{ Change and Adaptation }

May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment

Traveling to St. Louis by bike, then train, then bike seemed a fitting measure for a climate adaptation conference. I got to attend a forum in St. Louis this month through a Metcalf Institute fellowship, which generously covered travel and our stay at the Union Station hotel, arranged for a tour of the Danforth Center and organized an all-day orientation to the latest climate concepts. The experience has had a surprising effect on my own career plans.

Bike Buddies!

Bike Buddies!

At the National Adaptation Forum, hundreds discussed gameplans for urban heatswells and rural ecology and how to mitigate the warming effect that nearly everyone’s feeling. The main irony being that these talks took place in rooms so cold that people drank tea just to warm their fingers, that my dresses were paired with the same brown cardigan all four days. But conferences are always overchilled, no matter the focus. At the Society of Environmental Journalists in muggy New Orleans, or at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education conference in already-cool Denver. No fault of the organizers. What I did appreciate from this National Adaptation Forum was the ceramic lunchware and drinkware, the utter lack of frills to the registration process. Just a program. No bag stuffed with handouts and pens and rulers I don’t want.

I’m sorry, but what does this slogan even mean?

Utilities and objects aside, the looming irony was the forum’s location in a state most emphatically unaffected by climate change. As presenters talked about sea level rise, we were an 8-hour drive to the nearest shoreline. As they talked about drought, the nearby Missouri and Mississippi Rivers ran a tad flooded. At a booth displaying St. Louis city’s sustainability efforts, I bumped into a man who works for San Francisco. He sought some insight into the host city’s initiatives, and even though I don’t live there, I felt a little embarrassed. Their sustainability plan is so basic, it could have been written by third-graders: Recycling. Getting kids outdoors. Planting more trees. Things to do with development that don’t really address climate at all. Here’s the thing, I told the man from San Francisco. We’re in Missouri, a state founded on abundance and self-sufficiency. We have mines and forests and plenty of water. If this were Settlers of Catan, we’d have our pieces on all the prime corners.

The urgency buzzing in this lofty rehabbed train station is lost outside, where few people notice a change in the air because the common phrase is, “If you don’t like the weather in Missouri, just wait a while,” and teachers may not distinguish weather from climate. And change? Last month, our legislature voted to ban plastic bag bans, to make sure no liberals bother our towns with change. Just a little local insight.

I met a woman from Alaska who casually mentioned that her sister’s house flooded this week. Where was she staying right now? I asked, concerned, my vowel sounds involuntarily softening to match her accent. They pumped out the water. She’s back at home, she said. Like it’s no big deal. The federal government is moving a village, hospital and all, 11 miles away from the shore, to buy them 150 more years of a semi-traditional lifestyle.

She said 13 miles would mean more time, but it’s not the right landscape for their lifeways.

She said, people here talk about plans in 20 years, she said, but in 20 years her home would be underwater.

She said, when I walked here from my hotel up the road this morning, I counted more than 20 cars driven by one person. They’re all putting her home underwater, she said.

When I told a friend back home about the woman’s testimony, he compared it to the immediacy-laden attitude that local Southerners sport when challenged with the idea of change. Perhaps, but people here haven’t given up nearly so much.

People press forward, regardless. The adaptation specialists throw experiences and ideas at each other like a Hadron collider and hope to create a solution. How quickly the conversation’s changed from “mitigation” to “adaptation,” one of my journalist colleagues observed. Five years, basically since I started reporting.

I intended to write something about the goofiness of conferences. Necktie styles and the weird idiosyncrasies of journalists introducing themselves to one another. An essay unto itself, yet not nearly so pressing. What’s most important to me, I realize, is the future. Despite some presenters’ local anecdotes of grassroots change, I’m worried about this region. How can the Midwest adapt to climate change if leadership is still unwilling to admit a problem?

Maybe conversations about adaptation will make local leaders realize we’re getting left way, way behind.

Maybe learning about adaptation will make citizens vote for candidates more focused on the future.

All of this requires an educated public, and because even Education-With-A-Capital-E itself gets political here, journalism has an opportunity to inform in big, big ways. I guess that’s what this is all about. This blog, this goal I have to start a magazine for the Heartland. Get knowledge in more hands, in front of more eyes. And I guess conferences like this implicate me, as well, for waiting maybe longer than necessary to take a risk and start a publication. I’m still not making any moves yet, but with so many stories ready to be told here, a little expedition might be in order.

{ Also }

JJ Neukomm Missouri Malt Whiskey by Square One Brewery and Distillery. “A full flavored single malt American Whiskey made with 25% cherry wood smoked malt and aged in Missouri oak barrels!” And the single best whiskey I’ve ever had.

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, this month’s Esquire, lots of Roads & Kingdoms, “Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her” by Susan Griffin, and lots more as I prepare to teach nature writing at the Missouri Scholars Academy in a couple weeks.

Queens of the Stone Age

Missouri River Relief’s “Refurbish Our Fleet” campaign. More on that soon, I promise.


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