I can see The Age of Consequences from my home.
We live on a former ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico, that is now a subdivision with more than two thousand houses. Due to its proximity to a center of colonial Spanish, Mexican, and American administrations, as well as the Santa Fe Trail, the land where live has hosted a variety of livestock for nearly 400 years. In the 1950s, the owner of the 13,000-acre ranch invested in new wells, dirt tanks, roads and a ranch house complex, complete with a swimming pool, in an effort to create a prosperous cattle operation on the property. This effort continued for two decades, right up to the day the ranch was sold to a real estate company, who had a different definition of prosperity in mind.
Of all the artifacts left over from the ranch’s heyday, the one that I’ve watched closely over the years are the old dirt roads.
When we moved to the subdivision in 2003, the former ranch roads were still in decent shape, especially in the greenbelts where houses were excluded. Mostly two-tracks, the roads were easy to follow. As my wife and I walked our dogs and chatted side-by-side, we could pick out features of the ranch as we strolled, including dirt tanks for cattle and evidence of tree-cutting from days long gone. There was a timelessness at play in these parts of the old ranch, a feeling that despite the crop of houses, the land in between hadn’t changed much over the decades – a feeling that history would endure somehow.
I don’t feel that way anymore.
Today, the ranch roads are essentially gone, washed away or eroded into ditches by a series of catastrophic rainstorms over the last five years. In the summer of 2011, five inches of rain fell in a single afternoon – in a land that is lucky to get ten inches all year. Chased from an outdoor basketball game that afternoon, I watched the deluge from the shelter of the community center. As soon as it ended, I hurried to a nearby greenbelt and our favorite ranch road, fearful that it had been transformed.
It had. As if by magic, two-foot headcuts (dry waterfalls) had appeared in the old road where none had existed before – and by “before” I mean all of the 20th century and probably much longer. There had been big storms in the past, of course, but to our trained eyes destruction on this scale was not visible – until now. Subsequent deluges, including a monster two summers ago, have unraveled what was left of the old road altogether. We still go for pleasant walks on it with our dogs, but now we walk in single file on a trail that is a challenge to navigate in places. I doubt many people today would recognize it as a former road. What once endured disappeared in only a handful of years.
It’s the Age of Consequences in our backyards.
I’m certain there are many similar stories from many other backyards around the nation and the world. Call it what you will – weather weirdness, climate disruption, global warming – what’s happening is something new under the sun. As our ranch road continues to teach us, what we considered ‘normal’ will continue to erode, one storm at a time, until we can’t recognize it any longer. Change happens, of course, but there’s something about this change that looks and feels very different. There’s a way to describe it – which I’ll explain by way of another backyard story.
Some years ago, Craig Allen, an old friend and colleague, stopped by the office to catch up. He’s a forest ecologist stationed at Bandelier National Monument, in northern New Mexico, and his career is representative of the transition conservation science has undergone, as well as its likely future trajectory.
When I first met Craig, more than twenty years ago, his focus was on ecological change at landscape scales in the Jemez Mountains, in which Bandelier is nestled. His approach was a systems one; he studied the interlocking variables of ecological function, historical use, and plant and animal community dynamics in order to understand more clearly the condition of the forest. And what he discovered was worrisome. Specifically, he worried about forest “thickening” due to decades of fire suppression, overgrazing, and other human activities.
In 1998, Craig summarized his concern in an article for the Quivira Coalition titled “Where Have All the Grasslands Gone?” His research revealed that open, grassy areas in the Jemez Mountains were shrinking, due to tree encroachment, at the alarming rate of 1 percent per year. What was missing was fire.
“Most forests, woodlands, and grasslands in northern New Mexico evolved with frequent, low-intensity fires,” he wrote. “The removal of the natural process of fire by human suppression has disrupted these ecosystems in many ways [these areas] need to be restored to more open conditions to protect both ecological values and human communities.”
In the next phase of his career, Craig ‘walked the talk’ of forest restoration by implementing innovative experiments at Bandelier, becoming an enthusiastic advocate of adaptive management in the process. As a result of this fieldwork, Craig joined a chorus of forest ecologists advocating proactive policies and practices aimed at returning ecosystems to health in the Southwest, principally by restoring natural fire cycles.
Today, Craig is focused on the threat posed to forests by global warming. He thinks the dangers have the potential to be catastrophic not only for trees but also for the animal communities that depend on them, including us. His goal is resilience – figuring out ways to keep a forest healthy in the face of a changing climate. His research, however, says things don’t look rosy under Business-as-Usual scenarios. “The possibility exists,” he told me that day in my office, “that a 5 degree Celsius warming of the planet could wipe out entire plant communities, including the forests.”
But it was something that Craig said at the end of our meeting that brought home the Age of Consequences for me.
He had been asked to speak to a gathering of federal land managers about the climate crisis. They were looking for options and advice on how to meet that challenge. “What they told me,” Craig said, “was that nothing in their education or experience had prepared them for what was coming down the road in terms of climate. Their training was for a stable climate, they said, not one that was changing. They literally had no idea what to do. They were facing an unprecedented future for which they were not prepared.”
The words stuck in my mind: an unprecedented future.
For most of his career, Craig focused on a traditional goal of the conservation movement: fighting scarcity. Unhealthy forests, disappearing meadows, eroding topsoils, too few “cool” natural fires, too many “hot” catastrophic fires, and not enough grass are all indicators of scarcity at work – the scarcity of properly functioning ecosystems. His restoration work aimed at reversing such declines, at replacing scarcity with health and abundance.
Today, however, Craig is working beyond scarcity. He is confronting the specter of loss. Craig and his colleagues predict that the pine forests of New Mexico, as a result of repeated fires, will likely transition to shrublands over the next century. Hotter and drier conditions under climate change are already feeding record fire seasons across the West and Alaska. When trees burn up and seedlings can’t get established as a consequence of repeated scorching, forests die. In a recent interview for the New York Times, Craig said “The future in a lot of places is looking shrubbier.”
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, I suppose. If you love forests and the plants and animals they shelter, you probably consider this news to be sad. If you love shrublands, this might be good news. Either way, the transition is underway. In the Age of Consequences, the unprecedented future has arrived.
Walking the ranch roads where we live over the last few years and thinking about forests and the bigger picture, I’ve come up with five principles (small p) for living in the Age of Consequences that I’d like to share. They’re solely my opinions – use them or not as you like:
1) Stop living in denial. The previous era is over and gone. We live now in a period of transition between what was and what will be. Exactly what our unprecedented future has in store for us isn’t clear yet, but what is clear is that our actions today will greatly influence tomorrow. We can’t implement those actions, however, if we continue to live in the past – which we’re still doing, big time. Simply acknowledging that we live in new era (whatever you want to call it) is a critical first step to slipping the bonds of denial.
2) Solutions exist. Because we live in an era of big problems, we tend to spend our time thinking of big solutions. Thinking big, however, can have a paralyzing effect on taking action. Let’s concentrate on the wide variety of low-cost, practical solutions available right now, not in some distant future. There are many innovative practices, for example, that soak up carbon dioxide in soils, reduce energy use, sustainably intensify food production, and increase water quality and quantity. Pick one that motivates you and support it in any way that you can.
3) Explore and share. Despite the daily cascade of dire predictions, sobering studies, and gloomy headlines, it’s still a beautiful, diverse, amazing world. Go see as much as of it as you can, starting in your own backyard. Share what you find with others. In particular, seek out Age of Consequences stories and explain them to the world. Share research, create art, give a lecture, write a book, post a photo, call a friend – whatever you like to do, big or small, to communicate what it means to be alive today.
4) Focus on the little normals. These are things that have persisted over the millennia: such as the way water moves across the land, or the love a parent feels for a child. We need food to live. We like to work and enjoy relaxing, as we always have. We need a sense of community, we like to belong. We like to live in proximity to other people. We feel a deep affection for animals. We are moved by spiritual concerns. All of these things persist in the Age of Consequences and can form the foundation for our actions.
5) Don’t despair. I did. I got over it by concentrating on the four principles described above. Despair is an eddy in the river of life – don’t let it catch you. Force yourself back into the flow of the water, move on, go places, hug people, sing a song.
More on Craig Allen:
You can pre-order my forthcoming book 2% Solutions for the Planet: 50 Low-Cost, Low-Tech, Nature-Based Practices for Combatting Hunger, Drought, and Climate Change. See: http://www.chelseagreen.com/two-percent-solutions-for-the-planet]
My web site: http://www.awestthatworks.com