WASHINGTON, DC – JUNE 08: A flock of geese swim in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial as in hazy smoke covers Tidal Basin on June 8, 2023 in Washington, DC. Air quality alert has been elevated to a Code Purple in Washington due to smoke from wildfires burning in Canada, indicating very unhealthy air conditions for the public. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — On a clear day, the view from the top-floor terrace of the Kennedy Center is one of the best in the nation’s capital.
Turn one way, and the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials, along with the iconic pointed top of the Washington Monument, frame the sky above the National Mall. Glance uptown, and there’s the U.S. Capitol dome. Turn behind you, casting your gaze across the Potomac River, and northern Virginia’s sprawl runs away from its banks, stretching interminably into the suburbs.
Traffic, either coming into the District, or racing out of it, roars everywhere.
On Wednesday, with much of the Eastern Seaboard cloaked in dense smog from wildfires raging hundreds of miles away across the Canadian border, all those historic sites you learned about in sixth grade social studies class were still visible – but the dense haze, and the glare from the sunlight bouncing off of it, also was impossible to miss.
At late afternoon on Wednesday, it wasn’t as bad as the sepia-toned sky that had settled over midtown Manhattan, making the city’s streets look like one enormous Ken Burns documentary brought to life, but it was still bad.
And it wasn’t going anywhere, with reports indicating that the haze was expected to linger through the weekend, prompting air quality alerts, and driving millions either indoors, or prompting them to break out the face masks they didn’t think they needed anymore.
It also was a reminder that, for as much as we talk about “saving the Earth,’’ we’re really talking about saving ourselves. And every time we inflict some injury on our shared home, we move that much closer to hastening our own demise.
Because, let’s face it. The Earth is going to be just fine whether we’re here or not.
At 4.5 billion years old, it’s survived meteor strikes, the dinosaurs, ice ages, tectonic shifts that have erased and redrawn the planet’s surface like a cosmic Etch-a-Sketch, volcanic eruptions, destructive storms, and reality television.
Empires have risen and fell. Nations have come and gone. Kings and queens – when anyone remembers their names – are buried, as the Stoics famously remind us, in the same ground as their servants and the peasants they thought they were ruling.
For the planet, this too, shall pass.
But for the rest of us, whose time here is barely a rounding error, the stakes could not be higher.
The wildfires that annually inflict billions of dollars of damage on the American West, where they long have been a fact of life, are now part of the “new climate reality” for the United States’ northern neighbor, experts told The Guardian this week.
In fact, the fires are “a really clear sign of climate change,” Mohammadreza Alizadeh, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal, told the Guardian, which noted that a 2021 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association found that climate change “has been the main driver of the increase in hot, dry fire weather in the western United States.”
And by 2090, wildfires worldwide are expected to only increase in their intensity, The Guardian further reported, citing a United Nations report released last year.
It’s already been well-established that human activity has played a role in climate change. And that changes in our activity can help arrest its progress, though we’ve already missed one chance to turn down the temperature, and the window on another opportunity is rapidly closing.
“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said as he launched his 2020 Democratic bid for the White House. “And we’re the last who can do something about it.”
A fast reading of the first chapter of Genesis would have us believe that the “dominion” that God granted us over “the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth,” means that we’re somehow in charge.
We’re not. And you don’t have to go any further than the next verse to be reminded that it’s a gift not to be taken for granted.
“And God said, ‘Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat: and it was so.’
“And God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good,”
Yes, for as long as we can keep it.
Those memorials peeking above Washington D.C.’s skyline remind us just how precious and altogether brief that time really is.
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