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What We Talk About When We Talk About The Weather

The horizon after a wildfire on the Minnewaska Ridge. Photo ©copyright Carol Bergman 2022





I read that plants can hear themselves being eaten…and that caterpillars remember being caterpillars. 

-Elizabeth Gabbert


I am here to say our house is on fire.

-Greta Thunberg



I had a conversation yesterday with my cousin Roger in Michigan. Between us we have four grown children, two of whom have made a rational, thought-provoking decision not to have children. Much as we would selfishly prefer to have a load of grandchildren to cuddle and spoil, there will be a limit to the next generation in our family. And though there also might be other extenuating circumstances in the decision not to procreate, and though it may feel, at first, as though it is against biology, it is a choice, a decision, tied in large part to the bleak prognosis about the future of Planet Earth.


By all accounts, this decision is trending in educated, affluent societies. What it will mean geo-politically and economically cannot as yet be determined. But much has already changed in the conversation, the words we use, the narrative history of the weather and weather forecasting. The weather is much more than the weather now: it is no longer an innocent conversation between two farmers searching the clouds for weather patterns or the arrival of  locust swarms. The moon landing changed everything and satellites have changed everything; we can see from above what we have wrought. Yet, despite all the predictive technology available, weather forecasters –who  should change their job description to climate change forecaster—cannot predict the extremity of the weather we are experiencing, they can only comment upon it as it is happening, and then ex post facto, which is like putting a bookmark into an overwritten nineteenth century novel so we don't lose our place. In other words, weather forecasters have become place holders.


Take for example the earthquake in Turkey and Syria this past week. The word used by the commentators is "devastating," but even that word is not strong enough to describe the calamity or the callous disregard of the autocratic governments in Ankara and Damascus.


One out of three people in the world is exposed to earthquakes, a number which has almost doubled in the past 40 years. A primitive seismograph was invented by a Chinese scholar in 132 CE, the tectonic plates by now well mapped, yet humans continue to live on top of earthquake zones and governments, such as Turkey's government, and China's government, continue to develop cheap housing on fault lines. The buildings there don't just shudder or sway when a quake hits, they collapse into dust. And if journalists try to expose these governments' corruption or malfeasance, into jail they go.


I remember well my first experience of an earthquake when I was living in California. A strong wind and the threat of a tidal wave sent us scurrying hither and thither. I was bringing a bag of laundry back to my apartment and a palm frond nearly landed on my head. Why, I thought, am I living in California on top of the San Andreas fault? Why? I knew the history: a "devastating" earthquake shattered life in San Francisco in 1906 after which architects began to design shatter-proof buildings. Despite the advanced building codes, the 1989 quake was also devastating; it took down the Bay Bridge. By then I had left the Bay Area, but looking back on that magnificent landscape, I do wonder why human settlement effloresced on top of that particular fault line and why it is still being "developed" by real estate moguls.


Most Californians I know, including my husband, are casual about the threat of yet another quake. Or, they are in denial. Indeed, I think we are all in a continuous state of denial about the challenges of life on Earth and what we would have to sacrifice—public and private arsenals, nationalism, privilege, righteousness—to sustain life for future generations.

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