trees are the breath of life – we should be cutting lies instead of trees

Yosemite Valley

Mysemite is Yoursemite. Robin L. Chandler, 2020.

For the last few weeks, I have been making plans with family and friends for treks to Yosemite and the Eastern Sierras. The mountains are calling and I must go![1] While Covid-19 has kept me close to home, in my dreams I have visited the wilderness and have touched the Earth. Soon, I will be in the mountains breathing the air in a place as big as my dreams where trees connect the land to the sky. I will breathe and my spirit and body will be filled with beauty. Everyone should have the opportunity to breathe the good air of mountains and trees; everyone should feel welcome in the wilderness. But I fear the wilderness – this life giving world of trees and land and sky – may become a dream if we don’t act soon. The wilderness, like a garden nourishes plants and creatures, both animal and human. Respect, compassion, knowledge, and dialogue are critical to caring for landscapes (and all creatures). Otherwise, as we tread the Earth, we will leave nothing but scars on the land, the plants, and all living creatures.

Breath has been much on my mind lately, just as George Floyd’s last breath has been rattling the conscience of my nation. Many Black Americans are marching and rightfully demanding answers about violence. Many White Americans are searching their souls grappling with the violence that is continually perpetrated on people of color. It is time to search our souls and time to listen deeply; we must bathe in these painful and guilt-choked waters before taking action. When Black people say “I can’t breathe” they are saying I can’t take a breath because the police are choking me; I can’t take a breath because I have less economic opportunity; and I can’t take a breath because where I live the air is polluted. This is what we think about when we discuss the need for equality, equity and justice.[2]

Most of the sun’s energy is reflected back into space by the earth’s atmosphere. But due to human activity we have reached the highest amount of carbon dioxide in the last 600,000 years; it has risen from 277 parts-per-million (ppm) to 417ppm in just two hundred years. Carbon dioxide has increased because of our use of fossil fuels and deforestation practices[3]. Since 1850 (the beginning of the industrial revolution), the temperature has risen 1.8 degrees Centigrade (C). In some areas temperatures are rising more than in others; in the United States, the Southwest has warmed up 3 degrees Fahrenheit (1.8 C) and parts of the Arctic have already warmed by more than 7 degrees Fahrenheit (F) or (4.0 C). As the climate changes, extreme events increase; there are deeper droughts; more severe rain events resulting in massive flooding; and heat waves. For a number of years, the United Nations (UN) has stated that 2.0 degrees Centigrade is the temperature level the world must hold to and this was formalized in the 2015 Paris Agreement of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UN commissioned the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to consider what are the dangerous / unacceptable levels of climate change; the panel’s work resulted in a report, presented in 2016, that details impacts at both 2.0 degrees Centigrade and 1.5 degrees Centigrade. The main messages of the report are as follows: the climate has already warmed 1.0 degree Centigrade from pre-industrial times which has already made significant impacts, and without further action temperatures could rise above 3.5 C (6.3 F); every bit of warming matters, losses increase significantly from 1.5 C to 2.0 C; and limiting warming to 1.5 C requires deep cuts in emissions (50% by 2030). The United States did not approve the report.[4]

White-supremacy plays a significant role in the climate crisis, just as it does in the political and economic suppression of people of color. Some of the most important things you can do to strengthen the climate movement is to fight facism against brown and black people; as we take action to ensure that black and brown people have clean air, clean water, and access to trees in their neighborhoods, we will fight climate change, and help all inhabitants of Earth.

People of color are not strangers to the Earth. In her essay EARTHBOUND on solid ground,[5] bell hooks wrote about walking through rows of crops with her grandfather, a Kentucky sharecropper, who taught “I’ll tell you a secret…no man can make the sun or the rains come – we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature, but the small farmer knows. Earth is our witness.” bell writes “when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all-powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. When this thinking was coupled with a breakdown in religiosity, a refusal to recognize the sacred in everyday life, it served the interests of white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

It is our shared responsibility to preserve our Earth for the future and for the most vulnerable. It is easy to become overwhelmed with the frightening truth about racism and climate change and it is easy to shut down, unable to act because we believe we are powerless to act; powerless to bring about the right-kind-of change. When we feel overwhelmed, we need to sit and feel the pain; understanding the pain will lead us to action. It is time to make the change we want. There is much work to be done and we must begin today. And the place to start is exercising our vote. I will vote in November, and before the election, I will work hard to get others registered to cast their votes. The esteemed writer Marilynne Robinson recently asked  what kind of country do we want? Our votes will determine the kind of country we want! We will breathe again.

“We should be cutting lies instead of trees” in my blog title is gratefully borrowed from Jerry Martien’s poem Salvage This.

[1] A quote by John Muir.

[2] Heather McTeer Toney, National Field Director of Moms Clean Air Force, speaking at Awakened Action: Women Leaders speak to Race, Poverty, Climate and Pandemic, June 21, 2020. These sentences are from my notes on her talk.

[3] Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere causes heat radiated from ground level to be reflected back towards the earth’s surface. This prevents the emission of heat from the earth, thereby raising the temperature of the earth.

[4] Diana Liverman, Regents Professor of Geography and Development, University of Arizona and member of the IPCC, speaking at Awakened Action: Women Leaders speak to Race, Poverty, Climate and Pandemic, June 21, 2020. These sentences are from my notes on her talk.

[5] bell hooks. EARTHBOUND on solid ground was published in Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World, edited by Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy and published in 2011 by Milkweed Editions in Canada.