Thursday, March 29, 2007

It Really Is One Planet

"Earth's climate is agnostic about the location and type of CO2 emissions and is sensitive only to the total burden of CO2."

That sentence has been ringing in my head all day, after it jumped out at me from the text of an otherwise fairly dry article about carbon policy (Carbon Trading Over Taxes).

That sentence is an academic way of saying what any schoolchild could tell you - the atmosphere is one seamless whole. No matter how willing we are to believe that we can divide up the solid parts of the Earth into my acre and your acre, my nation and your nation, the atmosphere defeats this logic. Fluid, invisible, essential, the atmosphere won't allow us the same illusion we have with farm fields and city lots and forests, the illusion of possession.

There's no way to keep "our" part of the atmosphere healthy and let the rest of it take its chances. Either it's all healthy or it's all not.

There is an ethics to this wholeness of the atmosphere, because it sets up the possibility we are living out today, that people who don't benefit from fossil fuel use still pay the price for it.

You know all of this, you've seen those beautiful photographs of our Earth from space, you've walked across a boundary line in the forest and known that the boundary means nothing to the forest, nothing to the Earth.

Climate change is telling us to trust that knowledge. Forget the fifth grade geography lessons, the outlines of nations on the map. Tell the politicians to look up beyond those lines of national interest and acknowledge physical reality. It's only one atmosphere. It always has been. It always will be.

Just ask the wombat.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

A Biosphere's Work Is Never Done

A friend with a PhD from Harvard and a toddler on her hip told me recently that she struggles, these days, to be 'productive.'

What she meant, I think, was that she struggles to make headway on the kinds of work that can be finished, the work that sits there on its own and needs no tending once it is complete, like the contract signed, the book published, the problem solved. The kind of work you don't have to do all over again the next day or the next season.

Anyone who has ever cared for another person, or for a farm, or a household knows that such tasks are clearly work. They take real time and burn real energy, but they are never really 'done.' The empty sink fills again with dirty dishes, the weeds invade the tended row. Even the milestones of this sort of work, the child's first word, or the first ripe tomato, aren't really end points, just places along the way, part of the beat, the rhythm of the work.

Real work it may be, but it is also, in this culture, often invisible work. The people who do it by choice or because they have no choice often earn less money, and have lower status.

Still for most of the Earth's history, all there has been is the kind of work that is never done, the work of keeping things going. That's the work of every organ and every cell of your body, after all. Your liver never finishes its work of detoxifying your blood; the work of your heart is undone eighty times each minute.

Whole assemblages of beings do this kind of work as well – flocks of tiny algae, floating in the sea absorbing carbon dioxide, hillsides of stately trees breathing out oxygen.

I think the blindness of our culture to this whole universe of maintenance work, the blindness that leads us to discount the work of cleaning ladies and bus drivers and and even our own care-giving, helps explain how we could have pushed the Earth's climate regulating systems so far past their limits.

It is as though we've been living in a house where for years and years our dirty dishes have always been whisked away to be washed by someone we've never really noticed. We never really had to notice, the system functioned so smoothly. But now we find dirty dishes are accumulating in the sink, and we realize it has something to do with our very fun and crowded party which is now generating more dishes than whoever it is who has been washing them can keep up with.

The hidden blessing in the sinkfull of dirty dishes is that they have the potential to get our attention, they might cause us to look up from the party and notice the tired looking woman with the apron on. They might make us gulp, amazed to discover that she's been here all along, working away. They might inspire us to try to help her; they might inspire us to get to know her.

If rising carbon dioxide levels really get our attention, that's what they have the potential to do, to connect us with the life pulse of the planet, the life pulse that has been cradling us all along. They give us a chance to offer our gratitude and begin to know the debt we owe.