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Commentary: We Have a Choice

A Harold Fisk "meander map" of the Mississippi River

Science doesn't care if we believe in it or not.  From shrinking glaciers, to open water in the arctic, to trees flowering earlier than normal, the climate will continue to change regardless of our beliefs.  We do have a choice, however, as to how to respond to the crisis we have created.  And in order to respond appropriately, we need to examine how we got here.  You see, I think the climate crisis is really just part of a larger problem about how we, as a species, choose to relate to the planet. 

Since the invention of agriculture and the rise of cities and states, humans have behaved and believed that they are above nature, not part of it.  Yet, if we are paying any attention at all, we can see that this is so not true.  We can’t control hurricanes or earthquakes or droughts.  Climate change is happening and despite how loudly climate deniers, right wing politicians, major conservative media outlets, and even President Trump[1]  attack environmentalists like the young Swede Greta Thunberg, who speak boldly about the dangerous future we face because of how we treat the environment, climate change is not going away unless we decide to make it happen. 

Humans have not always possessed this sense of entitlement and supremacy over the planet.  As an anthropologist, I know that not all cultures share this worldview of human supremacy, but this way of relating to the environment has spread along with the expansion of western civilization[2]

A couple of days ago, my friend Julie sent me an Instagram post from author Elizabeth Gilbert that contained an image of a map created in 1944 by a cartographer named Harold Fisk.  The image is a “meander map” of the Mississippi River.  The different colors represent the various paths the river has taken over the last several hundred years. 

As a species, we have always been drawn to live near water, and Native Americans were no exception.  When the river flooded, communities picked up and moved elsewhere.  In the 1940’s however, the United States government, understanding the immense economic value of the river as a highway, charged the Army Corps of Engineers with constructing and maintaining a set of established boundaries for the Mississippi.  What followed was the creation of an impressive lock, dam, and levee system.  Thinking they were safe from the river, small towns grew larger and fertile bottom grounds produced valuable crops.  With economic investment came infrastructures that are difficult to move. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad

Now, when the Mississippi decides to overflow her banks, communities who once imagined themselves safe from the river, find themselves in peril as they are unable to keep the waters at bay.  I mention this, because I believe that humanity is destroying itself because we made the wrong choice.  Since WWII our society has valued money over everything else.  Today we stand at a fork in the proverbial road and collectively, we must decide what is best for the entire planet, not just ourselves.  

The situation isn’t hopeless and we aren’t powerless.  We have a choice.  In fact, we really have three choices.  The first choice is to go on doing what we have been doing.  This means following the notion that the American Dream means that future generations will be better off materially than those in the past, even if we know that this type of future is a not a reality.  We can deny what science tells us and as Greta Thunberg said at a recent gathering at the United Nations we can continue to talk “about money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth[3].”

The second option is to become numb to our new reality.  We can distance ourselves from the world around us and do nothing.  We can let ourselves be overcome with the fatigue of fighting and retreat to our comfortable lives, saying that the next generation can deal with this problem, because we won’t be around to see the really bad things happen.  We can go on gathering in our churches and schools, and visit the mall and go on vacation without paying attention to what is happening around us. 

The third choice is to listen to science and make sacrifices that make our everyday lives a little less comfortable.  It means standing up to things we know are wrong like the abuse of women, the mistreatment of immigrants, the pollution of the air, and the poisoning of the oceans.  It means making sacrifices today so that future generations may prosper.  It means being compassionate towards others and towards the earth.  It means knowing that as Maggie Praxson[4] wrote, “There is no them, only us. There is no then, only now.”

Every day we are presented with opportunities to make a difference.  October 7th is one of those opportunities for those who decide to fight for the planet and for future generations.  Extinction Rebellion[5] will be staging a non-violent disruption of life as usual in downtown Chicago.  My daughter Maren and I will be joining others in Daley Plaza in Chicago to march for the future of our species and our planet.  If you can’t make it to Chicago, stage your own demonstration in your own town. 

As astronomer Carl Sagan once wrote, “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe are challenged by this point of pale light…In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves…Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand.” 

You have a choice.  We all have a choice.  Stand with me and stand for a future for all of us and for the planet. 

Heather McIlvaine-Newsad is a professor of Anthropology at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.





[5] https://rebellion.earthin