Gideon Lincecum was a naturalist, healer, and free-thinker. In 1819, he moved his family to Columbus, Mississippi, on the border of the Choctaw Nation. Through interactions with his Choctaw neighbors, Lincecum learned the Choctaw language and came to understand something of the Choctaw view of the world. At the outset of the Trail of Tears, he witnessed his Choctaw neighbors evicted from their homeland as his own countrymen moved in to take possession. Years later, he angrily described the transition in these words: “[the] locality was soon overrun and cut down by a race of world spoilers” (Lincecum in Burkhalter 2010:7)
Eugene Hilgard, the father of modern soil science came the Choctaw homeland in the 1850s. He saw ancient forests logged, prairies plowed up, and the clear waterways of the region silting in from soil erosion. He wrote, "...well might the Chickasaws and Choctaws question the moral right of the act by which their beautiful park-like hunting grounds were turned over to another race...Under their system these lands would have lasted forever; under ours, as heretofore practiced, in less than a century more the State would be reduced to the condition of Roma Campagna” (Hilgard 1873).
What Lincecum and Hilgard saw play out in the Choctaw homeland was a small part of a long-term global process. Across the planet, locally focused, traditional cultures have been mostly pushed to the side. They have been supplanted by lifeways that draw immense power through extracting a short-term glut of capitol resources from the earth in a way that limits the long-term ability of the planet to regenerate itself. Lincecum and Hilgard tied the destruction of the Choctaw homeland to race, but the process is really tied to culture and worldview. I wonder how these two thinkers from the 19th century would connected what they had witnessed with the world situation in 2021?
On August 9th, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its 6th report. This report is compiled by 234 leading scientists from 66 countries, and is based on 14,000 scientific studies. Compared to previous reports (released about every 7 years), this report drew upon more powerful computing technology and incorporated the advancements in understanding how our planet works that have been made since the last report came out. The findings are dire.
The report finds that since 1850, humanity has released 2.4 trillion tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere mostly as a result of burning fossil fuels . Today, greenhouse gas concentrations are at their highest levels in at least the past 2 million years, and rapidly rising. As a result, the planet has warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit from where it should be. The globe is currently at its warmest in at least the past 100,000 years and the planet is warming even more rapidly than climate scientists predicted just a few years ago. At the same time, humans have degraded the ability of the planet's natural systems to regulate climate (For example, the Amazon rain forest, described as the "lungs of the planet", is now each year emitting about a billion tons of CO2 more than it absorbs). The report shows beyond question that the extreme weather we have been enduing these past few years is caused by our own actions. While the implications section of the IPCC report won't come out until next year, it is also made abundantly clear that burning fossil fuels combined with landscape destruction is heading the world towards even deadlier heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, floods, food shortages, diseases, poverty, economic disruptions, forced emigrations, species extinctions, possibly ecosystemic collapse... in short - cascading levels of suffering. UN Secretary-General António Guterres characterized the report's findings as "code red for humanity".
In essence, the continuation of the same process that damaged the landscapes of the Choctaw homeland is now impacting every inch of the planet. As pointed out by Noam Chomsky, an elder statesman of the social sciences, the strongest voices against humanity’s current path towards self-destruction come from today’s Indigenous peoples. As he puts it, “It’s phenomenal all over the world that those who we call ‘primitive’ are trying to save those of us who we call ‘enlightened’ from total disaster” (Rosenmann 2016).
These IPCC's recent findings are not new for those who have been paying attention, neither do they shut the window on hope. While some consequences are now locked into the climate for years, the worst effects of climate change are still avoidable if we drastically reduce CO2 production right now. In fact, efforts to switch to clean energy have already made some real difference. The report projects 5 possible future scenarios, based on how much CO2 humanity produces over the next century. With 1 being the best, and 5 being the worst, we're currently somewhere between 3 and 4. We're still headed for a really bad future, but not quite as bad as we might be. If humanity would rapidly cut emissions to reach 1 or 2, our planet would continue to heat up for a while, but then start to cool back off in a matter of decades. Through immediate and decisive action, we could give upcoming generations a shot at a livable future.
You would think making the most of our fleeting chance to secure a livable future for all of humanity would be about the most important thing in the world. The IPCC report made wide headlines... for about three days, and then fell from the mainstream news cycle like the others before it. Meanwhile, in 2021 global CO2 emissions are set to rise at the second fastest rate in history.
The frightening thing is that setting the course for a livable future requires not just redoing our entire lifeway, which is built around fossil fuels, but doing so with a sustained level of urgency and cooperation that has never been achieved in human history. As a backdrop, we have the current example of COVID - wearing a mask and getting a vaccine could directly save the life of the person you love most in the world, yet millions choose to ignore or demonize these simple life-saving efforts. The new report shows that no matter what we do to fight climate change, warming and extreme weather are going to get worse for decades before they start to get any better. That long window presents infinitely more opportunity than COVID has for spin, deception, and human selfishness to enter the picture. What does public opinion do when attaining a livable future requires cuts in our personal consumptive habits, or requires us to help less lucky people from across the world we've never even met?
Despite some long odds, it's still not too late. The bottom line is that every single ton of CO2 release that we can prevent now will be a gift to our future selves and to generations of people unborn. Also, up to a point, building climate resiliency for extreme weather can offset a lot of the impacts of climate change. At Nan Awaya Farm, we're transitioning our pastures into drought-resistant native prairie. This traps carbon in the form of deep plant roots, while providing a bit more resiliency to our operation. At the same time, we've chosen to live in a small energy-efficient solar-powered home, where we compost, recycle, dry our clothes on a line, and drive the lowest-emissions vehicle local infrastructure will support (although we drive a lot). We still produce something like 7 tons of CO2 per year. That's less than the 32 tons produced by the average American household, but it is not 0 or negative. The new IPCC report gives us even more urgency to get there.
As articulated by Jonas Salk, the inventor of the polio vaccine, which saved millions of lives from a crippling and deadly disease, the most important question we must ask ourselves is: “Are we being good ancestors?” Given the rapidly changing discoveries and conditions of the times, this opens up a crucial conversation – just what will it take for our descendants to look back at our decisions today and judge us good ancestors? " What kind of ancestors will we be in responding to a climate change that we ourselves are causing?
Here are a few practical ideas for building resiliency and cutting CO2:
Save money on your home's energy efficiency and resiliency.
Go here and type in "electric vehicle"
Give the gift of solar power and safe water to a 3rd world / Indigenous community.
...and an idea that is fascinating but currently far less impactful than cutting CO2 emissions: pulling CO2 from the air