Zinnia & the Art of Planetary Maintenance

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I’m writing this for my granddaughter, but I’m not telling her. I don’t want her to be scared.

Zinnia is 6 years old. She’s small for her age but otherwise precocious. She reads above her grade level and trampolines like a jumping bean. While other kids her age make “yuck” faces at sight of spinach and broccoli, Zin relishes oysters, kalamata olives and “stinky” cheeses. Her favorite bedtime lullaby is “The Sounds of Silence,” which I thought was beyond precocious until her dad explained that the Simon and Garfunkel song is featured in her favorite movie, Trolls. She’s watched it so many times, she knows it by heart.

In the early 1990s, long before Zinnia was born, I was starting to worry about the impact of the greenhouse gases we were belching into the atmosphere and the plastic litter that we sent floating down the rivers and into the seas. I wrote a song about our silly notion that we could consume and pollute cavalierly and then, if things got really bad, just fly away. It began:

The planets and the stars

Will not be ours

Except, of course, to dream on

For all our Star Trek reveries

This island Earth will be our home

Our space-travel capabilities have improved somewhat in the intervening years, though we still haven’t found a destination planet enough like our big blue marble or developed the means for even a search party to get there.

Meanwhile, we’ve created a floating plastic garbage patch twice the size of Texas in the Pacific Ocean. We’re experiencing record temperatures. Hellish wildfires are raging from California to Sweden, and hurricanes and typhoons are growing in size, intensity and frequency.

And now, as if these inconvenient truths weren’t troubling enough, there’s a new report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that says that if we don’t drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040, if not sooner, we can expect more wildfires, more monster storms, extreme droughts, food shortages affecting hundreds of millions of people and, quite possibly, an irreversible tipping point.

And by drastically, the IPCC means reducing carbon emissions by a daunting, almost inconceivable 70 per cent.

Sparing ourselves and our fellow creatures the worst, the report says, will require governments around the world to make “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” from how we heat and cool to what we drive, from what we eat and how we grow it to how far we can routinely travel.

2040 — that’s 22 years from now. Most of you who are reading this will be around when that new year is rung in. I may be as well. But I am more concerned about Zinnia, my teen-aged grandchild, Jackson, and millions of other kids here and around the world.

In 2040, Zinnia will be 28. Maybe by then she will be a CrossFit trainer like her mom or a radio producer like her dad. Maybe she’ll be a doctor or a chef or a scientist or a maker of animated films like Trolls. Maybe she’ll still be figuring out what to do with herself.

I want her to have those opportunities. I want her to be living on a planet at least as beautiful and diverse and healthy as the one I grew up on — and, if at all possible, better.

No challenge we are facing or issue we are dealing with today is more important than our acting like responsible, caring adults and implementing every measure we can to limit further physical deterioration of the only planet we have.

Not gun control or reproductive rights. Not Latin American immigrants or North Korea’s nuclear weapons. The environment. Our environment. Our incredibly complex, life-giving, life-sustaining, shared environment.

We need to do this whether we believe we’re God’s appointed stewards or simply because we recognize it’s stupid and suicidal to foul our nest. Pick your rationale, but make reversing damage to the Earth a personal and political priority.

We were making encouraging progress not that long ago, prioritizing cleaner energy sources, discouraging pollution, setting aside nature preserves both land and sea. Now we appear to be in spiteful retreat.

There are those among us, including some rich and powerful people, who insist that the dire warnings of scientists like those who compiled the U.N. report are a hoax or an anti-capitalist plot. The former claim is an absurdity that would require a conspiracy of millions of scientists who’ve never met. The latter ignores the commerce to be engendered and the profit to be made from cleaner industry.

If the scientists turn out to be wrong, we will still be living a cleaner, healthier world come 2040. If they’re correct in their predictions and we’ve allowed our leaders to shirk their responsibility, we and our children and grandchildren will be facing a rising tide of misery.

I would accuse the deniers of playing Russian roulette with our little ones’ lives, but that analogy overestimates the odds in our favor.

Mississippi native, award-winning veteran of The Orlando Sentinel, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Newsday, stand-up storyteller, lives in Athens, Ga.

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