Is ‘ecocalypse’ arriving ahead of schedule?

“The past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects – making it possible ... to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.”

– Susan Sontag

I’m reading A Friend of the Earth, the riveting 2003 novel by the commanding, sardonic author T.C. Boyle.

The book’s storyline flips back and forth between two time periods: the early 1990s, when some members of Earth First! (Earth Forever! in the novel) engaged in civil disobedience and “ecotage” – destroying logging equipment and other “monkey wrench” activities – and the year 2025 when most of the battles to save the planet have been lost and climate change has set in with a vengeance.

The novel’s 2025 setting is the dry region near Santa Barbara, Calif., where cactus grows today. In the story, a series of monster rainstorms gives rise to uncontrolled flooding that wipes out buildings, small towns and critical infrastructure throughout the region.

Back in the real world of the early 1990s while Earth First! was fighting to save the remaining redwoods, I was engaged in my own campaign to preserve the biosphere by educating people about “ecological design” – reducing the size and impact of buildings, switching to alternative energy sources and so on. There were solutions to the big issues of the day – fossil fuel depletion, deforestation, overconsumption. So I thought; so I taught.

What about global warming?

It was a newly recognized problem. Most of the initial headlines were generated in the late 1980s as the planet heated up. But then it cooled down for a bit, and our attention was diverted elsewhere.

Still, I needed to understand this developing phenomenon, so I read Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Jonathan Weiner’s book about global warming, The Next One Hundred Years: Shaping the Fate of our Living Earth (1990).

Weiner summarized three predictions made by climate-change modelers of the time:

The poles would warm faster than the rest of the planet, raising havoc with the climate.

Most of the land masses would dry out because of increased warming, their desiccated soil hardening over time.

Warming-driven evaporation would increase atmospheric moisture content, thus many precipitation events, when they occurred, would come as deluges, not nurturing rainfall. As happens in deserts, the water from these superstorms would cause flash floods, running right off the parched soil and doing little to alleviate the overall drought conditions.

But Weiner also implied that if global warming became a menace, it would do so in the distant future, 2075 or later – and only if current energy-use trends continued. But, of course, they couldn’t; they wouldn’t. Eco-design would have time to fix that. I hoped.

So I’m reading A Friend of the Earth before bedtime, and Boyle’s detailed description of the future Santa Barbara floods saturate my mind. Images of the coming deluge, which first appeared to me when I read Weiner 20 years ago, arise like phantoms throughout the next day – because the future is already unfolding, more than half a century ahead of “schedule.” The Arctic has warmed, its sea-ice volume reduced to 20 percent of what it was in 1979. A megadrought has settled into the Western states. It’s only a novel, but I can see the “ecocalypse” when I pause to stare into the distance, into the future.

Then came the “biblical” rains, as the National Weather Service called them. They came first to Boulder, where I lived as a teenager. Then they spread across the state and the stories and images kept coming and coming, like the rain that spawned them.

It was by far the worst flood in Colorado’s history, a “1,000-year” event for the normally-dry state. Almost a year’s worth of rain fell in a few days. Whole communities have washed away. When the waters subside they will leave a toxic residue, perhaps more dangerous than the flood itself. It will take years to clean up the mess.

For me, it’s no TV news disaster – I feel it. As a kid I rode my bike past those homes that are now submerged, creaking, ruined.

I fall asleep reading of Boyle’s Santa Barbara flood, and wake up to read about Colorado’s biblical deluge. And it’s surreal as fiction morphs into fact, and the past, present and future meld in the floodwaters of our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via e-mail through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.

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