Tribe Follows Tribe

Faithful readers may have noticed that since being asked to contribute to the worthy Gristmill site, that my posts here have entered what Tennessee Williams once called "a period of adjustment."

It’s taken me a week or two to decide on a new tack. But I remind myself that I started this blog largely to better research and delve into and write about issues of the natural world, and to collect and compile this information.

The fact that some of these posts turn out to be worthy of a national audience changes nothing, really.

So I’m going to continue to post here, I hope on a daily basis, but in that same exploratory and sometimes personal vein. If you stick with me, I promise we both will learn.

Onward.

On Sunday, one of my favorite reporters on climate change, Eugene Linden, had a piece in the LATimes op-ed page, talking about the difficulty we have facing the fact that our climate is not what it used to be, and likely never will be again. We expect disaster, but more likely, he writes:

…global warming will creep up on us as the weather gradually unmoors from its normal patterns. Single events will be explained away. But at some point, the frequency, severity and ubiquity of the unusual weather will produce a sense of foreboding, a sense that something is happening beyond our control.

What with killer heat waves, killer hurricanes and killer droughts, it’s arguable that we’ve already passed that point. Indeed, I had that feeling of foreboding in the last week of June, as Washington gradually surrendered ground and the routines of daily life to incessant rain: Cars floated down ordinarily meek Rock Creek, government buildings flooded, the Metro was disrupted and roads were closed. You may have had the same feeling last week as the power dimmed and temperatures surged in Southern California and beyond.

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Whether we are in Act 2 or Act 4 of a five-act climate drama, we are not the first to live out this play. At some point, for instance, the Moche elders, who lived in Peru 1,400 years ago, must have begun to wonder whether torrential El Niño-related rains were going to spell the doom of their civilization.

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Now it’s our turn. Like fugitives who must worry about every knock on the door, we can no longer dismiss events such as the late June rains and the July heat wave as just another instance of wacky weather. There’s a distinct difference, though, between us and the Moche and the Norse, not to mention the Mayans, the Anasazi, the Akkadians and other players in previous episodes of climate chaos.

All of them were victims of natural cycles; the evidence suggests that we wrote the script for this latest episode of climate roulette.

It’s easy to be condescending about past civilizations. They didn’t have the science and technology that have enabled us to understand how climate works or to determine the role of climate in the collapse of their cultures in South America, the American Southwest and the Middle East.

If only they knew what we now know about climate, maybe they would have adapted and survived.

Then again, maybe not. We do know what we know, and still we do nothing.

It brings to mind the famous speech of Chief Seattle.

Not the upbeat "earth is our mother" TV version, mostly made up for a long-forgotten documentary by a Hollywood screenwriter, but the version from a Dr. Smith, who heard the speech. (His version can’t be considered the "original," but it’s as close as we can get, and, after all, we don’t discount the power of the words of the Gospels, though Jesus’s words were also reconstructed from the memory and–possibly–a few notes taken by admirers at the scene.)

There is a toughness to Seattle’s words, not present in the Hollywood version, that rings true to me. At the time he spoke, in 1854, everyone assumed that the Native Americans were passing away.

Now Linden raises the same question, but about us. And Seattle’s words sound more apt than ever:

Tribe follows tribe, and nation follows nation, like the waves of the sea. It is the order of nature, and regret is useless. Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come. […] We may be brothers after all. We will see.

Seattle

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