Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Spring Solace

It is difficult for me to imagine springtime anymore without Van Morrison's brilliant album Astral Weeks coming to mind. (I am listening to it right now. I recommend you do the same.) It was released in November 1968, the same month Richard Nixon was elected President after one of the most devastating calendar years in American history: war in Vietnam, social unrest, race riots, assassinations, and only the promise of Nixon to keep the ship afloat. Even Morrison couldn't escape the tumult completely—he had had to alter the lyrics and title of the song he had written the year before about an interracial relationship, "Brown Skinned Girl" to something more socially acceptable. But the success of that single paved the way for the Astral Weeks recording sessions, where at the close of that terrible year he somehow produced an album of pure idyll, one of those rare works of art in which the unadulterated joy of its final expression arises so organically from its own craftsmanship that the complexity of it is almost completely obscured. A whole lot of music is happening in those eight songs, but once the recorders, fiddles, vibraphones, and horns come together, and with it the sound of the blues, it all amounts to something so natural, a spring day with sunshine and falling rain. Van the Man... turning on his radio, entering the slipstream.

Now 2013 scarcely resembles 1968, but this spring has seen its share of gloom. Faux scandals have derailed what little momentum reform had in Washington. Syria is consuming itself. Boston was horrific. Tornadoes in Oklahoma. Last week environmental news hit the front pages as human industrial activity propelled carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere past 400 parts per million according to the monitoring station on top of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano. Our steady march toward catastrophic global climate instability continues. We are set to pass 450ppm by 2037.

But in the farther reaches of the Fourth Estate, less disheartening news awaited. Reader JW pointed me to an article by Lawrence Krauss and his colleagues, who used the media coverage of the 400ppm threshold as a chance to make their case for direct air carbon capture. To put their argument simply, if we aren't going to stop putting CO2 into the air, we better figure out ways of efficiently and economically pulling it out of the air, and in great quantities. Some companies like Kilimanjaro Energy and Global Thermostat have been working on this for a while and with some success.

Planting a tree has always been a tried and true way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Just a few weeks before we passed 400ppm, on Earth Day 2013, a non-profit called Archangel Ancient Tree Archive launched their project to plant clones of California redwood trees in select environments around the world. The concept is simple; trees that grow to gigantic size will suck a lot of carbon out of the air. Perhaps so (they might also just die), but the idea is a derivative of the larger and more controversial concept of assisted colonization or assisted migration. Climate change, so the theory goes, is occurring so fast that species cannot adapt or migrate fast enough. Many species will go extinct unless humans intervene not just to protect their habitats but to help them migrate as habitats shift with the changing climate. The dilemma is that when humans help plants and animals move around, the risk of invasive species rises. Humans haven't always been so wise when introducing new species into different habitats.

Nevertheless, some scientists are saying that the benefits may outweigh the risks and that new sets of questions about ecology and conservation have to be asked. It is the growing realization in the scientific and environmental community that humankind, sooner or later, for better or for worse, will wield substantial control over all environments. If J. R. R. Tolkien were around, he might say that the Edge of the Wild is disappearing.

I remember being shocked when I was a kid the first time I learned that Central Park was completely constructed. The park was a creation of Frederic Law Olmsted, who won a contest to design it in 1858. (Here is the man's portrait by John Singer Sargent, 1895, courtesy of Wikipedia.) I had never given the reality of the park much thought before—I must have assumed some early forward-thinking city planners just cordoned off a giant rectangle of land smack in the middle of Manhattan before it was settled by anyone. Early conservation. What luck.

Perhaps I was not the brightest of lads. It turns out, of course, that Central Park was born of a man's design. And other great works awaited Olmsted. He would later turn his expertise to the creation of the Emerald Necklace, the parks that link Boston and Brookline.

We are long past Olmsted's time and landscape architecture can no longer suffice as a way to describe our relationship with our surroundings. We are climate architects now, capable of great corruption, as we know, but capable, too, maybe of benevolent influence and more beyond. Andy Revkin at The New York Times dotearth blog recently discussed something akin to this point on a trip to the Adirondecks:
In my talk, I described the park as a positive example of what the biologist Erle C. Ellis calls “anthromes” — “ecological patterns created by sustained direct human interactions with ecosystems.”

Environmental management in such places can succeed when there’s sustained scientific monitoring and engagement of diverse constituencies, I said, creating “zones of compromise, adaptability, and complexity.”
I used to understand environmentalism through the vocabulary of conservation: protection, stewardship, untouched, natural. More and more I think of it in the language of intervention and human agency. It may well be that in the next few decades Nature ceases to exist as we have known it and becomes instead an artifact of humanity, not preserved but designed. It is a future of loss and sorrow, but not one devoid of hope or the beauty of green things growing.

1 comment:

  1. I fear Erle C. Ellis is a victim of upside down thinking with regard to the human population. I appreciate Andrew Revkin's recognition of the fact that his 'learning curve' with regard to the human overpopulation of Earth is similar to that of self-proclaimed expert Erle C. Ellis. Somehow I trust that someday Mr. Revkin will see how his learning curve is following a misguided, mistaken and misleading 'trajectory'.
    Steven Earl Salmony