P.R. makes Martha’s Vineyard out to be a playground of the rich. My parents both were born here and my ancestors have been here since probably the 1620s (according to what Mr. Railton called the Pease legend). My mother’s father, Ellsworth Luce West, was the last living Vineyard whaling captain when he died in 1949 on his farm in Chilmark. Truck farming was normal life during the last Depression. My other grandfather, a doctor in Edgartown, was often enough paid in eggs and chickens. (Dr. Bob Nevin, his nephew who took over his practice, is more remembered today.)
A century is not so very long ago. My parents told me that in those days the only ones interested in a water view were cows. Now, with the prospect of rising sea level, storm surges, and erosion, we’re glad enough to be where our ancestors planted roots for us on higher ground.
For climate change is a certainty, bringing a higher sea level and storms of greater frequency and strength, though no one can predict with certainty the extent and timing of these changes.
What will replace the trucking industry and ferry service when the carbon bubble bursts? For burst it surely will. More and more investors, institutional and private, recognize that 80 per cent of the coal, oil, and gas that fossil fuel companies count as assets can never be extracted and burned, because if they are burned we will all die.
This Island is a microcosm of our island in space, the earth. The scientists who look at the vital signs of our planet tell us that earth cannot sustain life as we know it if the proportion of carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere persists at more than 350 parts per million. In the historical record we see a rising curve, slow at first: 280 parts per million in 1750, 300 in 1900, 310 in 1950. The year 1987 was the last year CO2 was under that liveable threshold of 350 parts per million. We reached 370 parts per million in 2000, and just recently we surpassed 400, continuing to rise at about two parts per million a year.
The last time the atmosphere of our planet had that much carbon dioxide was in the Pliocene era, more than 2.5 million years ago. The Arctic was forests instead of ice, average temperature was about five degrees warmer (three degrees C), and the sea level was 17 feet (five meters) or more higher.
Our youngest daughter and many of her peers are closely concerned with resilience and sustainable ways of living. The combustion economy is not sustainable.
Vineyarders are a hardy lot. We will deal with what comes our way. We always have. But we’re looking at an avoidable wreck here. Unless we collectively stave it off, we cannot count on the continuance of the tourist economy. We cannot count on the continuance of construction employment. We cannot count on reliable ferry service bringing the groceries and store goods from far places.
Those complex carbon-based substances are a gift of vegetation in ancient millennia of earth’s long life. Surely there are more creative things to do with them than to burn them up. Can we collectively wean ourselves from the combustion economy? Can those fossil fuel companies turn to new uses for their buried carbon? Can they pivot to support the non-combustion sources of energy that they will need to sustain the new industries that must be created? Such are our hopes. But we can’t count on it.
There are positive actions that we each can take. Some may seem small, even trivial, in comparison to huge planet-wide processes. But this vast exhalation of carbon dioxide is an accumulation from countless human activities, countless seemingly small donations of carbon dioxide, each in itself seeming to have little impact. Just so, each seemingly trivial green action you take is part of a gathering accumulation of change. So go ahead, install LED lights, replace your windows, get an electric car, be of good cheer! You can’t help doing your part, one way or the other, so let it be on the right side.
But the big single contributors, as we all know, are industrial. Another action we can all participate in is the divestment movement now under way. A divestment movement was decisive in ending apartheid in South Africa. As then, this divestment movement is beginning on the campuses of colleges and universities around the world, and spreading to involve more and more people. It is not only a moral responsibility, it is the financially responsible thing to divest from the carbon bubble before it bursts. This is a very big lever for change. If you have investments, or if you are now or will be beneficiary of a retirement fund, add your weight and help us all stave off an avoidable wreck so we can move on to far better ways of living here on this beautiful, generous planet.
And don’t forget to breathe.