Nature on the Boil

Autumn leavesIf you want a good indication of how the environment has degraded over time, get out your old home movies. My parents did this last Christmas in an effort to embarass me in front of my girlfriend, an endeavour made simpler by a recent transfer of some old Super 8 films onto DVD. As I inwardly squirmed through the showing, there was one scene that caught my attention in the 1979 film provisionally entitled, “When I Learned to Ride a Bike”. I was seven years old, making my first wobbling, halting attempts at balancing myself properly on a bike with an obviously shaky front wheel. The scene was familiar: our old street, like many streets in American suburbia, was lined with sycamore trees. It was a bright autumn morning and the wind rustled against the film camera’s crude microsophone. My father had obvious problems with the zoom lens as he focused on my younger self pedalling away.

However, what really caught my attention was the colour of the leaves. The sycamores were an explosion of reds, golds and oranges, made all the more brilliant by the slight Impressionistic blurring that came from the poor quality film and the dubious DVD transfer. As I thought about it, I realised that my childhood was dominated by that spectacle every autumn: sometime in September, the days got shorter, the air acquired a chill, and the leaves began to change. By the time October came, the colours dominated my home town, as if Providence had quietly drawn its brush across the scene and lacquered it with brilliant oils.

After being dazzled by the scene and by the memory, I turned to ask my mother, “The leaves, do they change colour like that any more?” My residence overseas had meant I hadn’t been around to see an American autumn for quite some time.

She thought for a moment. “No,” she replied.

Now I’m aware this is anecdotal, not definitive. I am also aware that there are many places that still do experience spectacular autumn colours: I haven’t been to New England in the autumn for over a decade, but I’m told that “leaf looking” is still helpful to the tourist trade. However, looking that far back in time and witnessing what was, is indicative that something has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Yesterday, Hurricane Gustav hit the coast of Louisiana. As it wasn’t a category 5 hurricane by the time it arrived, the damage is apparently less severe than that inflicted by Hurricane Katrina. Still, there was footage from the BBC this morning that made me wince: the sight of waves lapping just over the top of the levees was somewhat frightening. It reminded me of an attempt to carry an over-full bucket, the water sloshing over every so often. If too much poured over, the painful reconstruction of New Orleans would have been set back yet again.

Yes, hurricanes are a fact of life on the Gulf Coast; but rather like with the leaves changing, the changes in the frequency are happening sufficiently slowly that we have an intellectual escape route into thinking this is normal, expected, and that somehow the weather patterns aren’t altered. This is the classic boiling frog scenario: according to popular myth, if you drop a frog into a pot full of boiling water, it will jump out immediately. However, if you put a frog in a pan full of cold water, and raise the heat gradually, it will cook before it realises it. It takes drama to make a lot of people notice that similarly, nature is on the boil, just as it took a long-ago film to make me realise how much had changed in less than thirty years.

If we accept that things are changing, the question comes down to responsibility. Many “carbon apologists” now admit that climate change is happening, but refute man’s role in creating it. This denial made easier by the fact that science is rarely set in stone: hypotheses are there to be tested, assumptions are there to be challenged. Man’s role in climate change is only largely proven, not totally, absolutely proven because of this inherent flexibility.

That said, it’s the height of irresponsibility to ignore the possibility that man might be at fault. I know that from my career in technology, when I try and diagnose a problem, the first step is to eliminate possible causes. For example, if a bug shows up on this WordPress installation, I de-activate plugins, one at a time, to see which one might be having an issue. Similarly, if indeed the potential exists for man to be the creator or contributor of climate change, should it not be contingent upon us to rule ourselves out of the equation?

I am not suggesting that if man did this, that the climate would stop changing. Nature is in a constant state of flux: some deserts were jungles in the time of the dinosaurs, rivers flood or dry up, lakes and seas can disappear and this happened well before man arrived on the earth. However the rate of these changes may vary: the boiling frog can be given a reprieve. If we make a change, what nature does as opposed to what man does could then be seen much more clearly, and a better response could be formulated.

It is among my long term plans to become a father. It makes me sad to think that when and if I have a son or daughter, that in the bright dawn of his or her youth, that child won’t have the same autumns that I did, and won’t be able to learn to ride their first real bicycle on a crisp autumn day, bright with the colours of the fading trees under a clear blue sky. It makes me more sad to think that when the time may come to embarass him in front of his significant other, the changes in nature since that time may be even more wretched and heartbreaking than the ones I’ve already seen. If we haven’t done anything to stop it, this melancholy will naturally be accompanied by well-deserved guilt.

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