In trying to bring the enormity of climate change into focus, I look to the garden. It’s spring as I write this, as colorful and glorious a spring as I remember, and while delighting in the specifics, I cannot bear in mind the looming threats of climate change. They feel abstract, and huge, and although The Enormity portends catastrophe, I feel no immediate impact on my today. Along with most people in the U.S. (69% by one count of a 2014 March Gallup Pole), I do not doubt that climate change will harm us, but I cannot make it real. And while I cannot ask myself to rally, and help solve, I can learn how to pay attention.
I start by thinking back to my college days in Painesville, Ohio some fifty years ago. Occasionally, a friend and I treated ourselves to dinner at the inn, and one time its waiter, ancient, long-faced and solicitous, said in the saddest voice ever, “There is no perch. There are no more perch in Lake Erie.” How we laughed as he slipped from the dining room to fetch us warm buns and salads.
Why, then, we wondered, were perch still accorded their place on the menu?
Lake Erie was declared dead in 1969, the result of billions of gallons of untreated industrial and agricultural wastes and human sewage dumped daily from Cleveland and Detroit, and from an additional one hundred and twenty lesser cities. The lake was dying of suffocation. That same year brought the burning of the Cuyahoga River, and we would joke about that, too, albeit uneasily. That image of that river, emptying into that lakeprovoked outrage, and the great advances of the early 1970’s – the first Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Endangered Species and Clean Water Acts – were set in motion. I had begun not yet quite to realize, but to observe that things in my industrial corner of Cleveland, Ohio were slightly off.