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Posted In: Environment, Features

Maybe Winter is Not Coming

Nicole Anderson Ellis

November 16, 2015 9:23am

Shuozhou_coal_power_plantSo…what if we change the story? What if we set it on a submarine? Then all the characters – all those generations of heroes and villains – live within those fragile walls. Outside stretch the deep waters, black and cold and deadly; but inside they’ve gathered everything needed to survive.

There are sunlamps, and greenhouses where crowded plants produce oxygen and food, their roots filtering clean water from waste. Indeed, there is food and drink and space enough, not just to survive, but to thrive. There is work to do, but also ample rest and entertainment. There is music and dance and cooking and games and story-telling of every form. Within this bubble of protection people have love affairs, and make art, and raise families, and throw celebrations, and there are resources enough for nearly anything they want. But not everything.

There are, of course, limits.

There is only so much space; only so many places to put waste. Water can only be filtered so fast. So the residents rely on common sense. It would be disastrous, for example, to harm the greenhouses.  Too much depends on that system. Everything, in fact.

And while residents could explore the sciences and engineering, study medicine and innovate tools; they couldn’t poison their closed atmosphere. It wouldn’t be reasonable to build machines that generate toxic smoke. Certainly people couldn’t light their living quarters by burning barrels of oil.

In this story, it would be someone’s assigned job to monitor the ships’ life systems. A scientist would conduct air and water tests; someone would monitor a thermostat on board. Then, one day, they notice an uptick. They check their figures. They check their equipment. They reset the system. They watch again. Sure enough. The temperature’s rising. Not in every room on board, but in most; the common spaces. The water’s warming. And it’s warming faster. It’s messing with the carefully balanced life-systems. It’s in the red zone. The scientists sound the alarm.

Now…imagine we’re inside this story. How do we react? Do we complain about the alarm bell? So shrill and unending. Do we mock the anxious scientists, plug our ears, and light another barrel?

Perhaps we are barrel-salesmen, so high on fumes we hallucinate about gilded escape pods for our family and closest friends?

But no. We’re the folks for whom a perfect day is one spent outside. We’re the reluctant heroes, right? The cheerful and competent protagonists who only want to be home with our families, but rally anyway because if we learned anything from our ancestors it’s this: don’t hide in the closet when the house is ablaze.

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Well, it’s getting hot in here. 2015 is on its way to being far and away the warmest year in recorded history (that’s 136 years of data) according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Next month, the nations of the world meet in Paris to discuss this long-sounding alarm, and each is bringing to the table a number; how many burning barrels they’ll extinguish in their corner of our sub. But there’s a rub. According to an early November report from the United Nations Environment Programme – those scientists monitoring our temperature gauge – the reductions promised by all 150 attending nations total only half those needed to avoid global climate crisis (i.e. the predicted point of no return).

That seems willfully unwise.

But this month brings good news too. President Obama’s rejection of the proposed Keystone Pipeline delays efforts to burn 100’s of billions of barrels of Canadian tar sands oil. It also revealed the power of public action — in Washington and New York and Richmond — to ensure that our scientists are heard.

So…what next? Offshore wind power? Solar? Cycling? Local agriculture? Opportunities to squelch fires abound. What matters isn’t what we promote, but that we do it now, and together. We need to be smart and brave and put in more effort than any of us wants to; because if we fail in this, our descendants face drought and flood. They face storms and fire. They face crop failures and wars over water and grain.

It’s time to look each other in the eye and say aloud, This is it. Because we’re heroes. Right? Reluctant. Unsure. But heroes still. We’re sure as hell not the ones who shut the door, turn up the TV, and try to drown out that damned alarm.


About Nicole Anderson Ellis

Nicole Anderson Ellis teaches critical thinking, critical writing and argumentation at VCU. She’s also co-chairwoman of the Route 5 Corridor Coalition, a director on the Henricopolis Soil and Water Conservation District Board and a resident of Henrico’s Varina District.


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