Doomsday, it has a complex connotation in the current mindset. There is the broad image of the four horsemen of the apocalypse that are reigning fire from on high, trying to destroy literally everything on earth. The fire and brimstone incarnation of the second coming. On the other, is a complete collapse of everything that we deem valid due to some disaster. Hollywood movies, such as 2012, where there is tidal waves that destroy coastal towns, people miraculously escape. The theme of this movie is, how would humanity survive this catastrophic blow? What would society be like? This theme is the same one of, The Walking Dead, where society has been completely destroyed, how would every one survive? While these flights of fantasy are interesting and create huge revenue streams for cottage industry films, the problem is that this is a question that we should be asking ourselves, how do we survive if this culture was destroyed? Recently, President Trump announced that the United States will be pulling out of the Paris Accords. This was a landmark agreement that brought together roughly almost all the countries in the world to actively work on reducing their carbon emissions. For the first time in the history of environmental agreements, the top polluters: the United States, China, and India, all agreed that they would actively work on reducing emissions. While this was a vague agreement that had many moving parts, the core idea is that this is an issue that we need to address. Each country, even the United States, set their own goals to reducing carbon emissions, to keep the globe from hitting that magical number of 2 degrees’ Celsius rise in average temperature. The United States leaving this agreement was catastrophic, without the United States agreeing that they would uphold their end, means that China and India do not have to stay within the agreement either.
I know what you are thinking, how is this a doomsday situation? Isn’t this a bit hyperbolic? Really, don’t we have many years before we even have to worry about things like the ocean rising, severe droughts, more turbulent storms? Even if those were to happen, how do we know that we are to blame? Isn’t this all part of some bigger and broader system, the Earth goes through cycles, couldn’t this just be a switch? The Little Ice Age was recently, 1300-1850, and our data starts in the 19th century. How do we really know that this isn’t just the “normal” that humans have been experiencing for millennia that was interrupted by the Little Ice Age? What if this is “God’s will,” and who are you to question God?
All of these are valid questions and they are at the core of the political crisis that we are currently finding ourselves in around environmental politics. But do these really have any merit/currency?
The first time that I saw the Pacific Ocean was the day that Trump announced the Paris Accords. I am 30 years old and I have never seen the Pacific Ocean. For all of my life, I have heard about the gentle waters, how the waves crash along the shore, the warm sands, the beauty of the occidental ocean, yet I have only heard or read about it. I dug my toes in the sand and felt the warm air on my face, breathed in the overcast weather and just was lost in the moment. Granted, Huntington Beach isn’t the best representation of the Pacific Ocean, but that first moments. The excitement to see it, the feeling of jubilation of crossing down the boardwalk and seeing the waves crest, the overwhelming sound of roaring waters, that is the experience. I drank it in until my cup was overfilled. A few days later, I went to Malibu Beach and was lost at the Matador. A place that I had only seen pictures of all my life. The rocky coast that was littered with people. While it was annoying to deal with strangers and various cameras to stay out of frame, it was an experience. Never have I had such high waves that came at irregular intervals as I did walking up and down the beach. This was life, the experience alone was more than worth the hour drive. I can honestly say that I am slightly addicted to the Pacific, there is a longing inside of my soul to be on the waters again (I’ve been to the Atlantic Ocean several times in my life, but this is just different). That was an experience that changed my perspective.
To ask these questions of environmental policy are great in the abstract, but for so many of these questions and perspectives, they are rooted in the ability to experience. How many have an opinion about the Pacific coastline of California, who have never been there (Confession time, I love Rancid and the line, “Let California Fall in the F*@#ing Ocean” but I don’t really mean that when I sing along, except driving through Los Angeles traffic)? How many have a political answer to what should we do about coal, and never experienced “coal country?” Being there, having that experience of will change how you view those issues. That is where the heart of the matter lies.
Our current cultural conception of nature is this amorphous abstract idea, that nature is resilient and will bounce back. That there is a plethora of things that we can pull from the earth, there is no need to worry about overtaxing the system, because the system is so enormous and I am so small, what harm could I as an individual do? But that is the entire problem, you as an individual are the cog in the broader machine. There have been many times that I’ve seen cars running with no one in them, air conditioners going full blast, to keep the car at a “decent” temperature. Or running the heat at full blast in the dead of winter, so that you can walk around in little to no clothing “comfortably.” These are only a few of the extravagant lifestyle choices in the United States. Others include: plastic disposable everything (because we are too lazy to wash something), most cars manufactured today that get under 50 miles to the gallon, running water before getting in the shower, having luxury hotel rooms that have to completely wash everything after checkout, throwing away food that has a “shelf” life expectancy date of only two weeks. That is the root word that is the problem, comfortable. In the United States, there are approximately 330 million people, out of 7.347 billion people on the face of the Earth. That is approximately 4.4% of the entire world. Yet, we consume almost 25% of the entire world’s products. If we are such a small percentage of the population and consume that much, imagine what life would be like if China and India are wanting to live this “American Dream” lifestyle? There would have to be multiple planet’s worth of materials to achieve that all around. Maybe Doomsday wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all?
That is why the Paris Accords are such an important deal, is that as the world’s emerging economies are starting to develop strong middle classes, they want to live in this Americanized lifestyle. An example is in China, where as the middle class grows in China, there is a direct correlation to the decline in shark populations. The reason for this, is the growing middle class in China who have purchasing power. One of the delicacies in China is shark fin, which has traditionally been expensive. As the middle class grows, they are able to purchase more and more of these. The problem is, when harvesting those sharks, they cut the fins off and then throw the animal back in the ocean, to sink to the bottom and die. This is but one of many examples of problems with global problems and context with lifestyle choices and how we deal with international relationships and the environment. This lifestyle of the Americanization is something that is unsustainable. There is a day of reconciliation coming, soon. Except this time, the waves won’t crash all at once to wipe out cities, but slowly to destroy the coasts, droughts will reshape and redefine our lives and cause starvation for millions. Our doomsday is going to be one in slow motion. How does one stop doomsday?
One of the best parts about the open road is the adventure of meeting new people and possibly finding new friends that you would have never found before. Last fall, I traveled to Cuyohoga National Park outside of Cleveland Ohio to try to visit as many national parks on the east coast as possible. I knew that there was a few good waterfalls, such as Buttermilk Falls, and after talking with the park ranger that there was Blue Hen as well. The ranger went on to say that there were a few other falls down the same trail that there was another one that was worth the walk, called Buttermilk Falls. Two waterfalls in one trail, count me in.
I started walking the Blue Hen trail with Scout, we went down to the bottom and he had the most adorable picture of him in the foreground and the Blue Hen Falls in the back (there was other photographers there and a different story for another day). Afterwards, we stumbled through the woods, trying to find this mythical larger waterfall, when I noticed these three young men. They were ragamuffins, shirtless, climbing trees, going across the water without a care in the world. They were lost in the perpetual exuberance of youth and being wild in America. I didn’t mind, they were causing no harm to anything and enjoying nature. The taller one came to me and asked, where the trail to the waterfall was. I said, go left at the fork is what I was told and off he and his companions went. I continued on my path and was a little disappointed because the waterfall was tall, but not much water was coming down. Last year, the east coast experienced an incredibly powerful drought that brought a hamper to almost all waterfall chasers, like my self.
Turning back, Scout and I made the trek up the hill and were almost the half mile back to Blue Hen trail head when we ran into those same boys. I thought it was a bit strange, all four of us were heading in the same direction, yet they were not ahead of us or behind us. I thought it a bit strange, but they were friendly enough. I came up to them and asked how did they like the falls. The taller one, then said, that they didn’t find it. Somehow they ended up at the top of a hill and there was a bench. I recalled that the park ranger said that the valley had at one point been a ski lodge and that there was a bench at the top of the hill, if you went the wrong way that was a clear sign post, besides not seeing the water fall. Oh, and that it was about three extra miles away. Knowing that they went the wrong way, I asked how was the journey was and they introduced themselves.
These three guys were making their way across the United States, visiting each state that they could drive to for three days. They left Colorado a few months before and they had made it to Ohio. The plan was to travel eastward to New York, then north to Maine before turning south before Christmas. These three guys were instantly interesting, they talked about the Great Lakes and how the rocks were different colors. My original plan had nothing to do with going to the lakes, but they talked me into it and made me reconsider some of my assumptions about travel. We parted ways, after exchanging pertinent social media information.
Over the next few weeks of travel, we were in contact, I was scouting out the Niagara area, then New England for them. We exchanged pleasantries, saying what roads to go to, what sites to see. I made it to Acadia and told them that they had to go. Somehow we passed each other, they started heading northwards as I was heading home to Tennessee. I made it home by October and in November, they had made it south to Tennessee.
Our second meeting, I had hoped to show them some of the more splendid parts of Tennessee, the parts of the wild that most people have no idea about. In my mind, the Cumberland Plateau is one of the most underrated places, and if they were traveling westward on I-40, then they would naturally go through this area. My plan was to take them to Rock Island and Fall Creek Falls. Unfortunately, the timing didn’t work out. They arrived when I was working and couldn’t go right then. My boss gave me the next day off, and I met them at Fall Creek Falls. We spent a day going through the park and showing them a part of Tennessee that most people don’t get to experience. We had a blast and I’m glad that they enjoyed this part of the world.
Over the past few months, I have kept in contact with them, their travels have taken them mostly through the Pacific Northwest, the Deep South, and recently through Yellowstone/Montana. Their pictures are great and there is a part of me that wants to be on their travels. That free spirit open road vibe, living vicariously through them as I grade papers.
Luckily, the stars aligned while I was in Salt Lake City for a work event, because they were passing through that evening. We planned to meet to have dinner at a restaurant, exchange stories and pictures and offer advice on places to go on both sets of journeys. It was really great to see them, you can tell the road has had an impact on them. They are a bit more sunburned, longer facial hair, more like they came directly from a Grizzly Adams story. I was glad for the company, when they arrived, it felt like old war buddies, talking about the glories of battle. Each of the four of us, had stories of favorite places, recommendations of where to stay, what to eat; making life the most with every moment.
We talked of where to go next. Their travels were heading southward into Utah, a place that I had recently been. I offered some suggestions on some parks, but for the most part they were all going to the places that I was at earlier this summer. They offered some suggestions for my trip as well, places in Yosemite, Yellowstone, Idaho, and South Dakota. Then the conversation slowly turned towards environmental issues and problems.
When you meet people of the same stripe, that you all have this unspoken commonality and mindset. All four of us at the table had the same joy of being outside, we knew the rush of being in caves, experiencing what life is like without any holds barred. We believed in this currency of life and spent that on every waking moment. As the conversation turned to how to fix the world, our conversation shifted from agreement to discord. All four of us recognized that there was some fundamental flaw in the system, but the problem came with how to specifically fix the issue.
One half of the table saw the problem as unfixable, that the entire system was going to go under. There is no solution to this, no way to fix anything. That when there is a catastrophic collapse, that this will be the unfortunate end to so many. The world is going to reject this lifestyle that we attempt to have, it isn’t a matter of how, but when. The other half of the table saw that the system was going to be broken, but there was opportunities to be had. That just because there was going to be a paradigm shift, that didn’t mean that the world was over, rather a chance to make one’s self better and stronger. To rebuild the entire system in a more sustainable manner.
While I could see both sides of the conversation, it struck me how interesting this conversation of the end of the world was. Here we sat in Salt Lake City, home to the Mormon church. When I teach about the origins of the Church of the Latter-Day Saints in American History courses, I frame their experience in the 19th century, as one of many that saw problems with the current system of American culture. Many of the social movements in the middle of the 19th century saw a fundamental flaw in the American culture, Abolitionists-slavery, Transcendentalists-Industrial Revolution; that there was a fundamental problem in American society that these groups were attempting to address and remove themselves from those problems. So many of the millenarian movements of the 19th century was framed in this discussion of doomsday. There is a common thread in American history of subaltern groups emerging, claiming the end of the world, yet this shouldn’t be seen as some false doomsday attention seeking groups. Rather, as a sign that there is a fundamental problem with the contemporary American culture. Those are some 19th century examples, in the 20th century, Beats, Hippies, and Hells Angels are all examples. Many of these groups break away from American culture and attempt to start their own, with like-minded individuals.
Yet here we were, four healthy, young, red blooded American males, sitting around a table discussing complex ideas of the catastrophic problems facing the world. We were the environmental refugees, discussing how we were so different from so many around us. Our experiences of the road, of life loving nature were different than many of our peers. How to protect ourselves from this oncoming apocalypse, we had to break away, sustainable energy was the answer, building homes and a life that was more eco-friendly, changing patterns of consumption. It struck me that, in many ways the environmental movement was similar to the millenarian movement of the 19th century. It addresses so many of the key components of rejecting American culture as currently practiced: sustainable living, being more in-tune with surroundings, rejecting the urban for the country, thinking more, using less. Where did this come from? In the past fifty years, there has been a major change in the way that we discuss environmental issues to the youth. In the 1950s, the environment was one of many impediments to getting a better life. It has to be tamed, “cut the lawn, trim the bushes mentality.” By the time of the 1960s, the earth was in a renaissance in how the youth discussed and dreamed of their lives. Mother Earth blossomed as the hippies took modes of cultural production. In the field of history, environmental history was born at this time. By the 1980s, those love children were the ones making content for kids television. I remember growing up with television shows like, Captain Planet. That type of discussion aimed at a younger audience made an impact. Looking at my peers, I can’t think but of a few of them that don’t have some sort of desire for nature in an abstract sense. Go to any dating website and see how many say that they like some version of the outdoors. While many claim that they enjoy the serenity of nature, the simple fact is, that this is a way to look impressive to potential mates. In 2016 alone, there was an expectation that the National Parks in the United States saw over 325 million people visit them. Clearly, these projects of nature have yielded some audience in the United States. But that doesn’t change the larger situation, a slow doomsday that is coming due to inaction on climate change.
While there is no words to describe how insulting and demoralizing the walking away from the Paris Accords are to humanity, there is a ray of hope. Four strangers, who met on a chance encounter, are but a signpost of a much deeper and broader conversation that is happening in this generation. At an individual level there are many projects taking shape to change how we live. Plastic bags are slowly being replaced with reusable ones, higher efficiency home products, smarter choices with regards to trips and lifestyles; these are all happening in small pockets. The resurrection of John Muir as a cultural touchstone only brings honor to the planet Earth. Change is coming. More Americans are claiming to believe Climate Change is real. While there are so many issues holistically with the environment, there is a fundamental paradigm shift taking shape in these small corners. With each passing day, more children learn science of nature, learning the importance of the environment, the lessons of the earth; this radically transforms the next generation.
Is it enough? The answer is a simple no. While individuals can make choices that help to alleviate the problem, it is big businesses and governments that have to change as well. Without the United States in the Paris Accords, this deal simply falls short. Compound that with the problem of the Department of Interior wanting to sell off some of the National Monuments, thousands of acres of pristine nature to the highest bidder. These are lands that are thousands of acres that only add to the majesty of America. How do you say that this piece of nature is more important than that one? I think that one of the most important challenges is that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what nature is and how we engage with it.
I was 30 years old when I experienced the Pacific Ocean. That experience changed my conception of the nature of this ocean. Before reading about things like the size of Texas plastic floating islands, were abstract, convoluted and didn’t have an impact on my life. Now, I can feel the ocean’s life surround me, the waves carrying that toxicity outwards hurts in a way that I never understood before. How can you be for removal of national monuments if you have never experienced them? How can you say that there is no reason to stay in a deal that benefits all humanity by making sure that our home is livable?
There is a doomsday coming, one of two options: either the slow rise of the sea that shifts populations and causes catastrophic challenges to the entire global human system; or the tidal wave of youth that understand and care about fixing the environment, who see these challenges and want to address them head on. Like in many doomsday fiction pieces, this second one is a destruction of a way of life and rebuilding of a new one. Let’s hope that we have the latter, because that is the only way to survive on this blue rock. I echo the sentiment of R.E.M., “it’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”