Greetings From the Edge of the Petri Dish

The other day I woke to the sound of thunder, and lay in bed listening to the wind-driven rain. How different the winter is in California than the Maine of my childhood. As lightning flashed behind the blinds, I vividly recalled Ramblera typical winter’s day of that long-ago time. I stepped out the front door of our tiny house on the outskirts of Bangor squinting into a pale blue sky and inhaling the metallic scent of dry snow. My dad started the car (a Rambler Classic, aqua and white) to let the engine warm while he scraped the ice from the windshield.

We were poor. Dad was a service manager at a car dealership about two miles beyond the little Catholic school I attended tuition-free, where the nuns taught me that God watches out for us. The job didn’t pay much.

Mum stayed home with us kids. She packed our lunches: a single slice of baloney on spongy white bread from the day-old baked goods outlet across the river, a small Thermos of milk, a handful of chips transferred from a large bag into a small one that we were to bring home, and maybe a piece of homemade cake or a chocolate drop cookie she had baked. On Friday night, my two brothers and I divided a single 12 oz. can of generic soda (if we’d had a titration tube, we’d have used it), and sipped our treat while wearing flannel pajamas Mum had sewed from a pattern.

The Rambler was a salvage job Dad bought at an insurance auction. It’d been totaled, but he had those quintessential Maine skills that allowed him to straighten the frame, replace the windshield, mend the fenders, and repair the broken parts. Being good with your hands and able to improvise on a thin budget were the hallmarks of adulthood in that era in that part of the world.

What I remember most about that winter morning is the cloying odor of the car exhaust blackening the snow beneath the tailpipe. I asked Dad, wasn’t it bad to put the exhaust in the air? No, he said. It’s diluted by the atmosphere.

It seemed a bit like saying that peeing in the bathwater was okay, but I accepted it. I figured the old man knew what he was talking about. (Old. He was probably 30.) Living in a town of 3,000 made it plausible that there should be enough air to go around. The air was God’s inexhaustible gift.

Nostalgia is an untrustworthy emotion. It urges me to forget all the bad things that our poverty caused, all the anxiety, arguments, sickness, and injury. I remember not the way it was, but the way it ought to have been. Yet I’m convinced at least one aspect of those simpler days was better. We got by on less.

A child’s birth-world is his baseline reality. Even for a child in the meanest circumstances, it’s a world of static innocence. As time moves on, things change and innocence is lost or, worse, violated. To mature is to come to terms with that sense of loss and violation. I think the inability to reconcile oneself to the loss of innocence explains a lot of “conservative” attitudes. In their deepest hearts, conservatives cherish the idealized world that God presented to them at the awakening of their consciousness, a world that someone or something has taken from them.

My dad was wrong about the atmosphere. It doesn’t have unlimited capacity to absorb the noxious discharges from our tailpipes. My little town masked the size of the problem. The nuns were wrong about God. Terrible things happen.

It’s hard to accept these truths. It’s hard to lose that ideal world.

Imagine how powerful the nostalgia will be once the ice cap goes forever, and the weather destabilizes so that hunger is widespread. Imagine how the nostalgia will deepen as the ice cap disappears a bit longer each year, and people realize it’s only going to get worse for generations to come.

There will be profound regret, guilt, and blame. A professor of mine once said that the flip side of nostalgia is rage. I think that’s true. What is the Tea Party, its take-back-the-country howling, and its determination to drag us back to the 19th Century but an organized expression of rage? Some of them will say, God in his goodness could not have allowed the ice cap to disappear and the climate to collapse. Someone must have offended Him. Someone must be blamed and punished to make amends with the Almighty. Nostalgia is not just untrustworthy. It’s dangerous.

Malthus was wrong on his math and timing, but not about his intuition that human population will reach a limit. We are now at the edge of the Petri dish. Petri dishWe have consumed the nutrient medium, fossil fuel, that allowed seven billion of us to crowd into this one-billion sized place, and are now submerged in our own carbonaceous excreta.

Is it simply our nature to reproduce, to consume, to be acquisitive, to be curious, to be ambitious, to crave power? Are we at base a very sophisticated bacteria, blessed with intelligence and cursed with consciousness, assiduously carrying out our own annihilation even as we construct elaborate telemedia to watch ourselves do it? Did our irrepressible curiosity push us to dig in the Pandora's Boxdirt for these black substances, these molecular remains of entire biospheres, and unleash their fantastic energy and unwittingly liberate their carbon? It makes me think of the Tree of Knowledge. Or Pandora’s Box. Or Icarus. Or the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Now the question is, can we master our own nature, and slow our reproduction, and do with less, and act for the greater good? If not, we may soon long for the days before fossil-fueled technology. We may look back on that era as a lost Eden, and some may fight to get it back.

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Filed under Climate Change, Ice Cap, Psychology

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