Can We Change?

“Watching these incremental but persistent increases in CO2 year-to-year is much like watching a train barrel down the track towards you in slow motion. It’s terrifying,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison climate scientist Andrea Dutton. “If we stay on the track with a plan to jump out of the way at the last minute, we may die of heat stroke out on the tracks before it even gets to us.”

from “Sky High: Carbon dioxide levels in air spike past milestone” by Seth Borenstein, AP Science Writer, 6/3/22 (source

We are creatures of habit. We have ways of being in the world, ways that we want to be in the world, and ways that we expect the world to be so that we can be and do the things we want. Nearly everyone operates on this basis. With this foundation, it should come as no surprise when I say we find it extraordinarily hard to change. This is true whether we are trying to change our ways of being, of wanting, or of expecting the world to be. And it is especially true if the change appears to involve a loss of some sort. Even when confronted with something as potentially catastrophic as climate change, we tend to stand on the track as long as we can, telling ourselves, “The train isn’t here yet. Right now I can enjoy the view. Later, when it goes close, I’ll jump. But only if I have to. Maybe someone on the train will see me and stop the train first.”

Why is change so difficult? Does my recognition of the problem make it any easier for me to change my own habits? And have I had any success inspiring others to change theirs? Here are two stories for your consideration.

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Reed Announces Plan for Fossil Fuel Divestment

An email from Chair of the Reed College Board of Trustees, Roger Perlmutter ’73, and President of Reed College, Audrey Bilger, appeared in my inbox today. As I read, a grin spread from ear to ear. I could feel joy rising in my chest. Divestment at last!! My next action was to share the good news with friends and colleagues and to thank anyone who might have been influential in getting the Board to take this step. Make no mistake, a large number of people in the Reed community, students, alumni, staff, and faculty, have urged the Trustees many times over the past decade to take this step. I have added my voice on occasion, sometimes through personal meetings, sometimes through direct correspondence with College leadership, and several times through this blog (here’s a post from 2016; you can also click on the Climate Change category at the bottom of this post to see all posts on this topic). Each time I encountered resistance (or just silence), I told myself, “this is a difficult step for the Trustees to take”, but I never doubted for a moment that divestment was essential.

Let’s hope that where Reed College is going, others will follow. The planet is changing. Our actions are changing it. Most of the greenhouse gases that have been released world-wide have been produced during my lifetime. The corrective steps that need to be taken are easy to describe – stop creating (and funding the creation) of fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere – but how we get to “stop” and “reduce” are much harder problems to solve. It won’t happen overnight. So all of us — me, you, Reed College, and people all over the world — need to see this as our collective project, and to encourage each other in the effort.

Our planet is worth saving. And I am 100% certain that my grandchildren, if they were old enough to understand the nature of the problems facing the planet, would strongly agree.

To read Reed College’s divestment announcement, click here.

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Remembering Prof. Charles Wu

I just received a sad, but inevitable, email from Reed College President Audrey Bilger. Another professor at Reed College from my time (1989-2021) has passed away. This email told me that the latest passing was that of Emeritus Prof. Charles Wu [Chinese and Humanities, 1988 – 2002] (1935-2021).

In my mind’s eye, I can still see Prof. Wu walking across campus at the Eliot Circle or sitting somewhere in a chair near me in a faculty meeting. Otherwise, our paths never crossed until just a few years ago when I found myself in a bookstore, standing in front of the shelves for Eastern philosophy, with a copy of Wu’s Thus Spoke Laozi: Dao De Jing, A New Translation with Commentaries open in my hand. I hesitated at first. I already owned 4 or 5 translations. Did I need another?

However, the possibility of reading a translation generated by a Reed College professor and native Chinese speaker was too special to ignore. I made my purchase and eagerly began another swim through Laozi’s Way. As I read Wu’s introduction to the text, how he approached it, and how the reader might use it, I was struck by his scholarly, insightful, yet humble, presentation. I felt a deep pang of regret that he had retired and I would never have an opportunity to sit in his classroom and learn from him directly. And, yet, I was comforted by the book that lay in my hands, and his perspective and understanding on Laozi filling my heart and mind.

Holding a cup while filling it to the brim
Is not as good as stopping then and there.
Hammering the blade till it is sharp
Cannot keep it so for long.
Stuffing the hall with gold and jade
Does not guarantee it will stay secure.
Turning arrogant after gaining wealth and position
Brings disaster upon oneself.
Retire after achieving one’s goal —
That is the Dao of Heaven.

Chapter 9, “Thus Spoke Laozi”, translation by Charles Q. Wu (2013)

Thank you, Professor. Your spirit continues to teach.

To read more about Prof. Wu’s life: The Northwest China Council Newsletter has included a memorial tribute to Professor Wu (beginning on the second page), and an obituary has been published in the Oregonian here

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Do Forests Make the Wind?

Meteorology is not my field, but I’ve been paying much closer attention to trees (they’re everywhere in Portland!) and forests (harder to get to in these stay-at-home days) ever since I read The Overstory this past winter-spring. So I was naturally intrigued when my eye fell on Weather Makers in Science last month (19 June 2020, 1303). The subtitle says it all, “Forests supply the world with rain. A controversial Russian theory claims they also make the wind.” I was surprised twice over.

In my mind, rain comes from the ocean. Evaporation of water from the Pacific creates the clouds that keep Pacific Northwest skies gray most of the year. When the conditions are right, the clouds drop their load and turn my garden green. As for wind, I remember an instructive encounter during junior high. A kid said to me, “I’ll teach you where the wind comes from. The hot air rises (he raised his left hand dramatically high over his head and I tilted my head back to watch), and the cold air comes in to takes it place (and with that I got a quick smack on my cheek from his right-hook).”

But little did I know. In the 1990s scientists documented atmospheric rivers that lift moisture exhaled by forests and then carry it downwind. One so-called “flying river” over the Amazon provides 70% of the rain for southeastern South America. Another flying river brings China 80% of its rain from the west, starting in Europe and getting recycled through the forests of Scandinavia and Siberia. Cut down a forest and the land downwind turns into a desert.

The newest wrinkle is a proposal from two Russian scientists, Anastassia Makarieva and Victor Gorshkov, that forests also function as “biotic pumps” that create air flow, that is, wind. Doubters say this is likely a minor effect, while believers say that it is a significant factor in making the weather. The article gives ample space to both sides in the debate, and it also includes these important words:

Even those who doubt the theory agree that forest loss can have far-reaching climatic consequences. Many scientists have argued that deforestation thousands of years ago was to blame for desertification in the Australian Outback and West Africa. The fear is that future deforestation could dry up other regions, for example, tipping parts of the Amazon rainforest to savanna. Agricultural regions of  China, the African Sahel, and the Argentine Pampas are also at risk, says Patrick Keys, an atmospheric chemist at Colorado State University, Fort Collins.

In 2018, Keys … track[ed] the sources of rainfall for 29 global megacities. He found that 19 were highly dependent on distant forests for much of their water supply, including Karachi, Pakistan; Wuhan and Shanghai, China; and New Delhi and Kolkata, India. “Even small changes in precipitation could have big impacts on the fragility of urban water supplies,” he says.

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Laughter & Music for the New Truth

As Gary Shteyngart so brilliantly wrote, “Half of us still seem to live in the Before Times and half in the New Truth.” In the Before Times, my family and friends spent way more time on social media than I did. If I had time to spare, I was much more likely to sit or walk in quiet (or maybe wander off on my bicycle).

None of this has been changed by the New Truth. Maybe we really weren’t all that different from each other? Media? Meditation? First 4 letters the same! Whether we mock our troubles, or invite them to a heart-to-heart, we all have to cope somehow.

Here is a list that will help you keep a light heart. And if the After Times ever do come, we can all come here and look back at the things that made us smile. Continue reading

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Online Teaching Links

Is your class going online? Are you feeling a little overwhelmed? Hey, that’s ME too! Fortunately, even if it sometimes feels like there’s no time, there is help. I’m going to post the ‘credible’ links I discover to online help pages so that I can easily refer to them. Feel free to click. Continue reading

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Middlebury, Smith, Georgetown, why not Reed?

(Update: On 11 Oct 2021 the Reed College Board of Trustees announced its decision to divest the college’s endowment from fossil fuels. Read about it here.)

Last summer I read a guest editorial, Time’s up, CO2 in Science magazine (2 Aug 2019), the weekly journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The author, Dr. Marcia, McNutt, is president of the most important scientific body in our country, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Her one-page essay began with a look over her shoulder at a scientific meeting that had been held 40 years earlier in Woods Hole, Mass. That group, which had been led by Jule Charney, MIT, had projected that “atmospheric CO2 concentrations would reach double the preindustrial values sometime in the first half of the 21st century” and that “average global surface temperatures would increase by 3C +/- 1.5C.” McNutt then added, “Fast-forward to 2019, and these calculations of the sensitivity of climate to doubling of CO2 have proven to be remarkably on target.”

Science works!

Unfortunately, far too many of us, scientists included, weren’t paying attention to the science back in 1979. But that short-sighted view has been changing for some years now. It’s time to demand that institutions of higher education catch up to the science and realize that “business as usual” is a global suicide pact for humanity.

I attended the Reed Union discussion of climate change and divestment last Thursday and I learned that Reed College currently has no plans to divest. Believe me, we have scientists on our Board of Trustees. Right at the very top. And concerned faculty and student have been asking the College to give up its investments in the fossil fuel industry for years. But these pleas, not to mention a scientific case that has been building for 40 years and more, continue to fall on ears that cannot hear, eyes that cannot see. It’s still business as usual at Reed College.

Fortunately, there is cause for hope. A quick online search today highlighted several colleges that have heard the “Time’s up, CO2” call. A year ago Middlebury College promised that they would divest their $1 billion dollar endowment over the next 15 years. Smith College followed suit last October. And just last week, while we sat in discussion at the Reed Union, mighty Georgetown University announced its own plan for phased divestment over the next 10 years. Reed is still unmoved, but one must hope.

In the meantime, dear reader, my advice is to remember that what you spend on education today is an investment in your future tomorrow. It is an investment in realizing your potential as a human being. It is one part of a life-long strategy. So make a wise choice. Before you give your money to any institution, make sure that it is committed to your tomorrow as well as your today. And speaking of “today”, go here to learn what college students in Massachusetts are doing today to secure their future, and ours.

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C is for Carbon (and That’s Good Enough for Me)

Sesame Street is 50 years old. Wow. Those mornings in front of the TV with my children are still so vivid.

Happy Birthday, Cookie Monster, Elmo, Big Bird, Grover, Bert & Ernie, The Count, and all the rest! We love you!


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Give it a try – Don’t fly

I’m waiting for tomorrow’s climate strike with great anticipation. My generation has failed the planet. A younger generation is demanding the action that their parents and grandparents were too ignorant, too fearful, too complacent, too wedded to lives of wealth and convenience, to take. I can only pray that they succeed.

Too be sure, all of us have contributed to the problem by asking more of the Earth than the planet can deliver. According to The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming by David Wallace-Wells, “More than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.” This fact is enough to tell me that the way I have conducted my life, and indeed, the way all of us in the energy-intensive first world have conducted our lives, has been a disaster for life on Earth, both now and in the future.

So how do we turn things around? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer, no single path, that will return the greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere to anything that might be considered safe. We must find multiple solutions on multiple scales. We must demand that governments muster the collective will necessary for broad, binding changes. An end to fossil fuel subsidies? A carbon tax? A requirement for renewable energy? All this, and more. And yet, we must also shoulder the burden for change as individuals.

Consumer choices – what we consume, how much we consume, what we invest in and what we demand in return for those investments – all have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The easy choice is to stick with the familiar and convenient, but “business as usual” is exactly the problem. Do we dare to live our lives in new ways?

Consider air travel. Let me quote from “Contrails threaten climate” (Science, “News in Brief”, 5 July 2019, p. 11), “Carbon emissions from aviation are a well-known contributor to climate warming. But another byproduct of planes – the white contrails they paint across the sky – has an even bigger effect.

The obvious solution? Don’t fly. At very least, give up non-essential flying. But there’s the rub. The availability of relatively cheap, fast, air travel has created a culture in which separations over long distance are considered only minor inconveniences, rather than life-changing events. Do your parents in Boston want you to come home for the holidays, or to attend your cousin’s wedding, or your uncle’s retirement party? No problem. Hop on a jet and you’re there. Two days later hop on another jet and you’re back at school. You might not even miss a single class. And yet the damage has been done.

A bit of math. One website claims that the average American family drives its car about 15,000 miles a year. Give or take a few thousand miles, it’s probably right. However, a round-trip jet flight from Portland to Boston covers over 5,000 miles even by the most direct route and flying burns far more fossil fuel per mile than driving a car does. Add in the multiplying effect of contrails mentioned above, and suddenly the carbon footprint of a weekend trip to Boston outstrips that of an entire family’s car travel for a year. So, as we strike tomorrow, let’s ask ourselves this question: Do we dare to live our lives in new ways? Because only a “yes” can save us.

Flying is just one of life’s many planet-ruining conveniences, but it offers a clear target for living differently. For more encouragement on giving up non-essential air travel, see Climate Scientists Say No to Flying (Science 17 May 2019, p. 621) and No Fly Climate Sci.

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Mobilize for the Climate, Global Strike, F, 9/20

People all across the globe will join together on Friday, Sept 20 for a Climate Strike. Individually, we can do a lot. Together, we can do so much more. Join in.

For more info about Portland events go to Climate Strike Oregon. And help spread the word. Here’s a link to their Outreach Toolkit. Put up a poster. Talk to your friends and classmates. Talk to your family. Spread the word.

We can’t afford to run our lives according to the same old “business as usual”! If we don’t begin to live and work in a new way, we soon won’t be living and working at all. Young people seem to understand this much better than my generation does.

Want to get involved? Check out some of these groups. Find the one that welcomes you and feels like a good fit.

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