A little girl whose family was camped at Itasca State Park this week got a scolding from mom as they tidied their site and prepared to retire for the night.
"What’s this?” mom asked, brandishing a candy wrapper. “You took off the wrapper and just tossed it here?”
The girl, maybe 4 or 5 years old, slumped in guilt. But in a gentler voice, mom reminded her of Article 1 in the Camper’s Code of Ethics:
“Remember, we always want to leave a place better than we found it,” she said, and Little Camper nodded.
You could not help but think about the Earth and our stewardship of it this week, especially in a place like Itasca, withering through another heat wave that has led park rangers to impose a total fire ban. Making s’mores over a propane stove isn’t quite the same as holding sticks tipped with marshmallows over a blazing campfire. But the grounds are dry, and in Canada, Greece and California, woods and homes are burning.
A highlight of my stay this past week in Itasca’s Pine Ridge campground was getting a good, close look at a black bear, but bears were getting a little too social earlier this year, a park worker told me. Drought hurt the berry crop. The bears were hungry. New posters went up in the campgrounds: Attend to your food and garbage. What to do and not to do if a bear approaches you.
The Wilderness Drive that circumnavigates the park was closed Tuesday, “due to high winds and falling trees.”
And if you checked into the news, you read or heard about the major new United Nations report on climate change, concluding that “a hotter future … is now essentially locked in,” as the New York Times reported. Without substantial and immediate changes in human impact, the future is bleak.
We’ve had plenty of warnings. My camp reading this trip includes a volume of columnist Ernie Pyle’s reports from the 1930s. This from his account of wandering the Great Plains in 1936:
“In that world of drought you finally arrived at a point where you looked and no longer said, ‘My God, this is awful!’ You became accustomed to dried field and burned pasture. Day upon day of driving through that ruined country gradually made you accept it as a vast land that had been that way yesterday and would be tomorrow, and was that way a hundred miles back and would be a hundred miles ahead. The story was the same everywhere: the farmers said the same thing, the fields looked the same – it became like the drone of a bee, and after a while you hardly noticed it at all.
“It was only at night, when you were alone in the heat and unable to sleep, that the thing came back to you like a living dream, and you once more realized the stupendousness of it. Then you could see something more than field after brown field, or a mere succession of dry water holes, or the matter-of-fact resignation on farm faces. You could see then the whole obliteration of a great land, and the destruction of a people and long years of calamity for those of the soil, and the emptiness of life that knows only struggle and ends in despair.”
Pyle confessed that he was sometimes overwhelmed on a hot, sleepless night “that there was nothing but leanness everywhere, that nobody had the privilege of a full life.” That was an overly dark outlook, he wrote, drawn from witnessing western Kansas “stripped of all life, a onetime paradise turned into a whirlpool of suffocation … and the vast rolling Dakotas, where huge herds once grazed with the freedom of birds, now parched and cramped and manhandled by man and the elements into a bed of coals.”
Manhandled by man.
Climate change is real. Human impact on climate is undeniable.
“Nations have delayed curbing their fossil-fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years,” the Times reported, citing the UN report, “though there is still a short window to prevent the most harrowing future.”
That future? “Nearly 1 billion people worldwide could swelter in more frequent life-threatening heat waves. Hundreds of millions more would struggle for water because of severe droughts. Some animal and plant species alive today will be gone. Coral reefs, which sustain fisheries for large swaths of the globe, will suffer more frequent mass die-offs.”
A British climate scientist who contributed to the massive study said, “We can expect a significant jump in extreme weather over the next 20 or 30 years. Things are unfortunately likely to get worse than they are today.”
Moving away from fossil fuels will be hard, and incredibly hard for some, including people and companies engaged in coal and oil and governments grown dependent on extractive industry.
But we have to do it. We have to do it now.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.