Sunday, September 6, 2015

Relative Distance

(Me and Noah, November of 2005. Photo by Jeff Taylor)

For a grad school environmental writing class, I wrote an essay about my experience as a volunteer in post-Katrina Biloxi, Mississippi. I was there from about Halloween to Thanksgiving in 2005—I wasn’t going door to door, counting and removing bodies, and seeing the worst, but I certainly wasn’t seeing the best either.

One of my classmates mentioned that I didn’t seem to have “relative distance” from the events I was writing about.

I am under no illusion that the troubles exposed and or caused by Katrina have gone away into some distant past, nor—despite a monumental recovery effort on the Gulf Coast—do I find much evidence that the root causes of the hurricane and aftermath have been addressed. I’ve found it hard to attain and maintain relative distance about Hurricane Katrina when my days begin with the hopeful and anxious snout of my Biloxi-born dog poking into my face.

For the last ten years, since my time in Biloxi, the puppy I adopted from there has been my constant companion. I was twenty-three with commitment-phobic gypsy tendencies, an allergy to plans, and a slim flash of understanding that a dog would likely complicate my life. All of these logical thoughts were overridden by the cuteness of the puppy amidst the wreckage of the Gulf Coast, the heft of his little body held relatively safe in my arms, and by my dad—wanting to do more himself about Katrina—cheerily bellowing into the phone that I ought to “just bring the damn dog home!”

So I did. And, with very few exceptions, wherever I’ve gone, so has Noah. He’s been across the country six times, lived in four states, ten towns, and with over twenty-five housemates. I can’t count the miles he’s hiked with me, the number of poop bags I’ve used, the hours I’d spend just scratching his ears.

And, despite a few idiosyncrasies, he’s a mostly happy pet. His story has had a pretty good ending—born out of a storm and living a life surrounded by people who love him, with a world to romp in, soft places to sleep, and food at regular intervals.

This dog doesn’t loom over my life and thinking like a Cassandric reminder of Hurricane Katrina, of deeply rooted national race and classism, of bureaucratic ineptitude on a deadly scale, of broken infrastructure, of climate change.

Except, sometimes, he does.

Why do I have this dog? Because the world fell apart.

And the world falls apart, constantly.

When I can stomach it these days, I follow the news. Droughts destroying food production. Fires burning up forests and towns, homes. Wars of faith and greed, killing innocents and sowing grief and horror. Carbon emissions rising and rising, the weather becoming unpredictable, the climates unrecognizable. Politics that are more anger than brains, with the heart almost totally lost.

Is it any wonder that people are desperate, are streaming out of their homelands, emigrating in search of peace, safety, and the resources to rebuild their lives?

Looking smaller, I can and do see the seeds of good change: almost everyone I know owns a bike and uses it regularly, small farms and local markets are growing in huge numbers, solar panels are increasingly normal, the economic collapse forced people to live and think a little smaller and smarter, America is beginning necessary and uncomfortable conversations about our racist culture and these movements are led by black people rather than liberal white politicians, more people than ever agree climate change is human-caused, and so on.

But when I look to the root causes of everything, of what causes the climate to turn California’s farms to dust, to burn up the West, to melt Iceland and freeze Atlanta, to flood Tuvalu, New York City, England, what causes so many parties to rub sharp elbows with each other in the Middle East, it all comes back to the simple fact that we use too much fossil fuel.

All of the post-crisis solutions—from rebuilding New Orleans to small scale local farming and creative zoning to make communities more walkable to the grounding constancy my weird little dog has provided me personally to opening borders to crisis-made emigrants—all of these are good and necessary and somewhat beautiful in the way that repair is a sign of love. We like to say that the best of humanity comes out in the darkest of times. I agree, I’ve seen it, and even been a better self when the chips are down—but I believe that the pat phrase takes responsibility for causing the darkest of times away from humanity ourselves.

Because who else causes war, burns the carbon that mutates storm cycles, puts other people in unventilated trucks, takes bribes and ignores crumbling infrastructure?

No God or ecological system I could believe in would do so, which leaves us mortals who run everything else on the planet as responsible for most of the evil stuff.

With every press of a power button, mile driven or flown, unthinking purchase, we participate in creating the darkest of times for someone else. It is not a clear line between powering up the computer—even to write about climate change and global justice—and floods, fires, famine, and refugees, but the links are there, and obvious once you start to look and think beyond the headlines, once you erase the relative distance between yourself and the world.

We are all culpable, and at this point, it’s not about becoming more or less guilty than your neighbor, or about self-importantly justifying your own actions[1]. We are in this together, from the most liberal off-the-grid hippy to the Koch brothers. We are a culture of unthinking and selfish rapacity, and in our ignorance is our hideous complicit culpability.

Reversing that, I would like to see a culture of thoughtful minimalism, that from our intelligence, that from our interconnectedness, from our ability to be the best in the worst of times, comes an awareness and responsibility to live the solutions daily.

We will not, cannot, stop the storms and upheavals that previous actions are already causing, but we can, we must, stop our habits and cycles before the world falls apart completely. Let our hearts grow larger and our own needs grow smaller. Let us be our best, always.

[1] I carpooled home from a climate change rally a few years ago with a young activist who argued that she needed her phone, laptop, and constant electricity and internet because of the difference she was trying to make in the world, but that other people should use less than her. If someone needs the same to keep in touch with loved ones, is that a less worthy use? It is a foolish and furious road to go down—trying to equate and supersede your choices above others.


  1. Lovely, BT. Perhaps a 'relative closeness' to things raw and painful allows us to look at them straight on, to have the honest conversations....and, in your case, turn collective challenges into beauty of thought and word.