Earth on Empty

Earth on EmptyI pull away from the gas pump with the giddy sense that I can go forever now, the dashboard gauge full tilt to and beyond the F.

Fat city! I am tanked up for the long haul, bro. I can forget about making that stop for a week–maybe longer. I can disregard every gas station I pass because they have nothing I need.

How foolish. I catch myself in these heady moments, proud of my fullness and freedom from limits.

The self-sufficient arrogance feels all too familiar in the consumptive context our times but in uneasy conflict with what I know of the rest of the world. It’s easy to imagine there’s no such thing as famine when you’ve just eaten.

Last night on the way home, filling up at the edge of town, I wondered what it would look like if there were massive geosynchronous monitors hovering above earth that showed us exactly how near we were to passing danger points–tipping points, many are called, because once exceeded, it’s not just empty that you need to worry about.

And I don’t envision in my fantasy here civilization’s machinery just running out of gasoline. There is that, for sure–not so much running out as reaching the end of economical extraction. When it takes a barrel of oil to extract a barrel of oil, that game’s over for you and me. Tanks and other such tools will still be sitting on FULL.

But there are, in my science-fictional world, other hovering monitors flashing, beeping, warning us to stop and save what we have left before we find ourselves stranded, starving, thirsty, poisoned and displaced.

Population. Soils. Nitrogen and phosphorus. Habitat loss and land use. Biodiversity. Climate. Water.

Those monitors already exist. They aren’t actual orbiting overhead 24/7 devices up there where we can’t ignore them.

We can and we do ignore them. They are so very inconvenient. That doesn’t mean they are not real and valid. Very many of us act as if we can simply “not believe” in them and they will go away. If we had the courage, we’d look them in the face and do the right thing.

How foolish it would be for me to look at my dashboard, see the little gas pump icon glowing orange, and keep driving down a dark road because I “don’t believe in empty.”

Anyway, that’s why I cobbled this little graphic. Just for me. Because it appeared in my head. THOUGHT EXERCISE: every time you look at your fuel gauge in your car, think about the larger world of FULL and EMPTY.

I have come to understand that the vast majority of people who voted this week do not want their leaders to have anything to say about limits, tipping points, boundaries or hindrances of any kind that would stop business as usual. They don’t believe in these inconvenient things.

That disturbs me quite a bit, as much for their children’s sake as for mine.

There is no them and us in the end.

Segue now to this repeated reminder of “A Fierce Green Fire” at 6:00 at the Floyd Country Store.

This movie, only recently premiered (last week) is a five-segment account (narrated by Meryl Streep, Robert Redford etc) of the “environmental movement”–which is so much more consequential and relevant than the ideology-laden cliche the phrase has been made into.

The movie depicts a half century of confronting those threats to our shared resources of Earth with the belief that people and planet matter (at least) as much as profit. Join us.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Your imagery of a giant dashboard in our atmosphere really struck a nerve with me. We are so good at putting our blinkers on, us humans. I, too, have been very concerned about our election results in Australia. Our Prime Minister, newly elected, does not believe in climate change. He has reversed many of the measures put in place by previous governments to start facing environmental damage. It just terrifies me that people can narrow themselves so much to believe that these concerns do not and CANNOT affect them personally.