I made an interesting discovery thanks to a wonderful writer and friend Julianne Lutz Warren. Her 10th anniversary edition of Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey includes a new 2016 preface. Within this note to readers, Warren describes a meeting Leopold attended with a small group of concerned scientists in 1947 – almost a year before his death.
For two days they talked about the current state of humans and their relationship with the planet. By the end they agreed to form the Conservation Foundation. The Foundation’s purpose was to inform public policies that at the time were ignorant of the peril facing humans if our relationship with the planet didn’t change. “It’s safe to predict that civilization will be faced with a series of mounting crises unless a powerful movement counteracts present trends,” said the Foundation’s 1948 Statement of Purpose.
Today many resist this notion and propose conspiracy theories in resistance. For example some claim today’s climate scientists gin up false data and conclusions to keep climate change research dollars flowing. This seems plausible until we see from the outset there was genuine concern and curiosity – not financial or political motive – from scientists that suggested fossil fuel combustion was warming the atmosphere.
Here again, Warren brings forth a gem of environmental history by highlighting the alarm bell the Foundation was ringing long ago. She points readers to a 1963 conference convened by the Foundation. The purpose was to “discuss the problem of rising carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere.” In the conference report summary, Noel Eichhorn wrote,
It is known that the carbon dioxide situation, as it has been observed within the last century, is one which might have considerable biological, geographical and economic consequences within the not too distant future. What is important is that with the rise of carbon dioxide, by way of exhaust gases from engines and other sources, there is a rise in the temperature of the atmosphere and oceans.…It is hoped that the publication of this summary of conference discussions may contribute to further examination of the carbon dioxide situation. The subject should be one of considerable concern and controversy.
Reading the report today leaves me with a sense of optimism. Climate change conversations have expanded from the laboratory to the kitchen table. We have come so far in our understanding of the planet and ourselves. We can predict weather and climate change with accuracy unexpected in 1963. We have mapped the human genome – over 3,000,000,000 DNA nucleotides – and can change genetic mistakes that cause some diseases. And we understand how we think and can predict how we react to problems like climate change. This pursuit of knowledge harkens back to the period of Enlightenment and the great minds that agitated for and helped create the United States of America.
In his book Don’t Even Think About It – Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, George Marshall describes why we may deny climate change is happening or just choose not to talk about it:
It is complex, unfamiliar, slow moving, invisible, and intergenerational. Of all the possible combinations of loss and gain, climate change contains the most challenging: requiring certain short-term loss in order to mitigate against an uncertain longer-term loss.
Thankfully the impacts of climate change are becoming less invisible than ever. Either through published reports or first-hand observations, more and more people can see the climate is warming and weather, as predicted, is becoming more extreme. Whether it’s extreme rainfall in Fairbanks or heat in Yuma we don’t have to be a scientist to comprehend record-shattering weather events.
This is good news. Iris Bohnet, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, is an expert on human behavioral science and resistance to change. In a recent interview in Harvard Business Review she nailed succinctly something others have documented stating, “For beliefs to change, people’s experiences have to change first.” Experience leads to comprehension, which leads to change. The people of Alaska are experiencing climate change in a very real way. Back in a 2006 survey, 81% believed in climate change and a majority linked it with fossil fuel emissions.
The odyssey Leopold began and shared with us continues and expands around the world. Julianne Lutz Warren believes so too saying, “We are members of humanity rigorously comprehending the ecosphere…We actively participate in an uprising odyssey of global land health.” She asks her readers, “When our own odysseys return us to the starting place, what patterns and values do we find and can we share in that make life worth living and deserve our best work?”
I believe life is worth living when we can do something beyond ourselves, for the born and unborn. My hope is we will take note of what is happening around us, and share our observations and experiences with each other – that is worthy of our best work.
If you don’t own Aldo Leopold’s Odyssey, buy one…and when you’re done with it pass it to a friend. When you do, share your climate change experiences.