This is a blog exploring the challenges and steps to creating a sustainable and secure energy future.
My name is Jing Jin, and I am a senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. I am a College Scholar studying Environmental Literature and History, English, and Asian Studies.
Check out my work in the Cornell Daily Sun: http://cornellsun.com/users/jing-jin/track
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This is not a piece on energy or climate issues, just something that I wrote.
When my aunt passed away suddenly this January, I thought I might be better prepared to grieve because I had been studying the process of it. Over the summer, researching trauma for my thesis led me to reading about grief. I had yet to suffer the death of anyone close to me, so I had never extensively thought about death and grief in a personal, much less an academic, manner. Not far into my reading list, I found myself gravitating away from clinical studies of trauma and loss to literary, lyrical, and personal ones.
I became absorbed in The Long Goodbye, the writer Meghan O’Rourke’s account of losing her mother, because although I didn’t recognize the process of grieving someone, I did immediately recognize the process of turning to literature to cope. With any hardship, I have been recommended to read such and such book or to work through my emotional turmoil by writing. In poetry and particularly in elegies, I have encountered the theme of death again and again. When death visited my world, I expected that I would turn to any number of cherished lines, but my immediate response was not aesthetic.
Grief made its way out of me not from the refined site of literary sensibility but from the baser pool of instinct. I first needed someone to just hold me and hear me babble. It was only when I was ready to be physically alone that I found myself in the company of familiar words: “Do not go gentle into that good night,” “Now granite in a granite hill,” and “Break, break, break.”
A month has now passed, and the echoes of my grief resound in those words, but I’ve given no voice to it myself. My concern isn’t the same as Milton’s in “Lycidas” that I have plucked the brown laurels’ “Berries harsh and crude, / And with forc’d fingers rude,” but that my fingers have idled for too long. Yet, for thoughts that have had time to mature, poetry is arguably a better vessel than prose. An image or line may come in a flash, but a poem is a refined object. This is especially true for Classical forms like elegy. My encounters with traditional styles have always been through formal study rather than personal exploration. Although traditions lend sacredness, beauty, and comfort to the process of death, it can feel mechanical to make a grave personal matter the occasion for a formal exercise. In “Lycidas,” Milton is able to achieve an intimate and singular portrayal of grief even within the traditional bounds of pastoral elegy.
The speaker’s voice is often so strong in an elegy that it is more accurate to say that the subject is the mourner, not the mourned. I find this honest, rather than inappropriate or immodest. Lamentation is more difficult than remembrance, and elegy more difficult than eulogy, because triteness is less tolerated in grief than in praise. Milton is conscious of this aesthetic pressure, and “Lycidas” is a powerful poem for his willingness to foreground his personal reaction to King’s death.
I relate deeply to Milton’s grappling with King’s unknown resting place. Despite all the time I gave to thinking about death and grief, I never settled on a belief of where a person went after death. Since I am not religious, there is no straightforward theological answer, and I have always been turned off by the exclusivity of heaven. This question of my aunt’s resting place became deeply troubling, and I felt the need to create a story of her afterlife. Milton himself or his audience of mourners is genuinely disturbed by King’s turbulent death at sea. The poet exercises aesthetic license to provide some mental ease by reworking King’s resting place as a field of flowers – Primrose, Jessamine, and Pansy.
Pastoral elegies satisfy my need to make the experience of seasons part of my experience of mourning. Death puts me in an otherworldly frame of mind. Even if I had been in the presence of others who were mourning my aunt, it would have been difficult to connect with them. I found it much easier to position myself in a winterscape than in a social landscape and to let snow-dusted hills witness my grief than the countenance of a kind friend. Frosted limbs and blanketed lawns served as my audience just as “th’Oaks and rills” were for the “uncouth Swain.”
I have since rudely forgotten all that my friends said to console me, but I still remember walking in the chilled air after finding out the news. O’Rourke says that the first year is the most difficult – that first Christmas and first birthday pregnant with loss instead of joy – and it is also in this sense that seasons are important. When I again feel air that cold, a year of loss and mourning, a rite of passage, will have been observed.
The end of an elegy usually offers insufficient consolation. Take the last line of Marvell’s “Upon the Death of Lord Hastings,” “And art indeed is long, but life is short.” It sounds too tidy, as if capping the elegy with an explanation. I prefer the last line of “Lycidas,” “Tomorrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new.” The gesture of forward movement in time and space echoes the movement of the day-star, which is symbolic of the passing of time. Perhaps because my grief is still fresh, I prefer that gesture toward a transition in the process of grieving and not toward its resolution.
This is not the most substantive piece in terms of sociology, ecology, or economics, but it contextualizes North Dakota’s current oil boom within the state’s history of waves of resource booms and busts. Chip Brown (http://www.chipbrown.net/index.html) is a contributor to the Magazine, and his experience in nature writing, spirituality (Afterwards, You’re a Genius: Faith, Medicine and the Metaphysics of Healing, published 1998), and biography (Good Morning Midnight: Life and Death in the Wild, published 2003) shows through in his lyricism and attention to personal histories.
Brown briefly recounts the state’s recent oil development history, beginning with the 1950s, when it was discovered, and the boom of the late 1970s, when oil crises drove up prices. The last oil boom was 30 years ago, and most recently the technology of horizontal drilling, or hydraulic fracturing, has made the Williston Basin, and in particular the Bakken Rock Formation, one of the nation’s most important oil producing regions. Willston is also gaining the U.S. renown for rising to 5th in the world for gas flares, which are environmentally destructive, wasteful, and a shock to the senses. Up to one third of the gas from the oil wells are flared off because gas lines and processing facilities did not precede drilling.
These advances, as always, have been capitalized on by self-stylized petro-preneurs such as Loren Kopseng, with minimal reviews and oversight by the government. Mostly, it’s a Hallelujah, as writer Clay S. Jenkinson (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clay_S._Jenkinson) attests to: “It’s our gold rush, our Silicon Valley. It reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death.”
I want to lean on this predicament of the resource rush, not only because it leaves behind a quiet frontier when the bubble bursts, but because it always produces lasting social and ecological consequences. Williston has tripled in population in the past decade, and Ward Koeser, president of the Williston City Commission, has found himself presented with a big juicy apple that may just be too large to bite into. He admits, "it’s just happening too fast. Every master plan the city has prepared is obsolete by the time it’s printed. You’d like to have more time to think things through, but everybody is in such a rush.” The flip side of making a mighty quick buck is communities and houses that are hurriedly designed and poorly constructed. More devastatingly, it means development that presumes we can make the environment and people healthy when it’s all over, and we’re all richer.
Kopseng brags that he doesn’t gamble because “the oil and gas business is gambling,” but it seems that the biggest gamble of all is with North Dakota’s landscape and people.
(Source: The New York Times)
The World Without Us by Alan Weisman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One Earth, No Humans
Science fiction, according to Ursula Le Guin in the introduction to her novel Left Hand of Darkness, is a thought experiment. This mode of inquiry is not limited to fiction, and in The World Without Us, seasoned journalist Alan Weisman asks the radical, post-apocalyptic question: what would the world be like if every human being vanished tomorrow?
This proposition seems absurd and is likely scientifically implausible because even an astronomical or epidemic event that wipes out 99.9 percent of the current population would still leave behind a sizable number of people. Casting statistical reality aside, Weisman turns to experts in fields such as engineering, agriculture, paleontology, and physics to scientifically explore how life on Earth, as we’ve helped to create it, will fare in our absence.
Weisman pursues this line of intellectual inquiry in four stages, and he starts by grappling with the impact human existence has had. To the extent that the world once existed as an Eden, wherever humans have spread, we have encroached upon it. The Białowieża Puszcza in Poland is one of the few remaining places where we can glimpse Europe’s primeval forest, which has been felled to build homes and eventually cities. This sense of loss encompasses not only that of an unspoiled landscape but also of the menagerie of giant creatures (sloths, mammoths, and bison) that populated it. Weisman sets us up to consider whether, without us, there will be a return to this mystical past, or whether human endeavors have already set the world on a radically different course.
For those well versed in the science of climate change, the next section of the book makes a familiar case for the latter option. Our very existence has always been predicated upon the organic and chemical enrichment of soils and the manipulation of plant and animal reproduction (and eventually even their genetic makeup) for our sustenance. Successes in cultivation freed up human ingenuity to harness energy and produce material goods. In two case studies, of Houston’s petrochemical industry and of the dramatic proliferation of plastics, which are petroleum byproducts, Weisman echoes existing ecological alarms. There is now “more plastic by weight than plankton on the ocean’s surface,” and even infinitesimally small fragments will not degrade until bacteria evolve to consume them.
It seems then that the world as a whole would benefit from the halting of resource consumption and material production that would result from our annihilation. To be sure, forests will reclaim tracts of farmland, but Weisman goes on to make an unsettling case that the destructive effects we have set in motion will continue far beyond our physical existence. It is impossible to safeguard against the natural deterioration or post-human disturbance of nuclear weaponry and waste. One nuclear site has warning signs posted in seven languages and pictographs, but the highest forms of human intelligence are still categorically human and limit our ability to warn other forms of life.
Once the thought experiment touches on our nuclear legacy, it would seem that it’s game over. However, this is the point in the book where possibilities open up. Weisman provides an account of the emotionally overwhelming experience of witnessing the nuclear waste site Chernobyl being inhabited by birds and even human squatters. The sight sounds horrific and is the premise of the recent horror film Chernobyl Diaries, but for Weisman, Chernobyl and the wildlife refuge that has inadvertently arisen in the Demilitarized Zone (between North and South Korea) are also sites of hope. It is here that the author posits the question of the human geologic record not as one of inevitability but as one of choice.
The book’s final part looks at attempts to transcend the human. Engineers, space scientists, and artists have experimented with transferring human intelligence to machines and transmitting human culture (including speech and music) to other life forms. There are also those who hope to transcend the desire most innate to humans and to life: to live on in our descendants. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement proposes removing us as an ecological actor altogether so that others may thrive. The existence of VHEMT reveals Weisman’s thought experiment as being neither original nor wholly intellectual.
In the coda, the science journalist sets down the torch of objectivity to ally with VHEMT and argue that the “intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.” By the time he makes his recommendation, Weisman has succeeded in providing a survey of what the experts predict will be humans’ legacy. He stops short of the fatality that VHEMT advocates, but his proposition is too briefly described and comes too late in the book to be convincing. He does not prepare us to imagine the degree to which a reduced human population will still be poignant or the degree to which business as usual will be more distressing.
Perhaps, Weisman intends this book to spur related thought experiments for other writers to tackle. Those who enjoy science writing that is stylistically attuned and culturally reflexive will find this book worthwhile. Those of us who are invested in tackling the issues of human-environment relations that confront humanity’s future will find the book sufficient only as a starting place. To propose that reproduction will simply be reduced for each female individual evades the questions of justice that are so wrapped up in humans’ relationship to the environment. Each individual has not contributed equally to the destruction that has already transpired or is expected to. Weisman’s account, which spans human history, covers the world, and ranges from polymers to megafauna, is weakened by not considering the spectrum of differences in individuals’ contributions to both climate problems and solutions.
View all my reviews
[To the Point] A Battle over the Future of Coal
With a declining market for coal in the United States, the coal industry wants to export its product to China, where demand is bigger than ever. What would rail traffic and new port construction mean for the environment and the “clean economy” of the Pacific Northwest? What about global warming?