Editorial: Shifting Climate

28 April 2016 Melissa Cranenburgh

Editorial: Shifting Climate

Photograph courtesy of istock

It could have been a garden wedding. It wasn’t. People converged, in hesitant groups, around the two neatly curved rows of white, foldable lawn chairs facing a trestle table, supporting a pastel bouquet and framed photos of a young woman and her family. On this coolly sunny mid-morning in autumn, the two little boys on everyone’s minds had dark smudges under their eyes, and stayed close to their attentive father – who would now and again reach out and cup a small head toward him. Throughout the service that followed, the boys piled onto their father’s lap. Each little pair of arms wrapped tightly around a woolly soft toy, as the boys were themselves held steady by a much stronger pair of arms.

The service began. The woman had been a mother, a friend, a wife, a lover. And an ardent rationalist. While she’d had a deep respect for those whose beliefs extended to the idea of life…after life, she didn’t share those beliefs. Rather, she favoured the musings of the American stargazer and popular science guru, Carl Sagan.

On Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, the hugely popular US series Sagan hosted in 1980 (which is still doing the rounds in YouTube clips today), Sagan ponders life, the universe and everything. And the book, Cosmos, that accompanied the successful series gave us the Sagan quote that launched a thousand memes: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”

This notion – that we are a literal part of the fabric of all nature, that we are starstuff – had resonated strongly with the woman whose life had flickered out, but whose energy could not have. To underline the point, the celebrant read a piece by commentator Aaron Freeman – that originally aired on NPR’s All Things Considered – titled, ‘You want a physicist to speak at your funeral’. In it, Freeman describes how bereaved friends and relatives would be comforted by the knowledge that “all the photons that ever bounced off your face, all the particles whose paths were interrupted by your smile, by the touch of your hair, hundreds of trillions of particles, have raced off like children, their ways forever changed by you”. And that, “According to the law of the conservation of energy, not a bit of you is gone; you’re just less orderly.”

Finally, the service ended on a recording of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. In it, Sagan describes a vision of Earth from space; how the tiny pixels represent the sum total of all existence as we sentient beings know it. The quote concludes: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” The service over, we mourners gravitated toward one another, before slowly scattering. Now, somehow, both less and more.

The day this magazine is released, 22 April, is Earth Day. And we offer you an edition that will hopefully make you think – as my friend’s service made me think – about what cover boy Leonardo DiCaprio has called “the most urgent threat facing our entire species”. You can read about Leo and Oscars speech (p14). And, in a special investigation by staff writer/editor Katherine Smyrk (p16), you can read about the effects of the much talked about “two degree rise” and the climate-induced problems facing householders – not in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, but right now.

Melissa Cranenburgh, Acting Editor

This article first appeared in Ed#510 of The Big Issue.