Climate Hardships Fall Unevenly

Kristen didn’t come to Eugene to visit me. She came to breathe air that she can’t see. Four weeks of visibly unbreathable air has driven smoke refugees northward from Ashland and Crater Lake. Most visit us just long enough to catch their breath.

“It feels apocalyptic,” Kristen told me.“Each year has gotten worse. We can’t call it a ‘new normal’ because we aren’t seeing the trend plateau.” Whatever awaits us, it will be worse.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has canceled several outdoor performances for health concerns, and moved some productions into a nearby high school auditorium. Medford’s Brit Festival is suffering too. Oregon’s tourism dollars are drying up, or shifting to the coast. California has never seen wildfires like this summer’s.

Kristen spent one day shopping for air purifiers. She’s renovating a house that’s well into its second century and she’d rather not add air conditioning to her plans.

“I don’t want to keep my windows closed. I want to feel the breeze.” But she also doesn’t want to shorten her life, breathing second-hand smoke from Redding’s Carr Fire. “I left Portland 20 years ago, because I wanted to escape the rain. But a little cleansing water sounds really good right now.”

Yesterday’s doomsayers have been replaced by today’s meteorologists. What can be done? The answer can’t be, “Nothing.”

But Kristen can’t help feeling hopeless. “It doesn’t feel like I’m making a difference,” she confessed. “If we protest current policies — and we should — the authorities are charged with maintaining order. They protect the status quo.”

I try hard not to use this space to promote partisan positions. I respect those who fight to keep things the same with Hank Stamper-like intransigence, as well as those who are fighting like hell to prevent a future that resembles it. Whether following a survivalist morality or a planetary ethicism, all sides may well be trying to do what they believe is the right thing in response to climate change.

Like it or not, in this instance, reality seems to have a liberal bias. Liberals and conservatives alike are shopping for air purifiers. But here’s the worst part: the rain (or lack thereof) does not fall equally on the just and the unjust. The dismay Kristen feels is not distributed equally across the political spectrum.

Those who protect the status quo can easily measure the result of their resolve. Every minor change can be answered with a call to arms. As conditions worsen, actions to maintain the present order become more limited, but also more clear. “Never give an inch,” as Ken Kesey’s fictional logger Hank Stamper proclaimed. That credo is self-sustaining — or at least self-satisfying.

Liberal lifesavers feel no such comfort at all — cold or otherwise. The ethical worldview grows wider with awareness, diminishing the scale of personal accomplishment. Wide-minded liberals cannot escape feeling inconsequential. Saving the planet — or just preserving its usefulness to humans — is literally all-encompassing. And so, all-consuming.

Who can rest, believing they’ve done enough to save the planet for one day?

As sea levels rise, weather systems intensify, and panic becomes more prevalent, this disparity will widen dramatically — apocalyptically. Liberals — especially those thinking globally — become more dispirited. Conservatives — especially those saving their homestead — become more determined.

For Kristen and those like her, measuring an action’s utility will minimize momentum. The problem’s magnitude and consequence will expand more quickly than any perceivable difference any of us are likely to make.

Better that liberals follow three crumbs of crisis-driven advice that have guided others to safety before. First, as Londoners were told between bombings in World War II, “Keep calm and carry on.” Hysteria does not win hearts and minds.

Second, as Mahatma Gandhi may never have said, but certainly as he lived: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Don’t try to make a difference in any literal sense. Simply do your duty, as cheerfully as you can.

The last piece of advice is normally the simplest, but still the most direct: Breathe (as you are able.) Life must be worth living before it can be worth saving.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.