The Problem of the Power of One (by Nick Baker)

Sometimes, I turn on the TV and despair. An over inundation of materialistic, self-centered concepts pervade entertainment and advertising. Themes of individual powerlessness in the face of a burgeoning corporatocracy abound. Reverence for life and beauty of form is reserved for an ephemeral elite; those that can jet away to pristine islands or remote mountains carrying thousands of dollars’ worth of specially engineered equipment to better benefit their commune with nature. It’s as if the outdoors has become a private club and the iron gate barring entry of the great unwashed has been reduced to a Chase Bank credit card.

True too, our fetishization of the apocalyptic has seemed only to grow after the passing of Y2K and the end of the Mayan Calendar. Superheroes and supervillains fill the screen, wrecking the decades old efforts of nations to build infrastructure, as they fight for dominance of ideology and physical supremacy. Most recently, in Avenger:, Age of Ultron, an entire town and small forest was scooped from the earth to be used as a meteor, with the intent of causing a second extinction event. It’s almost like we’re wishing our demise into being, first through willful inaction and then through glorification. I don’t know quite when or how it happened to be that way. I grew up believing that five normal kids from different ends of the earth could come together with special magic rings and combat the ills of society through the invocation of a green-mulleted, silver-skinned surfer dude. I sat at the feet of a quirky, birdlike Pacific Northwestern engineer who would regularly set things on fire to demonstrate how cool and accessible science was for everyone. Somewhere between my childhood and my adulthood, Bill Nye gave way to the domineering and unreachable Tony Stark, and the idea that anyone could be an astronaut was supplanted by the conviction that anyone could make a sex tape while on a marriage competition reality show and become a huge internet sensation. But I digress, and will forego my soap-box rocking chair to simply ponder: how can I, how can anyone be of aid to the problems that face society today? Am I fighting an uphill battle against a tide of apathy and scientific illiteracy? Can anyone really make a difference?

I’ve been volunteering at Friends of Trees, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting afforestation (the process of reestablishing forests where none are present) in as many places as possible. It’s a simple mission statement with a simple, hopeful, and easily measurable outcome; plant a tree and watch the world grow healthy. Now, I was raised by an ex-catholic, New-Jersey bred mother; suspicion was hammered into my being from a very early age. Nothing could be so simple, otherwise our political representatives wouldn’t be fighting so bitterly about the very definition of climate change, to say nothing of actually doing something about it. Well, the people who volunteer there believe otherwise. Maybe this is what is so patronizingly referred to as folk wisdom; the notion that we motes of dust with delusions of grandeur could be greater than our most destructive achievements by tapping into and working with an already perfect system seems out of another time. And yet there’s a demure elegance to it; Friends of Trees, like many other small nonprofits, seems to rely on the ripple effect to further their goals.

When I started there, brimming with questions, I was referred to an innocuous little website touting choice morsels of “tree facts”. The website asserted that by the time a tree reaches its 40th birthday it will have sequestered one ton of carbon dioxide in its system (American Forests, 2015). A little late night searching led me to the estimate that about 36 billion tons of carbon dioxide was released into the atmosphere in 2013 alone (CO2Now, 2014). Not counting the compounded interest of emissions from the beginning of our reliance on coal and gasoline powered transportation, that 36 billion would be offset by the planting of 36 billion trees, or about five trees per person alive on the planet today (including babies and the very elderly). Maybe that’s not such a tall order if we take it in drips and drabs. Spread over five years, each person would only have to plant one tree a year; something very doable. My spirits began to rise.

They were subsequently crushed when I realized all these trees would potentially be supplanting all the bacon and steak that deforestation has made possible. Leaving aside crusades for a vegan lifestyle, in-vitro meat production, or the push for anthropod-based cuisine as a substitute for protein requirements, I worried for the state of big agri-business everywhere. If there’s anything that breeds recalcitrance against change in our nation, it’s the notion of supplanting the pastoral idealism of American farmers. Given just under 40% of Americans are “concerned believers” in the threat of global warming (Gallup, 2014), that leaves a whopping 60% of Americans either sitting idly by or aggressively pushing their representatives to maintain the status quo. Contrast this with a Pew poll on the difference between viewpoints held by scientists and the general public around the positive impact science has brought to our way of life; 57% of the populace believe the scientific community is divided over the issue of climate change even existing (Pew, 2014) as opposed to the 87% of scientists who are in agreement that it’s happening and is caused by us. Given this, I begin to see just how staggering the cognitive dissonance is in our nation. It’s suddenly understandable that more people aren’t getting upset at government inaction and corporate malfeasance on pollution. It’s like the old tale of how to successfully boil a frog; throw a frog in a boiling pot of water and it will resist, but a frog in a warm pot of water with the heat slowly raised will never know it’s being cooked. We appear to be frogs in a warm bath, blithely oblivious of the fact that our habitat is turning on us.

Often I wonder what happened to the mass resistance and propagation of anti-establishment propaganda? Where are the hippies surrounding corporations in a daisy chain, putting flowers in the barrels of guns? What happened to the scourge of Earth First! Saboteurs and that Italian guy dressed in fake Indian garb crying at a thrown soda can? Presumably they either burned out after the Iraq War and Occupy protests or they’re passively (or perhaps passive-aggressively) resisting through local means, like those involved in Friends of Trees. During my time with the organization, I’ve questioned my own commitment; if a long game is the only winnable strategy, do I personally have the patience? I see myself more as the hare than the tortoise, and I’m not sure that slow and steady will win this race against a bleak dystopian Mad Max-esque hell-scape. But given few other options, perhaps I have little choice.

There’s a famous Gary Larsen comic where a man is rolling a trough of coal in hell, whistling while he works. Two devils look on and one says to the other “You know, we’re just not reaching that guy.” The people I’ve met in this organization have the same attitude. Like Sisyphus, they shoulder an impossible burden uphill; a geas they undertook of their own free will. There is some nobility in that and perhaps their unvoiced motto of “do as I do” will eventually overtake that of varied interests intent on keeping the status quo through a policy of “do as I say”. Perhaps Robert F. Kennedy put it best, in his Day of Affirmation speech:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.” (The Conversation)

And so, the work continues.

Cited Works:

“Tree Facts | American Forests.” American Forests. American Forests, 2015. Web. 30 May 2015. https://www.americanforests.org/discover-forests/tree-facts/

“CO2 Now.” Global Carbon Emissions. Prooxygen.org, 2014. Web. 30 May 2015. http://co2now.org/Current-CO2/CO2-Now/global-carbon-emissions.html

Saad, Lydia. “One in Four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming.” One in Four in U.S. Are Solidly Skeptical of Global Warming. Gallup Inc., 22 Apr. 2014. Web. 29 May 2015. http://www.gallup.com/poll/168620/one-four-solidly-skeptical-global-warming.aspx

Funk, Cary, and Rainie, Lee. “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society.” Pew Research Centers Internet American Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 28 May 2015. http://www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/

Kennedy, Robert F. “Bobby Kennedy Made This Speech to the Young People of South Africa on Their Day of Affirmation in 1966.” THE CONVERSATION. Suzanne Taylor, n.d. Web. 02 June 2015. <http://theconversation.org/&gt;.

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2 comments

  1. R.V.

    Nick, what a wonderfully provocative and yet deeply resonating piece you have here. Indeed there are so many ways that we are destroying ourselves, our self image, our self worth, our decades-old societal values, the very planet that gives us life. We blindly put faith in whichever lifestyle seems to be most relevant, without stopping to examine if its something of value or not. We embrace fiction as if it were real, and we have since found ourselves on a journey towards actualizing it.

    It is quite disappointing that the public cannot firmly grasp the reality of what it is were are doing to ourselves and our planet. Each day our actions bring us closer to that dystopian future that has become such popular science-fiction, but I wonder if we will even live long enough to know what that truly means.

    This is a great reminder that we ultimately control our own fate. Each day we make hundreds of choices, and each one impacts are lives as well as those of future generations. The things we chose to believe, the values we support, the words we chose to say, the things we purchase, what we eat and what we discard. There is so much room for change, and it can be done without disturbing our own lives, as each change is so small on its own. The first step is making the choice to take control again.

  2. Yanwen Wang

    Nick
    Thanks for sharing this important topic with us, it was very powerful and provocative. I agree with you that the forest is not only trees, they also contribute to our environment by resolving the carbon dioxide that produced by cars and other industrial development. You also listed many statistics of evidence to convince your readers that the seriousness of the situation, and provides your argument of solution and the engagement that one individual can commit to.

    Your introduction was very thorough and covers the information one might want to know. It is so true as you cite, “few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events.” Maybe you cannot wait and see the day of change comes, but if we do not start changing today, how can that day comes?We should celebrate the start and see as a victory by realizing the situation and wanting to help.
    -Yanwen

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