Earth Has Ebola: An Open Pre-election Letter

Ignoring the diagnosis on humanity’s scariest Halloween yet

Posted Nov 03, 2014

Healing hands encircle Earth

Healing Earth Together

[With this note, I give my permission to reprint and share this letter. Please use the tag line, “Sincerely, Rachel Clark, biologist, science writer, and author of the blog Mothering Nature at Psychology Today”]

Healing hands encircle Earth

Healing Earth Together

This letter is for my fellow Americans:

The other night my kids went trick-or-treating, and we went to a parents’ party. It was the first year they ditched us, linking up with their buddies: no moms and dads allowed. A bittersweet rite of passage for us grown-ups. “Look at how fast they’ve grown!” we all remarked. It felt very American, very comforting, and very normal. Except it wasn’t. It was October 31 and not one kid wore a jacket. An hour in, they came rushing back desperate for water, dripping sweat. We live in northern Idaho and even after dark, it was near 60’ degrees. My garden tomatoes are red on the vine; there’s been one mild frost...six weeks ago. The leaves are still blushing on all the trees: they haven’t gotten the message to let go.

We chatted and caught up, and swapped parenting stories and drank wine alongside the stuffed squash, apple crisp and pumpkin seeds. We laughed at each other’s costumes. We remarked on the weather. How warm it’s been. How it wasn’t like this when the kids were little: recalling the snow suits, the cold, and the frosty breath of just ten years ago.

But no one could come right out and say it. Not on Halloween; the night of festivities and candy and costumes and fun.

No one could come right out and say they were actually scared. Of the weather. Maybe, in fact—because of our culture of misinformation and distraction and denial—most American parents aren’t scared. Yet.

But I am. Actually scared is the wrong word. If you could wrap up every horror movie, every Halloween prank, every mythic foreshadowing of death—the end of a season, the loss of life before winter, the demise of the crops and the ancient human rites of harvest, storing food for winter and attempting to be prepared for profound scarcity—you still couldn’t touch how I feel about climate change. We don’t have words or language yet to grapple with what’s happening. The only metaphor that starts to capture how disturbed I am is this:

Earth has Ebola. And we’re ignoring the diagnosis.

I pitched this story to a respected, thoughtful digital magazine, and they declined, saying they thought the metaphor was “too much of a stretch.”

It’s not. Right now, and for a little while longer, the world’s biggest problem isn’t climate change. The world’s biggest problem is that, so far, very few of us accept what the doctors are saying.

Along with a relative handful of other human beings on the planet, I do. Maybe it was the hundreds of hours I spent both taking and teaching biology, ecology, earth science, genetics, and physiology courses—absorbing the intricacies and wonderment of how Life works. Maybe it was the weeks and months I spent in the field: up to my elbows in the oxygen-depleted, nitrogen-burdened mud of the Chesapeake Bay; bowled over by the slippery, poignant bounty of Puget Sound, already shorn by overfishing; hiking the Appalachian Trail as my biology teacher pointed out every common tree species on the East Coast, including my very favorite and beloved eastern Hemlock…which is now on its last breaths as it heads to extinction; and the hours I spent crawling on my hands and knees through the forest duff of central Massachusetts with a bunch of undergrads as we worked on a research project to assess the impact of historic human land use on the land.

Or maybe it these last twenty years after I walked away from research science, driven to spend my life as a science and environment writer, reporting on what I was seeing even then:

Earth is going into systems failure.

The body, blood, and organs of our planet are riddled with the disease of our massive cultural impact. And, for the most part, we’re ignoring it.

Fisheries around the world are collapsing: some scientists have predicted the world’s oceans to be fished out by the 2040s. Meanwhile the amount of human garbage in the seas is rivalled only by the presence of the microscopic plastic particulates now ubiquitous in all the oceans and beaches of the world. Then there’s this: the world’s oceans are acidifying before our eyes as they rapidly absorb the glut of carbon dioxide in the air. The oceans are now unstable, and we have only the merest of inklings about how that will impact the foundation of the world’s food chain.

Rainforests that once covered entire continents are already expunged, or are quickly disappearing under the slash-and-burn march of cheap, industrially-produced hamburgers, palm oil, soybeans, and others. Rainforest destruction is causing a mass extinction of species, while it simultaneously explodes enormous volumes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Far beyond the rainforests, in every curve of the globe touched by industrial agriculture, billions of sentient non-human animals live unspeakable torments every day, while the system that allows it pollutes and destroys whole biomes so we can eat cheap meat and grain. And with it, Earth’s arteries and veins run black with feces, poisoning the water instead of enriching the soils. All while the industrial ag system promotes profit-making chemical applications instead of manure, shipping grain that could feed human beings thousands of miles to fatten grazing animals in CAFOs (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) rather than pastures, GMOs, systemic standardization and monocultures, pervasive antibiotics in the animals to keep them healthy in highly unnatural conditions, expunged historic crop diversity, and wholesale soil destruction to grow our “food.” This in the name of “feeding the world’s growing population” while blatantly ignoring the problematically unspeakable costs, in favor of gross (and I use that word intentionally, for all its meanings) profits.

Now, because of the so-called “green revolution” of industrial agriculture with its post-World War roots and its chemical industry birthplace, we have thousands of farmers committing suicide in protest and devastation; catastrophic soil and species loss around the world; international desertification; collapse of community farming communities; addiction to chemical inputs and GMOs; antibiotic resistance, systemic eradication of historic agricultural knowledge, and a massive balance-tipping input to Earth’s atmosphere of both carbon dioxide and the much more potent methane . Yet this is just the tiniest tip of the melting iceberg—scores of research papers and encyclopedic books now contain descriptions of what’s happening to Earth’s life support systems and her living communities as a result of industrial ag.

We have a wholesale coup of humanity—civilization rose because we figured out how to tend crops and store them through winter. But civilization as we know it may fall before the onslaught of something that is no longer recognizable as agriculture.  In fact, it is categorically not agriculture: it is the mechanization to mass produce a product for profit. And, as such, it is one symptom of the disease that is asphyxiating Earth.

But industrial gag does not stand alone.  No. There’s another mechanization to mass produce a product for profit. Another symptom of the disease. The fossil fuel industry has tapped Earth’s liver, and it’s fervently liberating the toxic waste products of oil, coal, and gas that took millions of years to sequester out of harm’s way. You can see the immediacy of malfunction at lesions where the disease runs rampant:  tar sands, fracking regions, oil and gas fields, coal burning power plants and open-pit mines, to name a few. But the less visible effects of the diseased liver—and the release of all those toxins—is the most treacherous, deadly symptom of all: Earth’s fevered breath.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide and methane confirm Earth’s lethal sepsis.  It’s what our doctors have been telling us for years. But few of us actually understand the magnitude of what this means for us, and for the planet as a whole. An actual global plague of Ebola pales in comparison to what our doctors are telling us about climate change. Yet, because our planet’s time scale is different than our own, it’s easy for us to ignore. But on Earth’s timescale this is not a cancer. Or heart disease. Or diabetes.

All in the space of one generous human life span, this disease has changed everything. For Earth, that’s as virulent a disease as Ebola.

Already, as a result of the disease, we’ve entered the era of the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth. In all the billions of years that life has evolved, there have only been five mass die offs. At least half of all life on Earth vanished, and in one case, the Permian extinction, 96% of all life on Earth disappeared forever. The Permian extinction (and others) was triggered by climate change and it nearly killed every living thing on this planet. Scientists now know that the Permian extinction—the worst in Earth’s history—was triggered by unusually fast carbon releases…in the same general range as our present-day disease emissions.

Still, there is a critical difference. Though our diseased system is releasing carbon, we are fully aware of what’s happening and best of all, we are highly capable of healing the disease. But we have to do it right now. We have to get ourselves into quarantine immediately.

Because the thing is, it’s not so much that our disease stems from the mass production of a product for profit. It’s about corporate systems failing to account for natural systems, while the very few humans who gain, are driven by intoxicating and addictive power. That same drive for profit power lies at the heart of the darkness of climate change. And therein lies the cure. A cure that is ferociously potent and curative. A cure that will solve everything…including gently resolving the human population explosion fueled by industrial ag and the release of enormous reserves of fossil fuel energy.

But because humans are hard-wired to pay closest attention to our most proximate, immediate risks, many of us are—at this moment—collectively being duped by our own evolutionary history. Climate change is nothing like a prowling lion or a poisonous snake.

Even so, we humans have proven ourselves to be profoundly capable of solving complex, unwieldy, nuanced, and highly risky challenges. Even long-term, global life-or-death ones like the threat of nuclear devastation and the cold war. Ronald Reagan—whether you loved him or hated him and whether you realize it or not—went to the presidency with the explicit personal (and little known) goal of terminating the risk of mutual, assured nuclear destruction. And with overarching passion, conviction, devotion, empathic negotiation with other world leaders backed by his fierce and assured willingness to hold them accountable, instrumental support of key peers, and especially the rising global tide of Earth citizens who held his dream, too…he did (Martin and Annelise Anderson tell this compelling story using Reagan’s personal diaries and declassified White House documents, in Reagan’s Secret War:  The Untold Story of His Fight to Save the World from Nuclear Disaster).

But right now, our country’s leaders are hamstrung by our collective willingness to turn a blind eye. Which is why I’m writing this letter before November 4.  If we want to solve the biggest challenge we’ve ever faced, it’s time to accept the prognosis.

The risks of climate change make The Hunger Games read like Skippy Jon Jones. And even though they are just outside our human timescale and ability to grasp as immediate threats, science shows us that they are very much on par with the mutual, assured nuclear destruction that Ronald Reagan and so many others devoted their lives to preventing.

Climate change is the biggest, most dangerous symptom of our disease. If we can solve this, we can solve everything. The disease—a capitalist system that doesn’t account for natural systems…with its ensuing drive for profit power that allows for criminal levels of cheating, racism, subjugation of women, the destruction of indigenous peoples, and much more—has impacted everything on Earth, including the very social fabric we have learned to accept. A social fabric that has us eating lots of industrially-produced meat, fish and processed food, driving our cars everywhere, and failing to immediately mandate a carbon-tax and a drastic change in our energy sources, to name a few.

But our doctors know better. And now the word is spreading. Like an extreme immune response, tens of thousands of people around the world are taking their own steps to heal the lesions (see Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in History Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming). And some, people like Naomi Klein, Neil deGrasse Tyson (see episode #13 of the new Cosmos), and the creators of the Years of Living Dangerously series on climate change, are town criers for the planet. Because they, and the many other Earth champions, know that without an international-scale systems change, all will be lost.

Klein, for one, spent the last ten years researching and writing what D.R. Tucker at the Washington Monthly calls “one of the greatest works of nonfiction of all-time,” and “a weapon of justice.” Just a month after its release, her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, hit the New York Times, national, and international best-sellers lists.  In it, she pinpoints the severe disruption of our natural systems by corporate, capitalist dysfunction. More important, This Changes Everything is a handbook for making the greatest change in history—the one that stabilizes climate: the change we need. If every state and national representative of this country reads Klein’s magnum opus, perhaps we’ll finally do it.

The doctors—the overwhelming consensus of science—have given us a prognosis. It is profoundly grim. We have a very narrow window to act; to the heal Earth’s disease. To protect our children from its hideous, gruesome, Ebola-like death. A demise that's already begun.

My oldest is 13. Already this Halloween is different from when we carried him door to door. When he’s 26, if we don’t change course, it will be even more different, and he’ll know by then whether we—the adults who are now in charge—did what needed to be done. By 26 he’ll know whether the Earth is safe enough to have a child of his own. But at 26, he won’t be any better prepared than the rest of us to confront the pace and extremity of Earth’s emergent symptoms if we fail to act now. By then, at 26, he’ll likely know whether there will even be a Halloween to celebrate when he’s 39. Because that is now officially debatable.

Right now, based on the prognosis and our lack of national action, I’d have to advise my sons against having children of their own.

There is no word for that kind of alarm. But here’s the thing: You. Your vote for those who are ready to face the truth. Your leadership when we vote you in. Your decision as a representative of the country most responsible for climate change, the one poised to lead the way to stabilizing it, and the one most atrociously in denial about what the world’s most highly trained doctors have told us, is what will give my sons—all our children, all of life on Earth—a chance.

Because right now, your vote, your leadership, our step forward together into a future the Earth has never seen before, and that humanity is asked to face—can make his 39th Halloween a lot less scary than this one. Because if we are very lucky, very determined, and very willing to do what needs to be done, right now, perhaps I’ll go out with my grandchild and my son, knocking on your door on October 31, 2040.

As I stand there, deep in my heart, I’ll know that someday I’ll have to tell my grandchild about what we lost—perhaps the rhinos, the elephants, the giraffes, the tigers, the polar bears, the northern Right whales, Hector’s dolphins and Vaquitas, Bluefin tuna, and untold species of frogs, snakes, fish, birds, and insects. And who knows what else, since the current mass extinction is well underway… If you know who I am, as a biologist and a student of Earth, you know what a profound, heartbreaking mourning that will be.

But—as I stand there on your doorstep holding my wriggling, sweet-scented, smiling granddaughter—I’ll also know that one day I’ll have the joy of telling her what we saved.

So after we say “Trick or treat” I’ll take you aside, look in your eyes, and whisper “Thank you.”

Further reading and resources:

These are only a fraction of the many suggestions one could include here. Klein’s momentous and hopeful book includes most of them.

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Note: I follow the policy of the LA Times and Popular Science (as further explained and refuse climate-change denial comments. 

© Rachel Clark. Reprint with the specific permission of the author.