Ruth Bass: Planet will survive whatever, need is saving ourselves

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RICHMOND — When we stood inside the beautiful sandstone walls of Chaco Canyon in western New Mexico, we wondered how people could possibly leave this stunning place.The mountains stretched out in a glorious view and, behind the large village, a straight cliff towered. With a guard on that canyon wall, the Ancestral Puebloans were quite safe from intruders.

The roofs were gone, but a few timbers remained among the stone blocks. Started about 900 A.D., the buildings reflect a sophisticated knowledge of astronomy, all aligned to capture the paths of sun and moon.

But these ancestors of the Hopi and Pueblo peoples could not defeat climate change. A drought that started about 1130 brought on their migration and led to total abandonment of the canyon. They had used up the land for farming.

It's the very thing that humans keep doing — use it up and move on or abuse it and end up with a changed habitat that may destroy plants, butterflies, birds and larger animals.

When North America was sparsely populated with only Native Americans — like those who moved out of the canyon wall caves at Bandelier — space seemed endless. Not so much now. As recently as the 1930s, farming methods contributed to the Great Plains Dust Bowl disaster that forced tens of thousands of poor farm families to abandon their places because they couldn't pay their mortgages and they couldn't raise their crops.

And not so much in the rest of the world where millions are refugees today, not only because of persecution by dictators or terrorists, but also because their fields have dried up, and they can no longer eke out a living. Consider California where coastal houses are crumbling toward the sea or turning to ash with uncontrolled forest fires. Consider Cape Cod where icy waters are warming, bringing great white sharks and bonito to the National Seashore.

Climate change matters, and those who don't want to think humans have contributed to it at least should admit that it's real. Plus, scientists know — although many are distressed by how pokey we are at getting at it — that humans can do things to slow the pace of climate change.

Our carbon dioxide emissions from cars and manufacturing are key to the dangerous warming of oceans and seas; it is reckless to go on burning oil or coal and to ease the restrictions on what a car can cough out.

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Free-rein development, whether for housing or crops, cannot continue willy-nilly, whether it's the Amazon Basin in Brazil or the rainforests of Mexico or the Pacific Coast of the United States.

It's been pointed out that even though the United States has a long way to go in the climate battle, the rest of the globe puts out more of the destructive pollution than we do. And so we need to apologize, get back into the Paris Accord and take the lead.

Water, of course, is key. The residents of Chaco Canyon had to leave centuries ago because they had little rainfall and no shallow wells — aquifers were far too deep for them to gain access. When their small streams dried up, they packed.

With water so essential, it seems shameful for the president to ease regulations that protect it. We need to think of water as "used." We use it, it goes back into the earth one way or another, and we use it again. We can drink it, flush it, pollute it, but we can't create more.

The big remedies for climate change make the biggest differences. During Black Friday, various stories said our rising love affair with consumerism contributes to environmental destruction because many things we buy — and may not need — use resources that are finite.

But individuals contribute with cultural adjustments. We all know people who are making moves in small ways — glass straws, no paper plates, one trip for errands instead of seven, meatless meals, a sweater instead of jabbing the thermostat, no lawn pesticides and herbicides, less mowing, raising a few vegetables in a plot or pot, buying products from ecologically sensitive companies and farmers markets, etc.

Nonbelievers ought to read Elizabeth Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning book titled "The Sixth Extinction." A visiting fellow at Williams College, Kolbert makes quite clear that we should stop saying we're saving the planet. Earth has survived multiple extinctions — we need to save ourselves from joining the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the dinosaurs.

Ruth Bass is an award-winning journalist. Her website is www.ruthbass.com.


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