Wednesday, March 06, 2019

The Damage We Do, The Choices We Make

I think I've mentioned before that my husband bought a kayak. Most weekends, he gets out on Mission Bay for a paddle. I am jealous that he gets so much time on the water. He offered to trade off weekends, but I prefer not to paddle alone and so given how our weekends are arranged these days, he's going to get more paddle time than me.

Anyway, he came back from his paddle last weekend and told me that he'd actually seen dolphins in Mission Bay! It is not all that unusual to see dolphins in the ocean, but I'd never heard of them coming into the bay. He thought maybe the fact that there were almost no motor boats out had something to do with it. It had looked like it might rain that morning. Mr. Snarky decided to try for his paddle, but perhaps the folks who like to take their motor boats or jet skis out for fun decided to skip it.

At the time, I just agreed that this might be the reason, felt intense jealousy that Mr. Snarky got to kayak near dolphins, and then went back to whatever chore I was working on. But the more I think about it, the more profoundly sad the story makes me. Think of all the wildlife we routinely chase out of places with our noise. What would our world look like if we got rid of as many noisy motors as we possibly could? How many more animals would we see? And how much more peaceful would our world seem?

I'm not necessarily advocating for going back to wind and people power (although maybe we should try to do that more). Electric motors can be quiet. I wonder how much noise reduction it would take to make dolphin sightings in Mission Bay less rare?


By coincidence, I'm also re-reading Douglas Adams' Last Chance to See. In fact, I'm reading it aloud to Pumpkin, because there is a section on kākāpōs and she loves kākāpōs. The chapter on the kākāpōs was a relatively happy one to read, because we know that their situation has improved since the book was written. They are currently in the middle of a really good breeding season, in fact. (Here's a recent article about them.)

The chapter on the Northern White Rhino was less cheerful: I had to report that those animals are now functionally extinct, because the last male (who lived at our local Safari Park) has died. There are last ditch efforts to save the species with preserved sperm and eggs from the remaining females, but the chances seem slim.

And now we've gotten to the chapter on the baiji dolphins of the Yangtze river. They are presumed to be functionally extinct, as well - although there may have been a recent sighting. Noise on the river is one of the reasons given for their demise.


And then, against my better judgment, I listened to David Roberts (the Vox reporter on the environment/climate change beat, whose stories I always find informative and useful) interview David Wallace-Wells, who wrote a book about how our climate situation is worse than we think.

The interview is not hopeful, but it is not hopeless, either. It is a clear-eyed look at where we are actually heading on climate (spoiler: we're going to warm by two degrees, and we'll probably warm by more, and that is going to have far-reaching effects), but it also makes a really persuasive argument that we hold the power to limit the damage, both by acting decisively now on carbon usage and by making choices about how to respond to the wider changes the changing climate will bring.

It is probably the thing I've listened to or read recently that has most changed how I think about an issue. I can't sell it as an uplifting listen, but I urge you to listen to it anyway, and think about what world we want for our kids (and their kids), and what we're going to do to respond to the world our past choices have made for us.

One of the points Wallace-Wells makes is that we've focused too much on ocean levels and not enough on the other ways a changing climate is going to disrupt things. We're getting better at recognizing things like last year's catastrophic wildfires as related to climate change. We need to get better still, and we need to find the courage and imagination to fight for some actions that seem impossible to achieve.


The thread that runs through my three stories tonight is this: We have taken actions that have damaged our world. The consequences of that damage stretch beyond us, but they impact us in ways big and small. But we can always make different choices. We can change things. It may seem too hard to contemplate, but making the changes is actually the easier route than living with the damage we're doing with our current choices, if only we could see that.


  1. What kind of change? What can people do? Small things that people do are good, but they are not as helpful as systemic change that only government can take charge of. Taking your own bags to the grocery store is good, but legislation that forces stores to charge for plastic bags makes a much bigger impact.

    How to make that kind of change happen? Get involved locally, see what your city or state can do. Or get involved federally-- anybody can call their government official today to let them know their constituents want something done about climate change. is an example of a script for your senators and representatives in the US.

    1. The podcast I linked convinced me that we are to the point where the only way to make any real progress is by policy. Granted, I was already fairly convinced of that, but the podcast sealed the deal! So yes, I'm thinking about how to get more active on advocating for policy changes. I may write a follow up post about this - but for now I'll just say that we're looking to replace our almost 12 year old Prius, so we're doing research on the electric and plug-in hybrid options out there, and it is clear that the market has gotten much better since we were last looking. Some of that might be consumer pressure, but I suspect a large part of that is California's requirement that all manufacturers selling in CA sell zero emission vehicles.

    2. The federal subsidies don't hurt either! (We just got our 7.5K subsidy from last year's Clarity purchase.)

      Interestingly, and I intend to write a post about it, people in much of the midwest and east coast should *not* buy electric cars if they care about the environment (because burning gas is better for the environment than burning coal).

      Looking forward to your followup posts! Since the new year I've cut way back on activism (mainly because my sister stopped her newsletter and the midterms were tiring)... so I could use some motivational and directional boost.

    3. From my reading on EVs and PHEVs so far... the subsidies help sell existing models, but CA's requirement has driven the creation of new models, because otherwise some carmakers would have been shut out of the CA car market. Of course, some of the new models aren't that great in terms of going very far on the battery before the gas engine kicks in and EV enthusiasts consider them "compliance plays." Policy is hard!

      Here in CA, most people get solar panels on their roof when they get an electric car and while we still have some carbon-based electricity we're trending towards renewables. Failing progress on changing our federal gov, I think people in other states could have a big impact by advocating for better state level energy policies.


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