Lauren R. Stevens: Hope, saving planet, are key to our survival


"Hope" is the thing with feathers

That perches on the soul —

Emily Dickinson

WILLIAMSTOWN >> How can an environmentalist hope, given the end-of-the-world scenarios?

I asked that question of William R. Moomaw in an article for this publication in 1989. Our discussion had focused on the depletion of the ozone layer over Antarctica, air pollution — and climate change.

Moomaw was more aware of the sorry shape of the planet environmentally than almost any one. Yet he maintained, not the easy optimism of the uninformed or the uncaring, but one fueled by a fundamental belief that human beings can solve the problems they have created.

He was at Williams College at the time, where he taught chemistry and served as a mainstay of the college's Center for Environmental Studies, which he helped found in 1967. He bolstered the case for human ingenuity by writing the legislation that led to the discontinuance of CFCs, the cause of the ozone hole — an epic environmental success story. Stratospheric ozone protects all living creatures from a wide spectrum of harm from ultraviolet rays.

Moomaw went on to found the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, from which he is professor emeritus. As a lead author of several reports of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Moomaw was co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. He knows a great deal more about the progress and threat of climate change now than he did in the 1980s, yet he retains a positive demeanor.

Speaking at the First Congregational Church in Williamstown last month, he noted that the Paris agreements of last December, at which nearly 200 nations signed on the reduce the carbon emissions that heat the climate, were "miraculous," but insufficient. Yet also in attendance in Paris were major corporations, states, regions and cities around the world, whose aggregate of pledged emission reductions equaled the amount proposed by the European Union and the United States. "These are the factors that make me optimistic," Moomaw said.

And he cited technological advances, which make such things as solar panels at once far more efficient and far less costly. He also cited his and his wife's construction of a net zero carbon home — it can be done — and the power of trees and grasslands to sequester carbon. He noted the importance of the Pope's calling climate change response a "moral imperative."

That doesn't mean the problem is solved or even solvable, but "I don't think it's useful to try to frighten people. There are positive things we can do," Moomaw said.

Here is further testimony from a woman who mothered an autistic child, back in the days when doctors believed such an abnormality was the fault of the parents. "Hope is not the lucky gift of circumstance or disposition, but a virtue like faith and love, to be practiced whether or not we find it easy or even natural, because it is necessary to our survival as human beings." — Clara Claiborne Park, writing in Hudson Review, summer of 1979.

[Hope] sings the tune without the words

And never stops — at all.

At least, that's how it looks from the White Oaks.

A writer and environmentalist, Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.


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