Call of the Sandpiper: New Year’s Resolutions in the Time of Climate Breakdown

Hudsonian Godwit by Francesco Veronesi CC BY-SA 2.0

Another year over, and the business-as-usual attitudes are breathtaking. As though everything were hunky dory in the Anthropocene. Some people are even pointing at December’s flash freeze to poke fun at climate science. But our industrial-strength impact on the planet is melting ice sheets, researchers at the University of Bristol noted a few years back, weakening the polar gravitational pull. “Wavy” polar vortices are also linked to global heating. Can the cold, chaotic lashings from the poles be kept in check by an increasingly warm and torpid jet stream?

The most recent lashing brought a prodigious snowfall and buried holiday drivers. Four people died in a 46-car pileup on the Ohio Turnpike. In Buffalo, a blizzard raged for 37 hours, leaving at least 39 people dead—some stuck in cars or caught in snowbanks.

Cars, road-making, and sprawl all accelerate the climate crisis yet we keep getting cars. Wall Street loves cars. Here, have a Ford F-150® Lightning™ all-electric truck! Let’s pour more concrete. We’ll fast-track the mining of all the components—lithium, manganese, copper, cobalt, graphite, nickel—along with the toxicity and human torments mining creates. By filling SUVs with gasoline, paving nature for electric cars, ripping out forests for grazing and feed companies, we feed killer weather events: extratropical cyclones and floods, juxtaposed against historic droughts and fires.

It’s all getting harder to address, and that’s quite obvious now, too. There is no way to avert the worst unless we Homo sapiens change our collective mindset and habits quickly. And how likely is that to happen?

Capitalism Adapts, Deceptively

If the elders of Wall Street, the White House, and Capitol Hill allow innovation to change a little of everything all the time, nothing has to change. As Prince Tancredi said in Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: “Everything must change for everything to remain the same.”

Looking at the automotive industry in a time of converging environmental crises, Judith Deutsch wrote:

Since the 1988 Congressional definitive testimony of James Hansen and other climate scientists, there is no discourse about “Stop”: elimination of fossil fuel emissions quickly morphed into adaptation and mitigation which is now replaced by “transition”. EVs is a representative example of focusing on one small part, conveniently deleting the whole.

James Hansen now says: “Humanity needs to reverse course.” Alas, Hansen pushes for nuclear energy as part of that reversal.

On nuclearism, Deutsch warns of the hazards of small nuclear reactors, the peril of earthquakes near or beneath nuclear power sites, the inextricable connections between atomic energy and weaponry, and the overall disregard that war-driven science has shown for human rights.

Another kind of reversal is necessary. If it’s to come, I sense it will be reversal at a deep, civilization-changing level. And I sense it will be forced on us if we shirk our responsibility to listen to and learn from nature.

We could pass or fail the test, but the odds are closing in against us. All of evolution is a bigger deal, in the great scheme of things, than human civilization, which depends on yet consistently sabotages Earth’s delicate web of life.

Extinction Is a Parallel Crisis

Thousands of animal communities are disappearing on account of our claims to dominion. As our forest-ravaging, our road-building, and our thing-making send emissions into the sky, sandpipers are among the countless living beings we affect.

The Hudsonian godwits (Limosa haemastica) are sandpipers, named after the Hudson Bay, where they were first identified as a specific group. They fly to Canada’s wetlands all the way from Chile, every year, to lay their eggs. In the final segment of their spring migration alone, they fly 6,000 miles without stopping. After this stunning feat, they set up their camps on the northern bogs and beaches. The parents share nest duties. Their calls fill the air as they forage for aquatic worms.

Their populations declined in the late 1800s as hunters targeted them—a colonial-era violence that has persisted to this day. Beachfront developers have usurped many miles of sandpiper habitat. And now these birds face another human-connected threat—which could drive them extinct if we do nothing about it. At least one group of Hudsonian godwits—those who nest in Manitoba—face an immediate climate peril. Winter is changing to summer much more quickly than it used to. So the local insects die earlier. And this means the sandpipers can find no food to give to their newly hatched young.

There’s a 48% chance that humans will drive a rise in the yearly average temperatures of 1.5C (2.7F) above late-1800s levels between now and 2026, say meteorologists. The results of this trend have urgent ethical ramifications for humanity right now. Vulnerable human beings, like shorebirds, can’t escape the consequences of the daily actions of affluent people.

So we need to think about affluence differently.

Simplicity Must Become More Important

As policymakers flail, individuals and communities with the privilege of choice can act now, setting examples for the policy that’s so urgently needed.

What would our examples look like? I can imagine a few:

* Seek freedom from car dependence. Support trains, so there’s a basis for making them less expensive, more reliable, and more accessible.

* Stop moaning about Covid putting the kibosh on in-person conferences and meetings. Not driving or flying? That’s a good thing.

* Commit to living in a small space, simply.

* Push back when people call for more human procreation.

* Refuse to covet Mars.

* Start caring, deeply, about Earth. About the beings trying to experience a semblance of natural evolution on it. About the beings we gradually crush by our own weight on this Earth and the weight of those we domesticate.

* Eat plants.

One of the hardest things for humans to do is to commit to stopping any harmful thing in which vested interests have settled—anything we’ve identified as connected with our lives and our idea of ourselves.

Yet neglecting climate breakdown because we don’t want to change isn’t exactly conducive to future civilization. We are already pressing the boundaries of safe operating temperatures for our species.

And yes, I personally strive to take all of these to-do items to heart. Offer me solidarity. Press me to be better. We need to walk the talk, and talk about the walk, if we expect others, including policymakers, to even consider doing the same.

Many people in a position to make some or all of these changes are much less likely to do so when nobody in their circles are. When others are changing, cultural shifts feel possible. New Year’s resolutions, anyone?

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.