Pondering Climate Change, With Anxiety and Hope

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Blue skies above Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.

Laura Paskus/NMID

Blue skies above Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.

 

A rose blooming in Santa Fe in early November.

Like many New Mexicans, I celebrated the skiff of snow that fell in Santa Fe in early November. I delighted in the gray sky and chilly wind. And walking past the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, I was surprised to see that among the rows of rosebushes, a handful of red and pink flowers were in bloom. With snow lacing their petals, they looked delicate, lovely—and out of place.

Roses blooming in Santa Fe in November?

A few people have chuckled (or snorted) when I’ve said that I don’t intend for this series on climate change to be stark. Or depressing. So, let me be clear: No one should think that this coverage is a measure of hopelessness.

The more people understand what is unfolding, the better they can plan for the future. Right now, we are facing enormous challenges when it comes to everything from water supplies and forest health to public health and energy.

And we are facing incredible opportunities.

For example, we can diversify our energy sources and employ energy efficiency, better plan our communities, decide what foods we eat and where we grow them, think about what careers we prepare our children for – and envision the future we desire. Right now, we can decide what we want our rivers, forests, and neighborhoods to look like in fifty, one hundred, three hundred years.

How well we adapt—and how well we take care of one another—depends on how well we plan.

We know this. Especially here in New Mexico, where the archaeological record offers ample examples of how people have responded to water scarcity, dwindling resources, agricultural disasters, and the social breakdowns that can accompany long-term drought.

Blue skies above Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.

Laura Paskus/NMID

Blue skies and monsoon clouds above Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.

As David Stuart writes in his book, Anasazi America, it took the pre-puebloan people more than 700 years to build up to the organizational, technical, and agricultural framework that supported the Chacoan culture—the two- and three-story structures still visible at Chaco Culture National Historical Park and “vast and powerful” alliance of another 100 or so “great houses” and 10,000 to 20,000 small farming villages.

But it took only 40 years for that alliance to collapse.

The drought of 1090 AD hit the region hard; by the late 1000s, there wasn’t enough firewood, clean water, game or wild plant food to support the Chacoan population.

It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on anyone in the region.

In 2010, New Mexico archaeologist Eric Blinman gave a talk, “The Rear View Window: 2,000 Years of People and Climate Change in the Southwest.”  Speaking in general about the region’s archaeological record, Blinman noted that human populations adapt and fill their niches: “And we try desperately to maintain our way of life.”

From the nine pages of notes I took that evening, I distilled four main points onto a sticky note I keep next to my computer. This worn yellow note reads:

-Cultural expectations are abandoned with difficulty

-People try to persist until too late

-Social conflict and breakdown make the economy worse

-migration = ultimate solution to climate change

Those are lessons New Mexicans might take to heart. And put into action.

Unlike the people who lived here centuries ago, we can see some of what lies ahead.

Today, we have historical records showing that global temperatures have been rising, measurement stations across the globe tracking temperatures and changes, and scientists working on models about what’s likely to happen as the planet continues to warm. We lack any good excuses to avoid planning. And many people already know that.

This spring, I attended a meeting of the Indigenous People’s Climate Change Working Group at the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Within that group, American Indian student leaders are working to ensure that Indigenous communities have a sustainable future as the climate changes and tribal communities lose their land bases, access to traditional plants or historical fisheries, and their ways of life.

One of the speakers at the meeting, Bob Gough, who is Rosebud Sioux, pointed out that adaptation is already occurring in every sector, whether we realize that or not.

Humans can adapt blindly, he said. Or we can adapt to changing conditions consciously and deliberately with the understanding that what we build now—whether buildings and infrastructure or communities and institutions—must operate in the future under conditions that will be different from what they’re like today.

What we do now will make a difference in that new context, he said. We shape the future now, with every decision and action we take. Gough paraphrased a quotation from Wayne Gretzky: “Don’t skate to the puck. Skate to where the puck’s going to be.”

On that cloudy train ride into Santa Fe a few weeks ago, I checked my email and found a message from a friend. She was feeling discouraged, she wrote, and didn’t know how I could not feel depressed while working on this climate change project. I did the best thing I know to do: I emailed her a poem, and in this case, Mary Oliver’s poem, “When the Roses Speak, I Pay Attention.”

An hour later, standing in front of the shrine, I thought about how the opening lines of that poem make me feel:

“As long as we are able to

be extravagant we will be

hugely and damply

extravagant. Then we will drop

foil by foil to the ground. This

is our unalterable task, and we do it

joyfully.”

Roses probably shouldn’t be blooming at 7,100 feet in November. That they are is just one more reminder that our world is changing. We shouldn’t turn away from that lesson. But we should also enjoy every bright spot of beauty we find.

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