitting at a lake watching the sun set behind a tall stand of Cottonwoods and Aspen on the far shore. I see my Seattle friends on their treks up Mount Rainier and my Oahu friends partying in the rich foliage of the Pali or catching giant waves at Sunset Beach.
I force myself to look deeper. I remember the early astronomers, men like Aristarchus of Samos who, in the 3rd century BC, by observation alone, theorized a heliocentric solar system, placing the sun, not the earth, at its center.
And though I don’t remember who first diagramed it, I recall the ancient Greek discovery that if you sit in the same place every day at the same time and note the location of the sun for a year, you will come up with the figure ‘8’. If these old Greeks can reason truth from their surroundings, so can I.
I think about how comfortable I am. My butt forms a perfectly shaped bowl in the dunes, supporting my back, my legs finding their own repose in the loose sand in front of me. Isaac Newton called it gravity. It’s what holds me gently but firmly in place in my little dune cocoon. I cannot see it as I gaze out at the ocean waves. I cannot smell it like I do the brine of the sea air or hear it like I do the crashing surf. I don’t even really feel it until I think about it.
I need only go back a year to remember the days when I dared not venture down to the beach. Smoke from California wildfires burning north and east of San Francisco got sucked into an airstream and blanketed the city. Air quality so bad that everyone was told to stay indoors. Four blocks from it, we could barely see the ocean even at midday when I took this photo from our living room widow.
A week later our family in Santa Rosa was evacuated, the Glass Fire coming within a quarter mile of their home.
Despite what I know to be true, I want to think that won’t happen again. I want to ignore the Dixie wildfire which has claimed over a million acres in the past month and is still raging. I would rather sit here enjoying this perfect afternoon oblivious to reality.
When I force my attention on the climate denier stereotypes I’ve constructed, I don’t see myself. I see a big white guy sporting a red MAGA hat leaning out of his Ford F-450 Super Duty pickup flipping me off and cursing libtards and treehuggers.
I can bask in denial only if I chose to ignore what I know. I would like to be oblivious, to hear the roar of a 475 horsepower engine and not think of the millions of trucks just like it spewing tons of carbon into the atmosphere. I would prefer to just sit here enjoying the fresh ocean air.
But when I look out beyond my own small life, I see a single mom in Lubbock, Texas who’s just come home from her night job, a four-hour shift at McDonalds which she starts after a full day of cleaning houses. Her two sleepy kids jump up from the couch and they give her just enough energy to hug them back and to thank her mom who’s watched them all day.
She’s heard of climate change but it’s doesn’t even make the top ten of list of her worries. Besides making rent and buying groceries she’s afraid for her seven-year-old, Tommy. His breathing is getting worse. She’s never made the connection between his respiratory problems and the big oil refinery two blocks away.
I see a family of eight in Mumbai, India living in a shack the size of my garage. It’s getting dark but they continue to wait before digging into their meager servings of roti and rice because the eldest son is still finishing his work — sorting refuse into piles of recyclables.
I see the thirty-year old factory worker in China, happy to work his 10-hour shift assembling cellphones, proud that he’s achieved a modest middleclass lifestyle that lets him help his aging parents who have been through so much.
Lost in thought, I stretch out my cramping legs. When my feet hit a clump of ice plants, I quickly withdraw and chastise myself for being careless. When I climb up into these dunes, I’m very careful not to disturb the beach grass, ice plants and other native flora that hold the dunes in place. Besides their biodiversity, these dunes stand between the rising sea and my home four blocks away.
Lifting my eyes, I spot a cargo ship on the horizon. It’s too far out to be anything more than an angled shape against the gentle contours of ocean, sky and coastal hills. But I know that once it enters the Bay it will seem as massive as a skyscraper lying on its side. Once it’s docked at the Port of Oakland it will disgorge millions of products for the American market, the largest consumer market on the planet and the largest producers of waste.
The off-shore winds pick-up. Chilly but reluctant to leave, I come to grips with the task at hand. I cannot quit indulging myself in this joyous setting. And I cannot quit knowing what I know.
Unlike the single mom in Lubbock, the family living in a Mumbai slum or the sincere Chinese factory worker, I can afford to think about climate change. I have the means and I have the time to face the crisis, to learn the facts and to lobby for action. I have paradise at my doorstep but I cannot let it supplant the larger reality.
Inspiration from the magnificence of Mother Earth needs to feed my dwindling confidence in myself and my fellow humans. My old friend Kurt Vonnegut would say that it’s our big brains that got us into this mess. But unlike Kurt I have to believe that our big brains and our capacious hearts can still get us out of it.