To Miss the Rains Down in Africa
Updated: Jan 31, 2019
When ignoring climate change is a luxury we can't afford
|| In 2007, I was in elementary school. It’s difficult to remember all of the details from back then, but there are events and themes that characterize each of our life experiences that stay with us for years. For me, one of these characterizations was the Go Green trend that lasted a few years around that time. It’s possible that the trend I am about to describe was simply my own perception (probably not the most trustworthy at my young age), or a trend within my own family or community in Oklahoma City, but it seemed to me that America had caught a conservationist bug. I saw this at school, where I was taught to Reduce! Reuse! Recycle! through various programs and posters plastered around the school. At home, my mother randomly started rinsing, sorting, and transporting all recyclable materials to a local recycling depot. I heard encouragement to ‘save the planet’ indirectly and directly from plenty of sources - I remember getting a notebook that advertised being 100% Recycled! as a gift (ironically, I’ve lost track of it and wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was rotting in a landfill in this moment) - and one of my favorite shirts in fifth grade simply read “Green is the new black.” I can even recall vivid images of commercials featuring famous actors unplugging their lights and electronics. Even when it’s not on, it’s using electricity, they would say.
It was cool to recycle, to save electricity, or whatever. This enthusiasm to save the planet seemed to last a few years, before fading out.
It seemed to me, likely not until a few years later as a teenager, that this trend died out by 2010 or so. Maybe it was the effects of the financial crisis, or something else, but the passion I experienced previously had been replaced by cynicism. The leaders of my life had previously told me that I really could make a difference in the world by doing my part to recycle and conserve, and I wholeheartedly believed this message. But at this point, they seemed to be saying the opposite. I remember a time when my mom contradicted the messages she had shared with me previously. When I expressed my confusion at this, she flatly expressed that regardless of what changes we made in our lives, it was big corporations that were doing the most damage and that the repercussions of this would far outweigh any good we could do. In that moment I felt so hopeless in the face of the enormous crises that I felt, even then, threatened my future. I think this was a natural emotional response. Up until then, I had been fed many messages by the media and my community that future generations, including my own, were in serious danger due to global warming. I had a real sense that although I did not feel the consequences at the time, the lives of my own family and of any future children of mine were at stake if the world did not act to slow the gradual warming of the Earth.
This sense of crisis and anxiety existed in my mind before and beyond this moment, but at the same time, I recognized the truth in my mother’s words. As I heard these pessimistic sentiments repeated more often, and in many forms throughout my adolescence, I unconsciously became more complacent with the situation. I began to believe that I was not a threat to the planet, but that it was the fault of big business and our government for not doing more to protect our world. I also began to rely on the hope that a scientific breakthrough or discovery would save us. I engaged with these and many other coping mechanisms and thoughts to alleviate the sense of dread and responsibility I felt. Any time feelings of guilt would arise when I betrayed my conservationist values, I would push them away – and it worked.
Then, only in the last year, it became apparent to me that as much as I would like to ignore the role I play in climate change, to pin the blame on someone else, and to forget about the very real fact that the existence of our species is hanging in the balance, it is the wrong thing to do. It also won’t be possible to do for very much longer.
Ignoring climate change is a luxury that many people in the world no longer enjoy. This became obvious to me when I traveled to Cape Town, South Africa earlier this year to study for several months. At the time, Cape Town had been in a severe drought for about two years, and they were counting down to Day Zero – the day when the city would run out of water and nearly all taps in the city would be completely shut off. In my privileged American world, I wasn’t even aware of the crisis until a couple of weeks before I was scheduled to depart, despite the fact that it had been on-going for months (something I could never bring myself to admit to the friends I made there). The drought was a direct consequence of global warming – as the air around Antarctica warms, there are less cold jet streams blowing up towards South Africa. These cold winds bring the annual rains that South Africa relies on, but their absence has left the city of Cape Town in complete drought.
This has had a number of effects on the economy as a whole. Briefly, agriculture production has been significantly cut as water laws restrict the volume of water farmers have access to, diminishing food resources. Tourism, a large source of income for the economy, is beginning to feel the effects as consumers worry about how the water crisis will affect their trip. Of course, it’s at the individual level where these changes are most painful. Water laws are restricted to allow for 50L (about 13 gallons) of water usage per person, per day, and are monitored closely by the local government. This includes water needed to shower, wash hands, and drinking water – any usage of the municipal water resources went towards your daily total. Any household in violation of restrictions was subject to very heavy fines. Studies have shown that many wealthy Cape Town residents seemed indifferent to the crisis and were slow to change their habits, resulting in undue loss of the precious resource. While this undoubtedly generated funds for the government, you can’t drink currency. In contrast, what the crisis has meant for residents who can’t afford these fees (keep in mind millions in the country live below the poverty level) is conserving water on a daily basis and living under a new type of stress that attacks one of our most basic human needs. Frequently, households would be in danger of exceeding their daily allotment of water. In this case, someone would have to take a couple of water jugs down to the town center and wait in line to fill them up with municipal reserve water that was offered. I spoke with a man who did this frequently to provide for his family. He said that when he was unable to wait, he would resort to purchasing water jugs, but that the costs were adding up after months of living under the restrictions. Again, this is a country in which many inhabitants lack basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing.
While living in Cape Town, I joined the community in taking 90-second showers every other day, saving runoff water from these short showers and any hand washing I did in buckets to be reused to flush the toilets, and in fact avoiding flushing any toilet in general. We lived by the motto If it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down. Water was used only when absolutely necessary. While these adjustments to my behavior were difficult initially, I was able to get used to them fairly quickly. However, being confronted with the real effects of climate change happening now, in my lifetime, brought back the feeling of dread that I’ve been able to tuck away over the last few years – and it came back with a vengeance.
In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological needs of food, water, and rest are found at the very bottom of the pyramid. This widely accepted theory purports that humans are not able to attain the other things we need from life, such as friendship, love, and a sense of meaning in life, without this basic foundation. Living in a world where the basic need of water is under attack is stressful, and I found it difficult to go about higher-level cognitive functioning while dealing with constant and steady concern. I am fortunate enough to have experienced this type of stress very infrequently. I could leave South Africa and move back to the United States, where anything I could ever need or want is a click away. When climate change inevitably affects my life here in America, I will face less uncertainty and endure less stress than Americans with less financial stability. This type of stress that translates into a barrier for growth will affect all of us as catastrophe spreads, beginning with the most vulnerable in our communities. This is sure to be disastrous on the level of individual experience, but it is hard to determine exactly what this will mean for the productivity and well-being of our societies and economies.
I've believed that climate change is real, anthropogenic, and dangerous for many years. Despite this, to my perception, the problem has never been real, and I’ve never been confronted with an image of what life in the midst of global warming will really be like.
My experience in Cape Town gave me the insight I needed. I came to see that climate change is not a far off, distant threat that will only harm those still living on this planet long after you and I are gone. The rising temperature of the Earth is something that is beginning to affect all of us in our daily lives. Look at the record rainfall numbers and number of hurricanes that we’ve seen here in the past few years or the extreme drought that has plagued California. These are the direct effects, and real people are in real danger.
I’m clearly not the first to say this, and I won’t be the last. Most recently, we heard reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change detailing out new findings on the incredible damage that will be done if we don’t change our ways (like, yesterday), including the collapse of food yields and extreme levels of human displacement. It is stressful, but this is an issue that we should all have on our minds every day.
The warning bells have been ringing for decades, and it’s time for a resurgence of the trend I saw as a kid many years ago. Don’t completely get rid of the cynicism – don’t forget that the government and corporations need to do the heavy lifting, and we must demand that they do so – but also remember that we all have a part to play in the fate of our species.
I encourage anyone who has made it to the end of this post to live as if you were already in a crisis zone. Give up some of those long showers, stop leaving on your TV and lights when you leave. Carry in reusable shopping bags and get yourself a damn Brita filter instead of buying cases of disposable water bottles. Who knows, maybe these little acts will be what saves us – if not, at least we will know what to expect when we are no longer afforded the luxury of ignoring what we are doing to our planet.