Welcome to Love of Place. Most of my work celebrates our connection to the natural world.

My new eco science fiction Knocking on Heaven's Door is just released. A number of early reviewers have been enthusiastic, including the website Geeks of Doom, which makes me smile. Not many people know me as a geek of doom! But I am happy to embrace the complexity of my personality.

I'm also so pleased that Diary of a Citizen Scientist: Chasing Tiger Beetles and Other New Ways of Engaging the World has been awarded the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, as well as the 2014 WILLA Award for Creative Nonfiction from Women Writing the West.

My historical fantasy Teresa of the New World won the 2015 Arizona Authors Association Award for best Children's Literature and was a finalist for the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards.

These are nice landmarks in a writer's life. I would be writing regardless--but, still, whew. It's good to have some encouragement.

Feel free to contact me at http://www.sharmanaptrussell.com or through my author Facebook page, Sharman Apt Russell.


Thursday, April 14, 2011

Sharman Apt Russell

The Lighter Side of Global Warming

What is the world’s shortest book? The environmentalist’s book of jokes. –stolen by the author from some internet site she can’t find again

The pigs are funny. They are not really pigs, of course, but pig-sized (200 pounds) or “pig-like” heavily-built herbivores with short legs, big stomachs, small snouts, two tusks, and strong forelimbs for digging in the ground. After the Permian-Triassic extinction event over 250 million years ago—when 96 percent of marine and 70 percent of land species disappeared--these mammal-like reptiles or Lystrosaurus became the most common animal to walk the earth. For millions of years, 95% of land vertebrates were Lystrosaurus.

Yes. Pigs everywhere. Pigs as far as the eye could see. Pigs in the valleys and pigs in the glens and pigs on the mountains and pigs down by the riverside. Pigs mating, birthing, nursing, rearing families, and dying of old age. Pigs going about their business, greeting other pigs, “Hi ya there.” No other life but the pig life.

The Permian-Triassic extinction is abbreviated P-Tr and also called The Great Dying. No one really knows what caused the planet’s biggest loss of existing species but a plausible theory begins with volcanic eruptions that emitted carbon dioxide into the air. The resulting global warming allowed methane hydrate trapped under ice and permafrost to be released, and that methane burp spewed out even more carbon dioxide which increased the earth’s temperature about six degrees. The oceans became anoxic and highly acidic. This was a time when the world’s land masses were one big mass. Africa butted up to South America. Flowers hadn’t been invented yet. Normally I wouldn’t care much about a past in which I can’t recognize the continents. (Like most people, I’ve been conditioned by popular movies to stop short at the Jurassic. It’s a modern miracle how much I know about triceratops.) But climate change scientists are beginning to use the P-Tr as a model for what is happening now. In our case, man-made global warming is also melting permafrost and ice, which might also cause the release of methane, which might also result in a six degree rise in the global temperature.

At six degrees, the rainforests have flamed out, much of the world is a desert, weather is extreme, and humans are confined to a few habitable zones like present-day Michigan. It’s the Era of the Four Horsemen, whose names if you’ve forgotten can easily be Googled: Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

For the pig-like Lystrosaurus, the glass looked half-full. They flourished in a world in which, from their point of view, biodiversity was over-rated. No other animal has dominated the earth in quite this way, and we have to ask why they were so successful. After P-Tr, the atmosphere was low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide, and many animals died out because they had trouble breathing. The burrow-dwelling Lystrosaurus may have survived in part because of their respiratory efficiency--barrel chests that expanded and contracted easily, large lungs, and short internal nostrils. They were probably generalists who could survive on the surviving plants. Suddenly, too, they had no predators or competition. Moreover, as many scientists have rigorously concluded, they were simply lucky. Good mojo.

For those of you wondering, our ancestors were also mammal-like reptiles who either survived the Great Dying or evolved from the Lystrosaurus as they continued to radiate and diversify. The world of pigs slowly became the world of dinosaurs (small furry mammals underfoot, as annoying as mice in the kitchen today) until the dinosaurs’ own extinction sixty-five million years ago. The descendents of those mammals now rose to prominence, the world of humans, as far as the eye could see.

* * * *

Black humor is for insiders. You have to be one of the victims. It’s your trauma and that gives you the right to be witty about it. In my own life, I’ve been fortunate. Occasions for black humor are mostly confined to the sit-com of raising children--body fluids when they were young; alcohol, drugs, and sex in the teen years. I “own” global warming only in the sense that I worry about these children, whom I love very much and can see too easily in the last half of the twenty-first century, the impoverishment of their lives, the Four Horseman on the highway. Especially in the middle of the night, when resilience is low and worry gathers in the dark of the brain, I think: They are doomed. What will befall them? I think in some archaic language of fear.

For myself, I also feel an intangible loss. Humans are wired for continuity. We believe in culture, tradition, grandkids. We believe we are connected to the future. In the twentieth century, where I spent most of my time, we even believed in progress. We were destined to move forward into something better. Now I feel cut off. Disconnected. The future is no place I want to go.

As Woody Allen wrote, “Mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to extinction. Let us pray we choose correctly.”

My fears are abstract, and I’m grateful for that. Meanwhile, the “insiders” of global warming face literal threats right now, particularly those living on islands and coastal areas. In November of 2009 the president of the archipelago nation Maldives and his Cabinet put on scuba gear and sat around a table sixteen feet underwater. They used hand signals and a really good underwater pen to sign a declaration calling for cuts in global carbon emissions. Bubbles from the masks floated to the ocean surface. Zebra-striped fish, inherently comic, swam nearby. The dreamy scene was a nice example of black humor.

Other probable victims of climate change are south Africans struggling with drought, flooding, desertification, and deforestation. Erratic rainfall and the loss of maize crops in Lesotho, Namibia, Mozambique, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, and South Africa means increased hunger, while Somalia saw a 30% drop in cereal production in 2009. I am reminded of the Ik, an African tribe in the 1960s who served as the basis for a well-known study on hunger by anthropologist Colin Turnbull. In one story, the anthropologist shook hands with an elderly Ik, weighing about sixty pounds, who tightened his grip as Turnbull moved away. Pulled to the ground from his sitting position, the old man laughed and held out his hand again for Turnbull to help him back up. The Ik apologized for his behavior, saying that he hadn’t eaten for three days and so it was difficult for him to stand up, “Whereupon,” Turnbull noted, “he and his companion dissolved into laughter again."

* * * *

In 1926, H. W. Fowler, author of Modern English Usage, provided a table of the different forms of humor. The gentlest is for a sympathetic audience interested in the oddities of human nature. Wit uses surprise to entertain the intelligent. Sarcasm is about inflicting pain. Irony promotes exclusiveness.

Device

Humor

Wit

Sarcasm

Irony

Sardonic

motive/aim

Discovery

Throwing light

inflicting pain

exclusiveness

self-relief

Province

human nature

words & ideas

faults & foibles

statement of facts

adversity

Method/means

Observation

Surprise

Inversion

mystification

pessimism

Audience

The sympathetic

The intelligent

victim & bystander

an inner circle

the self

As I have learned in writing this essay, climate change brings out the sardonic—humor grounded in pessimism, whose audience is “the self” and whose aim is “self-relief.”

* * * *

I believe that humor is redemptive. Humor takes us outside our selves, outside our agenda and limited view. Remember a moment of laughing with friends? How the ego fell away, the purity of that moment? Remember the last time you saw a baby smile, the way she used her entire body, all two feet, and you had to smile back?

One of my neighbors in the rural West is a biologist saddened by the effects of global warming. Recently he showed me how to make fire with yucca twine and a piece of wood. Like a surprising number of rural people, my friend likes to flirt with the apocalypse-- Peak Oil, the destruction of industrial civilization, the need for certain life skills. We also share a nostalgia for our hunting and gathering past, a simpler Paleoterrific time when humans killed wolves and this was considered a good thing. We are both thinking, “How can I live more harmoniously with the earth?” even as we drive our cars and eat out-of-season fruit. We are concerned and confused to the point at which spending an hour making fire without a match seems not only a useful way to spend an hour but some kind of statement about being human.

My efforts are surprisingly slap-stick. The furrowed brow of the incompetent. The fumbling, the grunting. Then a little flare and flurry to get more grass and tiny sticks. I’m on my knees blowing miniature kindling when I begin to play up the physical comedy, aware of my audience--my friend’s six-year-old son. I exaggerate the urgency, make my gestures big. I’ve got him laughing because I’m such a doofus, a potato bug trying to make fire. I try a Charles Chaplin waddle. The kid hoots and holds his stomach. He is exaggerating, too. We build up the flames, move close against the evening chill, and toast some-mores (if you don’t know what those are, good. You can trust me when I say that ours were organic.)

In the end, I am not sure what this exercise symbolizes: that I can live without industrial civilization or that my pressing need for warmth is inherently destructive. Our nature is the consuming nature of fire. We are the species who makes tools, takes risks, and breeds year-round. A certain logic runs on an electric current from yucca twine to nuclear power plants.

It’s time for a funny aside. Humor is a good distraction—we can’t always bear the weight of our species. The pool of global warming jokes is small but growing. A climatologist walks into a bar…and it’s open season. On our greed. Our pomposity. Our ignorance. The fake talk show host Stephen Colbert interviews the producer of the CNN program Planet in Peril. Colbert asks, “Are you talking about Planet Earth?” and follows up astutely, “Could that eventually affect Planet America?” Mocking Al Gore is Climate Change Comedy 101; even Al Gore can do it. (“Airplane travel,” Gore says, “is nature’s way of making you look like your passport picture.”) George Carlin concludes that the earth invented human beings because it wanted plastic--now we’re expendable. In his blog, a climate change activist quotes an email that moans, “If we do not do something at once, the whole world will be turned into a dessert.” The activist responds, “Although this is an appealing prospect, unfortunately the science does not support it.”

How many of us does it take to screw in a CFL? What did the polar bear say to the climate change denier?

You have to love us. The Buddha said life is suffering. The comedian says life is absurd. Zen Buddhists don’t see much difference. The Big Bang let loose a lot of suffering and eventually humans would see the fun in that. New Age philosophy suggests that we are the universe reflecting on itself. The universe getting another kick out of things.

* * * *

Assume we’re redeemable.

Assume that we in the developed countries, who make most of the jokes and are causing most of the problems, have a responsibility to those people living in the Maldives and southern Africa and elsewhere, a responsibility to our children and grandchildren, as well as a larger responsibility to ecological health, beauty, and biodiversity. Assume we should change our personal patterns of consumption, our national policies, and our international efforts. Assume we must now focus on rewarding everyone and anyone who is trying to slow down climate change. We can do this smiling. We can whistle as we work.

My nature writing friend Jenny Price has an advice online advice column for greenies at the website http://www.laobserved.com/intell/2010/01/green_me_up_jj_2.php. When Jenny was asked for the environmentally-correct response to a child’s desire to play in a baseball league twenty-eight miles from home, she responded empathetically, “This is exactly the sort of argument that families are having more and more these days.”

Fortunately, Jenny had one of those great green formulas.

“First, figure out your family warming coefficient (FWC) by taking the weight in grams of your heart, add the weight of your wife's heart times 2, and multiply by the volume (in cc's) of your child's dreams. Multiply by the number of things that you value half or more as much as doing your part to reduce carbon--e.g. family, friendship, health, travel, chocolate. Then sit your child down and explain that the world as we know it is going to end if we don't stop doing things like driving 8-year-olds 56 miles round-trip to play baseball. Add the weight of the child's guilt to the previous total. Now add together the distance one-way to the game, the weight of the vehicle you plan to drive, and the weight of the people and equipment times 2 inside it. Multiply this sum by the gas mileage, and divide by 2 if it's a hybrid vehicle (or multiply by 2.3 if the hybrid gets ≤6mpg more than your other or last vehicles). Add half the air miles you've flown in the past 15 months (multiply by 1.5 for business class, 2 for first class), and add the number of offsets you purchased and immediately subtract the same number….”

The final scoring? 0-1000: start buying those snacks, Mom. 1000-2000: OK if you convert the car to vegetable oil. 2000+: personally responsible for a .004-inch rise in sea level.

LOL.

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