Walt Amses: As this summer wanes, we rush toward the abyss

This commentary is by Walt Amses, a writer and former educator who lives in Calais.

The waning days of July find me swimming in silken water that feels prematurely cool, gliding by a shoreline maple sporting a single bright-red leaf, a distinct reminder that nature will not only have its way, but also set the pace — and this summer’s pace has been quick, as though Vermont’s shortest season has other plans.

August arrives with a jolt most years and an uptick of activity, particularly if you’re a home gardener — as I pretend to be with oscillating levels of success — harvesting, canning, freezing and otherwise preparing as the growing season takes a final curtain call. 

This year seems to have brought with it dramatic changes, at first personally gratifying, but eventually quite troubling on a grander scale. A healthy percentage of what I normally do at summer’s end is already done, benefitting from a rain-sun-humidity-warmth cycle that as far as I can recall has been close to unprecedented. 

Broccoli has been picked and put by and is now on its second growth; cauliflower harvested. We’ve already got a dozen jars of pickles with more maturing each day and our garlic has been drying for weeks. Since I generally chalk up any gardening success to dumb luck, this seemed like a banner year.

As I glide past that crimson harbinger of summer’s inevitable transition, a mournful cry reminds me that, for the second consecutive year, the pair of loons on this lake has not produced chicks. While biologists believe black fly infestations, which we have in abundance, are a factor impacting nesting behavior, disturbances by curious humans can also be deadly for loon reproduction and the last two summers have seen an armada of boats, kayaks and paddleboards, as people understandably seek outdoor respite from pandemic restrictions.

While inconsistency in loon reproductive behavior may not be highly unusual and even raising vegetables with my paucity of skills will yield bountiful harvests from time to time due to circumstances balancing my ineptitude, this coal mine is littered with dead canaries. Coupled with a global onslaught of environmental catastrophes, these local anomalies are a chilling reminder that we are heading toward a climate abyss and may already have passed the tipping point. 

Walls of flame consume hundreds of thousands of acres in the western United States but also in Siberia, British Columbia and even Sardinia, areas where wildfires are either rare or have never occurred previously; floods destroy towns and villages in Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and China, inundating subways in Britain, New York City and parts of Asia; while the opposite extreme — triple-digit heat and lack of rainfall — parch huge tracts of California farmland. 

But as this sudden, simultaneous, worldwide explosion offers mere hints at the worst climate change has to offer, there remain those who, when they see the writing on the wall, suddenly become functionally illiterate. Things get even worse when you factor in our lingering reluctance to acknowledge what’s happening, never mind taking any mitigating action. 

Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson recently took time from a busy schedule downplaying the severity of Covid-19 and undermining the public’s trust of vaccines to chide fellow conservatives: “I don’t know about you guys, but I think climate change is bullshit.”

Denialism — offering “alternative facts” or simply choosing not to believe what’s staring you in the face — for ideological reasons has become the go-to position for millions of Americans in recent years. No need to rehash the cause, but clearly, loyalty in our current political climate precludes honesty. You simply cannot have both. 

Perhaps the larger question is: Why does nearly half the country believe things that are easily disproven while dismissing the factual if it contradicts their political affiliation? 

As Harvard professor Cass Sunstein, author of “Liars: Falsehoods and Free Speech in an Age of Deception,” explains, we pay too little attention to evidence that a statement is false using the following (albeit conveniently pertinent) example: “If I told you that scientists have found climate change is unlikely to be a serious problem and most people would be unaffected by it … and remarkably, most of the world’s population would be better off because the world would be warmer.” 

If you’re like most people, that false statement would linger in your memory according to Sunstein, an example of a broader phenomenon called “truth bias,” believing what you hear is truthful even if there are excellent reasons not to believe it. 

Consequently, provided with clearly discredited information, people may nonetheless rely on that information in forming their judgments. Coupled with our political beliefs that are seemingly impervious to any contradiction, no matter how logical, weaponized “truth bias” has become a powerful tool in the arsenal of the far right’s manipulation of reality, exploiting our vulnerability to a false narrative.

As I head out toward the middle of the pond, I see the solitary loon, silent now, silhouetted against the green hillside on the opposite shore, bobbing in the choppy water. At first, through the low-hanging haze, she’s a French impressionist painting, but what stuns is that it’s not hovering humidity bestowing this artistic perspective, but smoke from fires burning over 2,000 miles away, jolting me out of whatever reverie I was in — another stark admonition that, however lucky I am to live where I live, a highly troubled world is never very far away.

As I head back to the beach, the clouds above me are indistinct, foggy, as though I’m seeing them through a neglected attic window, but their implication is crystal clear. The future is darkening. The planet is revolting. The virus is mutating and becoming more dangerous. Masks are once again being politicized. 

The privilege of certainty we once enjoyed is eroding, provoking a collective mental health crisis as we come to terms with our plight: We will not be talking ourselves out of this. Liars will continue to lie but science will eventually prevail and nature will have its way.


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