EARTH DAY State of The World

April 21, 2013

Ken Ettlinger

I have this dream.  Actually, it’s more of a nightmare.

The world is coming unraveled, society is breaking down, there is anarchy and mayhem …everywhere.  All of nature has been been transformed into an endless Walmart parking lot.   It is the apocalypse!

Do you have those dreams?  …No?

I became a Unitarian just about a year ago …around the time the dreams began. I thought there must be a connection.  Maybe I’m wrong.

Or maybe it is …because of the dreams, I figured that it is time that I ought to find a religion.

Ever since I was very young when other kids asked me my religion; I said, “I have none.”  My parents figured that I could choose my religion myself some day …so they spared me the religious dogma that sometimes defines and confines a person.   My childhood was rather blissful, but I have always… longed to be part of something bigger.  A congregation.

So I searched for a spiritual fit.  Unitarians are optimists, there is no chapter entitled “Revelations” in our hymnal.   I looked.   Did you ever read the Book of Revelations.  About the beast from the sea with seven heads and ten horns?  Eeww, I shudder. I am glad… that …was not a part of my childhood.

The UU’s have no vengeful god. I like that.  No original sin; no Hell.  It’s like John Lennon said, just the brotherhood of man.  I may be a dreamer… but I have found friends among the UU’s and therefore…I know that I am not the only one.

What’s not to like about being a Unitarian? 

So I took the UU pledge, I turned my back on the Jehovah Witnesses …who continue to this day, to drop off the latest Watchtower at my door.  It’s not that I don’t appreciate their offer of salvation…  I just don’t know what I would do with it.

I cannot figure why people become Jehovah Witnesses.

It can’t be that they like doors slammed in their faces or people shouting,  “I am Episcopalian… go away”.  In my observations, the witnesses  are always smiling;  always more than glad to quote the bible …standing at the door …in the rain.

“We are living in the last days of a troubled world,” they tell me …with a kind of jovial anticipation.  In my pragmatic mind, they are way…way too happy about the end of the world.

I can’t share their apocalyptic glee.  Not me.  Especially now.  In these uncertain times.

I watch for the next fiscal cliff.   After all, I haven’t learned to pay my taxes by bartering yet.

News channels now offer endless commentary from angry people, often lies that incite conservatives and anger liberals.  There is needless analysis just to fill air time.  And I think, who has time to “fact check”?  I just want the news.

The world seems tense; the Mid East, the Far East, RedStates…Blue.  Why can’t people just agree to disagree.

I am fatalistic about my future, I know that my life is as finite as global petroleum reserves.

America seems to be arming themselves in their homes and on the streets anticipating the worse in each other.  I am not too proud to say… I own a machete.   We are hoarding supplies like MRE’s bought from places like “beprepared.com”.

We even have lock down drills on the campus where I teach and I worry …a little about the person who doesn’t look like he belongs …carrying, I don’t know, is that a guitar case?

How is it …that such a high percentage of our congressional representatives can be so completely useless… when it comes to making our lives… a bit safer?

Fertilizer plants that smell of corporate arrogance, explosive devices, mutilations, death, manhunts, lies.  It’s hard to find enough heart-felt grief …to feel anymore.

Is it just me?  Am I the only one that needs a security blanket?

And…I have this foreboding sense about this home of ours.  This place we call Earth.

Earlier in the semester I was talking to my class about the KT boundary.  I teach Geology.  The Cretaceous-Tertiary boundary is marked globally with a thin band of iridium-rich clay.  The clay is 65 million years old and shows up at the end of the Cretaceous and not coincidentally, during the last days of the dinosaurs.  The layer of iridium is a layer of cosmic dust …and could only have been caused by an extraterrestrial event.  A meteor.

In reality, not only did the dinosaurs become extinct …but no large animals survived the KT boundary.  Plants perished and marine life was decimated. Up to 90% of all life on Earth was lost.   That was the state of the world 65 million years ago.

I told my class that I sometimes stay awake at night fearing such a meteor impact such as that which ended the Cretaceous with a bang.  Perhaps I should not have said I stay awake worrying about meteors.

Because the next day my students were abuzz.  Shortly after the previous class, a fireball had showered the Earth over Siberia with thousands of meteor fragments.  The streak of light and sonic boom was seen and heard in dozens of Youtube videos.  NASA reported that the meteor was the largest known celestial body to enter Earth’s atmosphere in 100 years.

I… was suddenly the prognosticator of bad news on campus, kind of like Phil the groundhog.   If I appear a bit sleepy or I am not myself at the blackboard my students will ask apprehensively, “did you stay awake last night…again?”   “Tell us what you think”.    This is grand, my students never ask me to tell them what I think.  I usually have to flick the light switch on and off a couple of times just to get their attention.

So, now I work my fatalistic tendencies into class routinely.

I say that I am sleepless because I am worried about the thermal plume beneath Yellowstone; you know, the super volcano destined to spread ash across most of North America and wipe out the mid-west.

I say to them, “I stayed up last night fretting about the next Polar Reversal.  We are way, way overdue for a reversal of our magnetic field… and frankly, I believe the GPS was invented just in time since I’ve already tossed my boy scout compass.  We won’t be needing them.”  I tell them to read the section of their text on… The Magnetic Field of the Earth …and I know they will.  They are mesmerized by my apocalyptic rantings.

“The hole in the Ozone Layer is not going away”,    “I was tossing and turning in bed last night and I figured I should warn you to continue with the sun block, SPF 40… at least.   Sure, we banned CFC’s, but there was so much we released… that the largest amounts are still making their way to the stratosphere.  It will get worse before it gets better.”

…and then just last week, there was the lesson on Tsunamis.

I started the class, “Boy, I’m glad I had caffeinated coffee this morning…  I fear for Long Island… if there is an earthquake that destabilizes the Canary Islands, we could have a 300 foot tidal wave on our hands”. … They are speechless.

I have done the unimaginable: there was a time that I used to take my students deep into the pine barrens… to marvel at how life has adapted to this unique geologic environment.

I used to take them to the winter beach, not so much to learn wave dynamics but to see the incredible beauty …that is there.

I took them into the nature that I love… because I wanted them to feel …what I felt.

Now, I turn my nightmares into teachable moments. What are your sleepless moments about I ask my students reversing for once, the running classroom joke of the semester.

“A zombie apocalypse”, this comes from the back of the classroom.  It figures, zombies are very big these days.  They are a funny group, my class of 2013.  I’m glad they share my angst.  In my 40 years of teaching I still enjoy the classroom rapport.   Trends?  Not sure, my students are more diverse, more accepting, more connected… amazing multi-taskers and perhaps because of the times, they seem mature beyond their years.  When asked about priorities, most say, I want a good paying job… as opposed to… a good life.     As with most community college students it is unfair to categorize, they are quite a mix.  But they challenge and inspire me…always.

They are exploring to find out where they fit in; like everyone…searching for their place.   But they are the new generation, they are our next… great… hope; that is what I’ve learned.

For most of my students my class will be the only college science course they take.  It is a part of my job is to make sure that they understand that science is not separate from the everyday world.   It has to relate to their lives.

I try and get them to understand the need to challenge assumptions that are not based on fact.  Sometimes I think some of our students actually get their news from the comedy channel or worse, Fox.   I want my students to be willing to make a stand that may not be popular but makes sense.   I take it more seriously than I used to, because I am preparing them for a different world than I grew up in.

The goal of science is objective, unbiased truth.  As a scientist and a researcher that is my training but as members of a democratic society that is your responsibility I tell them.  You are obligated to look for the truth, nothing less.  And it doesn’t stop there.  You have to become a participant in this democracy of ours, because there are decisions that you will have to make.  And the world, is not becoming simpler.

I asked my meteorology students if they are worried about runaway climate.  I also teach “Weather”.   Suddenly there is a debate over semantics:  Global Warming vs Climate Change.  There are two students egging each other on about the definitions of global warming.  I didn’t figure a student from the sidelines would resolve the debate by quoting her i-phone… on the spot, “Global Warming is the cause and Climate Change is the Effect.”  That’s what SIRI says!

The world is not just getting warmer, in other words; but the result is that climate will be getting more extreme.  Even within the general warming pattern; instability may cause record cold or more powerful, frequent storms.

Do you worry about Climate Change?  A few of my students say, “yes”; then they qualify their remarks, ‘but it probably will not affect us, not our generation.”

Isn’t that like youth.  I too was at one time an optimist.

I believed that we could undo mistakes, we could reverse trends, we could come together against all the odds.

I am after all a product of the 60’s.  I read Rachel Carson, we did ban DDT, starting right here in SuffolkCounty in fact.  I saw the first comprehensive federal laws that tackled issues of air and water pollution.   We began to debate energy and realize that neither fossil fuels nor nuclear power was the answer.   I learned that small was beautiful and appropriate technology would indeed make the world better, natural gas would be our transition to the solar economy and the population bomb would be defused by… empowered women.

Project Apollo showed us that anything is possible and that Planet Earth is our only home; a small orb of blue… alone in the blackness of space.   It was never clearer than those first photos from lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, 1968.

Later, in 1970, I celebrated the first Earth Day optimistically as a student at SuffolkCommunity College where I teach today.

I know that there are things we have no control of.  Mega Tsunamis, Polar Reversals, Super Volcanoes, Meteorite Extinction Events.  It serves no one to lose sleep over such matters.

I have also learned that there are things that you can change.   Things that you can change, when change matters.  Times where you can make the critical difference.

I have this big concern about CO2.  Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas.  We can measure the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere through time by coring through Antarctic ice and analyzing the trapped bubbles of air.  So we know that it took more than 10,000 years for global Carbon Dioxide to increase about 100 ppm.  And we have done just that in only the last 50 years as we continue to burn …our fossil fuel reserves …away.  When I was born in 1950 the atmosphere concentration of CO2 was 290 ppm.  In 1990 it was 350 ppm and today it is close to 400 and that is the cause of my concern.  That is the stuff of real nightmares (point to CO2 chart).

You may not notice the signs of global warming.  After all, there is a certain normal variability in weather.  Yes, it seems that storm surges flood more of the shoreline these days.  We do have more record setting high temperatures.  On my trips across the PonquogueBridge …parts of Dune Road are under water during every spring tide …for a long time I just wrote that off as a result of coming out of the ice age.

Aradhna Tripati, a UCLA professor discovered a new way to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide going back millions of years before the ice age.  She writes in the journal, “Science” about her recent findings using this new approach.   She found that the last time that carbon dioxide levels were as high as they are today…and were sustained at those levels was 15 million years ago.  It was the last time that the Arctic Ocean was free of permanent sea ice and it was a very different world with global temperatures as much as 10 degrees warmer than today and sea level … probably 150 feet higher.  This is way before our species comes on the scene.

Some researchers see all these feedback loops in the prediction models for CO2; and no end to the soaring carbon dioxide levels for some time to come since there is… the lag effect.  The Earth responds slowly to the kinds of quick changes we make, at firs

Even more alarming, the arctic sea ice and permafrost is melting at rates we haven’t ever seen.  Not in human history. We are seeing the beginning of an ice free Arctic… just like 15 million years ago.   Millions of square miles will be releasing methane, a gas that is 23x more powerful than Carbon Dioxide is as a greenhouse gas. There are 5 gigatons of methane locked up in arctic permafrost.  The term “runaway climate” has now been coined to describe a scenario in which the climate system passes a threshold or tipping point after which we can’t return …to what it once was.

The challenge of climate change?   We are already in the midst of a major extinction event.  The first human caused.

Global warming will cause climatic belts to shift with devastating effects on the earth’s ecosystems and agricultural productivity.  There will be more extinctions… and famine.

Global warming  threatens marine life because of ocean acidification and can cause weather to become more erratic.  As ice melts and the sea level continues to rise there will be unprecedented flooding displacing millions of people… as well as expanding drought and raging fires around the globe.  As resources become scarce what will be the human predicament?

Bill Schulz, president of our UU Service Committee and renowned human rights activist says:  Nothing will have more profound implications for the future.  The result of global warming could be paucity and violence on a scale rarely seen before.  He states, “We are stumbling suicidally into uncharted waters.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science is probably the largest organization of scientists in the world; this is their statement:

“Scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society….The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.”

The stark message of every professional scientific group is that …climate is moving out from under civilization rapidly.   Most climate scientists believe that there is already damage that cannot be undone.  That we will have to adapt, no matter what.  And if we are to limit the hardship for those generations to come, we will have to take action soon.

Yet, according to a Harvard study conducted late last year, the number of Americans alarmed about climate change is only about 16 percent.

How alarmed should we be?  It is easy to dismiss what we cannot see.  What we cannot imagine.   It is human to ignore problems that are not affecting our lives now.  Many people scoff at the idea of a rapidly warming world and are unwilling to change their fossil fuel habit. Changing will be challenging economically to say the least.  Global warming may just not be on the personal priority list of our concerns.

Maybe the scientific community is all wrong about climate change.   I mean, we could… do nothing. 

After all to switch from burning coal (probably the biggest source of carbon dioxide and the source of most of our electricity)… will take decades even if we start to take action right now.  There are even deals in the works to export Appalachian coal to deep ports along the west coast and then to China.

Clean coal?  That is just a public relations scam.

Why are we even considering building new pipelines to convey high carbon gunk from theAthabasca tar sands …which needs to be heated along the way just so that it flows?  Allowing a Keystone to be built anticipates additional decades of use …and that is just plain folly.

It would seem like we have a lot more to gain by using some prudence in what should be easy decisions instead of spewing carbon dioxide out of every industrial age orifice.  Because… the scientific community …could be right.

The climatologists’ models for global warming do not address what will happen.  There is much that is subject to interpretation …and scientists leave it to others to do just that.  There are after all a multitude of unknowns. These are statistical models and outcomes are expressed in various percentages of probability.   The biggest being perhaps is how we will respond to a world that by all indications …will change …in unsettling ways.

Stephen Powell is an anthropologist who studies various tribal groups in the southwest.  Almost every society has some sort of apocalypse prophesy. They are important; he states, since they prepare the group for change… which inevitably happens.

He writes, “Like the nature of evolution… without tension and crisis… there is no opportunity for change.  A coming apocalypse offers opportunity.  Our mess becomes our message… our breakdown, the breakthrough.  Apocalypse is foremost a process of growth and expansion, perhaps leading to a more perfect world.  He calls it apocalyptic grace.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our Unitarian Universalist Principles and how they fit in to my life these days.   The principles are no more than a modern day code of moral values that we share with people of many faiths the world over.  They define us when we are at our best.  I read them to regain my optimism, my hope.  I think it is the reason that I find myself …at this place …at this time.

We believe in the inherent goodness of every person, that kindness, generosity and love will prevail over anger and hate, that reason will take precedence over ignorance.   Our faith allows us to continually work toward a society based on ethics and justice …even in the worse of times.

We plant new roots to create a greener economy and live more sustainably.  We live simply so that others can simply live. We contribute to our neighborhood and our local businesses, our farms and our schools with our hearts …and our hands.  We are humanists and when resources are scarce, we will share.

This religious community allows us to seek our own spiritual path, but we know that all life is sacred and that we are a part of… that interconnected web of all existence.  We are obligated, it is our sacred responsibly to care for this Earth, this home.

We cannot do all things …but we can do our thing.

We can listen, we can read and then we can choose to act.   Our thoughts, our words and our deeds have the power to transform society toward the greater good.

There is no doubt, the world seems more scary, and does sometimes appear to be unraveling.  There will be many challenges ahead for all of us.   But in unsettling times… it matters to me that I am a part of …this spiritual community …and that we are here on our journey with and for one another.  When I joined this congregation I knew I would be joining kindred souls.

Our religion reminds us that the values that we share and cherish defines us …and gives us hope.   In the simple actions we choose to make each day and the kind of life we aspire to live…  the world becomes a better place.

I believe in this… and that this faith will allow us to approach all of our nightmares…with apocalyptic grace.

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