Last week I was reminded on a visceral level what it is like to live with far less pollution of light, sound, air, and thought. It began with a resurgence of stress symptoms I have fought for years and learned to suppress – neck and chest pain, difficulty thinking, and chronic agitation – and transformed on the third day into a clarity I had hoped for when planning this celebration of my fifteenth wedding anniversary.
The place we picked, the area around Colorado's Gunnison River, had sparse cell phone coverage, which made it easier to avoid familiar triggers, and its beautiful natural environment could easily be imagined as part of the transition my recent theoretical explorations depicted for a more benign future than the hell-scape our world is actually facing. In many ways, it was reminiscent of family vacations as a child to Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, taken coincidentally with the period of time – the 1960s – most similar to that transition.
My favorite memory, already fading, is the ambient silence as we lay in bed, punctuated only by an occasional car or truck traveling down the dirt road, some creaking wood, and the chirping of birds. Other memories are tied to skywatching, my all-time favorite hobby, which I got to indulge at Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park as part of a public star party expertly managed by a ranger and amateur astronomers, and on our final day as a witness to a gorgeous sunset. The full moon rising 50 years after the first lunar landing mission was a reminder of that hopeful pursuit that triggered my life-long love of astronomy the year before, while its orange tint caused by a distant fire's smoke along with the desecration of a star-filled sky by several satellites reminded me of the polluted peak we now occupy in human history.
A brief indulgence in social media accompanied a spurt of inspiration that yielded my only writing during the trip. Having done my best to understand and identify ways to deal with the largest problem I know, while sharing the results so others could benefit from it, I decided to focus on implementation that would be defined by a basic statement. "We are in the midst of a disaster that likely won't end until those of us alive today are long gone. Fighting is futile, but surrender is complicity. Instead, we can inhibit the evil propelling it, while creating and preserving good for as long as possible." The first part is a description of probable physical conditions. The second is a judgment call that sets the moral stage for action versus inaction. The last two parts are actions that would be required to achieve a better future, regardless of the final outcome.
Framing current events and personal actions in terms of the preservation and creation of good begs the question of how "good" should be defined. My research and writing has provided my own answer, which is the context for much of my positive experience on the vacation: optimization of happiness, longevity, and life's abundance and diversity, which is largely determined by how much of the world is occupied by natural ecosystems. The loss of those ecosystems is the heart of the "disaster" I mentioned, and reversing that loss is an obvious and critical way to end it. The futility of total reversal is due to physical processes that are amplifying the losses outside of our control in the short time we have to stop them; but what control we do have – stopping our own contribution being the most basic example – can, and should, be used to preserve what's left for as long as possible.
I returned home to news of growing "evil" – the opposite of good – as people pursuing more personal happiness force others into deadly collapse of their own, along with the rest of the world. An attenuated form of my stress returned, but I better understood its usefulness as a source of motivation and energy for taking action to deal with its trigger. Having a better sense of what action to take will go a long way toward turning that pain into something resembling its opposite, for myself and others, something I can now better recognize from experience.