Who would have imagined watching the collapse of human culture on television, the unreal news–the footage, the statistics of devastation and human suffering–flowing past on a small-scale screen, while, in another corner of the living room, our American household has paused for that welcome ritual known as “happy hour”?
As we ingest cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, our eyes follow the raging brown waters as we hear about the submersion of over one third of Pakistan, overwhelmed with floods. Yes, as we sit there, a part of us considers what it would be like to stand in a landscape where everything is lost to muddy water. How long would we last?
After a thorough segment on Pakistani suffering, the news shifts to Sudan, the African nation whose people have lost their crops to “climate whiplash,” in this case a combination of floods followed by droughts. The crops they have planted are dying for want of water, whereas immense tracts of normally arable land are useless, a dead loss, because they are still submerged or saturated with water from last year’s floods. The families have no farm animals or machinery to begin with, and, over the past year or so, they have had to watch their crops rot, to ration out what little remaining food they have to their hungry children.
A representative of Unicef is interviewed, who pleads on behalf of the suffering children of Pakistan. The nation’s minister of climate change, a beautiful knowledgable woman, tells us that the cost of climate remediation is staggering. Also that Pakistani sorrows proceed directly from the modern customs that people in our part of the world invented, built up, and at this point are hopelessly addicted to.
Every day at home and abroad, Americans witness and experience similar catastrophes. Many of us accept the drastic shift that the developed world must undertake and reorganize around if our habitat, our families and societies are to survive. Like so much else we have experienced since 2020, the accelerating pace of lethal natural disasters seems unreal. Circumstances demand that all humanity pivot, and in short order contrive a more modest and sustainable relation to nature.
Yet, now, in the eleventh hour, it is easier to continue on in our habits than to grapple with a radical resolution, to acknowledge our inescapable dependence on Earth, and to stop engaging in all that we know is degrading the planet and intensifying the suffering multiplying everywhere around.
President Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate accord embarrasses us all, partly because it makes no sense politically, but also because it reveals Trump to be shockingly out of touch with the direction of the country he supposedly leads. In the end, his failure to support his own nation’s movement toward clean energy and environmental responsibility will matter mainly as another proof justifying those who view him as a laughingstock. Far from halting the nation’s progress toward reducing carbon emissions, Trump’s decision will likely accelerate it.
Over the past few decades, green capitalism—that triumvirate of forces combining consumer demand, emergent technology, and corporate leadership—has gradually matured and gone mainstream. Regardless of government action, green capitalism will soon be a determining force in the US economy. It will transform Americans’ sensibilities and requirements as surely and completely as the Industrial and Digital Revolutions have. Among the parties vainly urging the president to hew to the Paris accord were many large corporations who recognize that accommodating green values makes good business sense. President Trump’s harebrained decision to cling to the past instead makes him look benighted and irrelevant.
The silver lining is the galvanizing effect his retrograde action will have. In the US, major technological revolutions (with the exception of space aeronautics) typically begin in the private sector, generating new synergies between innovators and consumers. American government is often many paces behind, facilitating and regulating change only after new technologies and ways of doing have taken hold. Some sources of greenhouse-gas emissions in the US will decline only if subject to tougher state or federal regulation; others are highly responsive to consumer choice. Ultimately, the Trump administration’s intention to sit out the fight for clean energy opens up a field where many more forward-looking actors will contend to prevail. The work of easing the nation’s transition to a green future will fall to other and wiser American leaders.
Image: Wladyslaw T. Benda, “The Earth With the Milky Way and Moon” (1918),
from this source.
In 1872, near the end of his life, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley recalled a summer in his childhood that pushed his family to the brink of want and insolvency. It was the summer of 1816, when weather abnormalities reached catastrophic levels, producing a summer without summer, the typically warm months instead punctuated with snows and frost.
Greeley recalls waking on June 8th of that year to find an inch of snow blanketing his family’s farm in Amherst, New Hampshire. Frosts occurred in all the summer months, destroying crops and yielding only a ‘dubious harvest.’
The conditions Greeley described were general throughout the northeastern United States and felt as far south as Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia. Newspapers and diaries document the freakishly cold weather that rattled Americans, whose lives then depended almost entirely on what farms in their vicinity could produce. (Importing food from a distance was untenable before the age of rail.) Though New England was never a great breadbasket, its farms usually produced enough grains and vegetables to support the human population and some livestock farming.
That summer, persistent cold and frosts produced widespread crop failures. On each morning from June 8 through 10, frosts were reported throughout much of New England, causing the trees’ foliage to blacken. In July, a powerful Canadian cold front moved in, killing off tender plants such as beans, cucumbers, and squash, and raising the first fearful prospects of famine. Yet, according to meteorologist Lee Foster, who has analyzed the agricultural impact of the weather that summer, hardy crops such as wheat, rye, and potatoes managed to hang on.
In the middle of August, any prospect of a normal harvest vanished when frost again hit New England and upstate New York. Violent thunderstorms followed the cold, with still more frost striking around August 20 and 28, killing the corn and effectively ending the growing season.
Those in northern inland regions suffered the most. Newspapers recorded June snowfalls of 10 inches in Vermont and 7 inches in parts of Maine. Newly shorn sheep froze to death; fruit was destroyed. Farmers went about in coats and mittens. By the end of the summer, domestic animals were starving. Much of the human population was famished, too.
Throughout the affected areas, livestock were hastily slaughtered, creating a glut that drove down prices, while the price of grains, particularly corn, began skyrocketing. While families accustomed to subsistence agriculture were rich in tactics for making do in hard times, the poor harvests of 1816 left them in debt and without the cash or seeds needed to get started the next growing season. The bankruptcies and penury that followed in the wake of “summer that wasn’t” caused widespread land forfeiture and precipitated the first great out-migration of farmers to the virgin Midwest from eastern parts.
Scientific knowledge and understanding were then insufficient to account for the strange weather Americans were seeing, though some conjectured that sunspots or a solar ellipse (both recently observed) were a probable cause. Well-informed Americans understood, though, that the peculiar meteorological conditions they were experiencing were more than a local phenomenon. Their newspapers were reporting similarly catastrophic conditions across Europe, where cold and dark weather was producing dire food shortages, including Ireland’s infamous potato famine.
Today, meteorologists attribute the adverse atmospheric conditions of 1816 to a colossal volcanic eruption that occurred the previous year and half a world away. On April 8, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano east of Java in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), began erupting. According to a new book by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman, the explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, was the largest volcanic disturbance in the last 2,000 years and the deadliest in recorded time. Some 12,000 people living near Tambora died at once, with another 70,000 dying from the toxic fallout in Indonesia alone.
Blasts from the volcano, audible 800 miles away, blew 3,000 feet off the mountaintop, spewing millions of tons of ash, dust, and sulfur-dioxide gas into the sky, the lightest particles flying up more than twenty miles. Within twenty-four hours of the climactic eruption, an impenetrable cloud the size of Australia had formed. Particles in the stratosphere were slow to disperse, but winds gradually distributed them, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth. The impact on climate peaked in 1816, when the Northern Hemisphere felt its withering chill.
Americans today worry about global warming, but early Americans had more to fear from the cold. Mount Tambora’s eruption intensified conditions associated with the “Little Ice Age” that prevailed from around 1400 to 1850, when the sun’s lower output produced harsher winters, shorter summers, and more aridity—conditions that, like today’s weather abnormalities, created unanticipated hazards and human suffering. As for the future, who can say? The new global cooling may be just a volcano away.
Image: Hand-colored lithography by Currier and Ives, “Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning” (1863), in the Library of Congress. To go to the source, click here.