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It starts with me

Fifty-two years ago today (well, day before yesterday by the time I’m publishing this), I peered into the skies above Lake Almanor in the northern Sierras and watched as Buzz Aldrin took a step and became a first. I was sixteen that summer.

That was the first time when people looked up to see the man in the moon and there actually was a man on the moon. Though we couldn’t make him out, we listened to the play-by-play on the radio.

And from that moment, we were an interplanetary species.

My dad corralled us into our car—I’m not sure if it was our only radio or the one with the best reception, but cramming in made us feel like we were in it together. All 600 million of us, watching and listening together while men (all astronauts were men back then; they mostly still are) set foot on a different rock than the one we’re used to, spinning through the universe.

Other than that one evening (west coast time), has there ever been an event that 600 million of us participated in together? Has there been another challenge or marvel that we all focused on and shared?

We had some high-flying rhetoric for the world that day: one giant leap for mankind. There were obvious ulterior motives for the massive effort behind pushing ourselves onto the moon: no one had illusions about the fear and greed behind the race for world dominance between the two superpowers. But despite that, those three astronauts (I remember my affection for that word, meaning “astral sailor”) were invited around the world to be feted after they returned to earth. In twenty-four countries they were welcomed home from their hero’s journey, conquering gravity.

It was the U.S. flag they staked in the ground, sure, but they left a note saying “Here men from the planet earth first set foot upon the moon, July 1969 A.D. We came in peace for all mankind.” And there was a rendering, not of our country but of our planet. Here’s the cool part: all three of them got to sign it, including the astronaut who didn’t get out of the spaceship to walk on the moon—he kept the motor running up above so they could get home. (President Nixon signed it too, his other claim to fame.) The three of them returned safely to the earth, as John Kennedy had phrased it on May 25, 1961, and eight years after JFK’s declaration, two guys could give firsthand accounts of what the dusty surface of the moon was like, how it held their footprints.

“Some way, when those two Americans stepped on the moon, the people of this world were brought closer together… it is that spirit, the spirit of Apollo, that America can now help to bring to our relations with other nations.” This is the conclusion of Nixon’s welcome home speech. “The spirit of Apollo transcends geographical barriers and political differences. It can bring the people of the world together in peace.” Hyperbolic, yes, but soft power at its most idealistic (and so distracting from our unpopular war in Vietnam at the time).

A lot can happen in fifty years. We’re not holding ourselves together, much less the world. In fact, we could learn a lot from the world at this point. There’s a group of nations that’s been trying much harder than we are to do something about our cooking climate.

I have a loyal friend who doesn’t share a lot of my beliefs. She’s not even convinced that our election system is legit, not sure our president was elected fairly. But even she drives a hybrid vehicle and agrees that man-made climate change is real.

So how has our political system so split apart that we can’t agree on one urgent priority, our most existential threat? In the face of inexorable drought, melting ice, wildfires and toxic smoke blanketing the country from the fires eating up our sources of oxygen, all worsening year by year. In the face of data that’s been piling up for decades telling us that we caused this and we need to fix it, we have a minority of people and politicians in sway to a hold on power, a grip that keeps them clinging to a belief system in spite of science.

Leaving aside how low we sank in the world’s eyes by electing a career huckster full of ignorance and nativist hatred—well, how can I leave that aside, given that it made us a laughing stock, given that we have so much invasive technology and so many scary weapons it’s not funny.

But I digress; politics isn’t my only question here.

Right now it looks like we’ve screwed the pooch. (That’s NASA jargon meaning “we fucked up” that dates at least from the Mercury Seven era.)

Even if we didn’t emit one iota more of greenhouse gasses starting today, we couldn’t stop global warming for centuries because carbon dioxide, the most pervasive heat-trapping gas, stays in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. We’d have to go back and re-think the industrial revolution and everything we’ve invented since to avoid sowing the catastrophe we’re now reaping, for ourselves, but even more for our children and theirs.

So now scientists speak in terms of limiting the “worst effects” of climate change. Meaning, it’s much too late to avert the rise of global average temperatures, but hey, if we significantly limit carbon release from here on out people will still be able to go outside in the Middle East and South Asia; Texas and Bangladesh won’t be underwater; and millions won’t starve to death, especially in poor countries, due to drought.

I have another a friend who has been an environmental activist for life. We lament that recycling and avoiding single use plastics, shunning beef and driving hybrid cars has been just this side of useless in stemming the terrible tide. We repent that we haven’t done more. I feel prolonged guilt over my recent spur-of-the-moment decision, in the face of a broken water heater, not to spend four times as much to replace our gas appliance with an electric one or a heat pump.

So, this is my stake in the ground. From today I’m Su-stainability (sorry, too corny but I fell for it), aiming for these goals:

  • Increase my own family’s energy efficiency (walk don’t drive, unplug unused appliances) and increase our use of renewable energy (drive the hybrid)

  • Use water resources efficiently, reuse where possible, and manage stormwater (drought-tolerant plants)

  • Eliminate waste (food waste for example), step up recycling and offset our family’s pollution (buy carbon offsets when we fly)

  • From here on, buy only sustainable products and technologies and environmentally preferable materials (use LED lightbulbs, banish single-use plastics)

  • Raise my family’s consciousness by measuring the greenhouse gas emissions from our household consumption (using calculators on the EPA and NPR websites)

  • Figure out ways to contribute to the sustainability and livability of my community

  • And, some say the most important action is collective action, to help raise awareness of our shared responsibility. Encourage friends to live sustainably and engage with elected folks about enacting laws that limit carbon emissions and require polluters to pay for the emissions they produce.

(I’ve collected my goals from sources like the National Resources Defense Council and NASA.)

Maybe more importantly, I’m turning around my recent deep pessimism by sitting up and listening to Aliya Haq, of the NRDC, who says, “Change only happens when individuals take action. There’s no other way, if it doesn’t start with people.”

So here’s a thought: interplanetary travel is still a thrilling dream, but instead of trying to put people on the red planet, why don’t we take a giant leap for mankind by repurposing that budget toward keeping this one from becoming a red planet? Because only I and the other 7 billion of us on earth now can prevent the worst effects of climate change.

Image credit: The New York Times Company. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License. © 2021 Su Cummings. All rights reserved. Originally published on [How to grow, while growing older]


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