EARTH DAY, GOING ON 32 // elspeth

A week from today, I'll be 32 years old. In a lot of ways, my world is exactly how I always imagined it would be at this age. I'm married, my husband and I have a house in the woods and a lab on his last legs and two inquisitive, loving, wild daughters. I have a garden, just like my mom's. I'm on the board of the farmers market. I work mostly independently, producing radio pieces and writing, and in the busy season I make up the difference by throwing myself into the loud, lively chaos that is managing a restaurant. 

But the bigger world now is not what I imagined it would be like when I was little, or at least not what I hoped for. 

It is not that it's so surprising. My generation has been learning about our problems since birth. We are aware that we live in a state of ecological overshoot. That sometime in the 1970s or 1980s, scientists say, we started using more resources each year than the earth can regenerate in a twelve month period. That eventually—maybe in the next decade or two, or if we're lucky a bit longer—this math will simply stop working, and we will no longer be able to carry on. 

And then, of course, there's climate change. The year I was born, the atmosphere contained 343 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Today, we're up to just over 400, and steadily rising. 

The scientifically accepted future is terrifying. The natural state of the earth with present CO2 levels is one with sea levels about 70 feet higher. To reach this is not a question of if—geologic records show sea levels will rise this much if we do not reduce CO2—but a question of how soon. The same goes for ocean acidification, storm magnification, rainfall patterns, and rising temperatures. Even if we change course now, right now, we're in for a lot of consequences. And if we don't, what then? Maybe 2 degrees by 2030 or 2040, as many as 4 between 2060 and 2100. Famine. Extinctions. Violence. Drought.

In my imagination of today as a kid, we'd long ago changed course. But of course we haven't, or at least not fast enough. We're still just carrying on.

All of this makes for a huge psychological disconnect for my generation, for young people trying to plan a life. 

I'm not under any false impressions that no other generations have faced great challenges of imagination and morality, or that somehow we have it "worse." In so many ways, we've had such luck—a life of relative physical ease and security—at least so far. 

But I do think our challenge is unique in the moral confusion of it, in the way that we've learned about it in school our entire lives, being taught, subtly and overtly, that our way of life is wrong, that we are, each day, slowly poisoning the very place we depend on. And at the same time, how we've watched our teachers and parents and friends and selves continue to do these things, and listened as those who attempt to think outside this box are called "impractical" and "unrealistic." 

It feels like we might at least be unique in our confusion. 

But the good thing is that since November: suddenly, it's not confusing anymore. It's still complicated—incredibly, diabolically complicated—but the morality is stark. The only practical and moral way forward is away from fossil fuels, and no one in the highest levels of government is going to deal with this reality. It will have to be us.

Since November, I've stepped further outside my comfort zone than I ever have before. My entire adult life has been a subtle acknowledgement of the future I simultaneously hope and fear we will eventually come to: one where we must rely on ourselves and our neighbors a great deal more than we do right now. I have always been interested in learning the "real" way to do things—to preserve salt pork, to keep kimchi, to make a quilt. The way without refrigeration, without electricity, without sugar or vinegar or whatever cheat we happen to be using. Learning these things is what led me, in the first place, to local food.

But now that doesn't feel like enough. To put up solar panels, to garden, to raise chickens—these are all worthy and wonderful things if you have the land and the time and the money, and I will never stop wanting to learn. 

But what we really need is a sea change: a huge, collective acknowledgement of the trouble we're in by those in power, and an agreement to push our leaders to change course. I vowed at the beginning of this year to do two things I haven't done much of before: to take whatever action I can on the local and state and national levels to fight climate change, and to communicate my environmental beliefs more effectively with family and friends. 

So, here I am. The group I'm volunteering for on a national level is called the Climate Mobilization. It's less of an organization and more of a mission: build a WWII-scale mobilization to restore a safe climate. I found it right after the election, linked in a blog post. When I first read their stuff, it sounded kind of radical. They demand what they call "climate truth" and ask people to go into "emergency mode," a state of extreme focus, putting all of our attention and resources toward solving the crisis. But it also, immediately, sounded right. Like finally, someone came out and said it: we've been handed a world on the brink of collapse. If we want to have a future—for ourselves and our kids—we have to take this reality seriously.

There's a small but growing group of Wellfleetian and Outer Cape residents joining forces on a local level on this issue. We're hosting a climate science training at the Wellfleet Audubon tomorrow (4/23 from 10:30-1, for any last minute interest), and planning a series of climate-related events and political pushes over the few months. If you're interested in helping organize, let me know. Otherwise, know that soon we'll be reaching out community-wide. And thank you, as always, for being here.

(P.S., housekeeping: the kale soup I promised from so long ago was a bust. Blagh. Don't bother. And I'd like to share how to make kimchi and salt pork, because these are both new and exciting skills for me that I think you'd like too. I'll be back with those once I getter a better grip on the process. In the meantime, I keep cooking from my friend Sarah's new cookbook, Feeding a Family. So beautiful, so simple, so good.) 


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All text, photographs, and other original material copyright 2008-2010 by Elspeth Hay unless otherwise noted.