Seventeen Years Not Wanting to Know

I am reading the NYT special called “Losing Earth. The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” If you want a video summary, here is an interview with the author, Nathaniel Rich, on Democracy Now.

It portrays the choices we once almost made to act on the facts we agreed on  back then that humanity was fouling its own nest. We had the body of evidence; many had the will.

But the currents heading us towards a safer future were soon diverted during the time frame referenced in the essay–from 1979 to 1989. The Reagan administration was for me the most blatant and visible evidence that my generations’ hopes would not be realized–maybe in our lifetimes.

The flow shifted, pushing back on progress made since the first Earth day in 1970. Progress became regress as the Merchants of Doubt rebranded their successful campaign to obfuscate the dangers of cigarette smoking to include other possible assaults on our health: climate change; plastics; BPA and other hormone disruptors; threats to entire phyla of plants and animals. Doubt and denial became effective tools that easily confounded our increasingly science-illiterate public.

These environmental crises, according to some, were all questionable, deniable “hoaxes” if you listened to the industries that would have had to change if the truth were known. According to Big Ag, Big Pharma, and Big Oil, they were making America great.

Better living through chemistry. They were bringing good things to life. And they wielded their wealth to “prove” it through corrupt science and the power of mind-molding, behavior-shaping advertisements and campaigns of intentional deceit.


I think about this history as an overlay to my own, as I consider a chapter in a possible book I’m half-heartedly working on. In that chapter, I think out loud about all the factors that brought me to Goose Creek in 1999, with my peculiar set of passions, skills, fears and hopes.

The period addressed in the NYT article reminds me of many of those motivators to leave where we once were happy in our small universe, but heart sick about the larger world–a complex, ordered and resilient living planet, once almost redeemed from our poisons, then sold in pieces as fodder, the carnage to feed the stockholders.

I remember the pain in 1980 of having seen the pieces of a global reversal to climate change within grasp, only to be nibbled to death by people (almost all men, almost all white) who to me seemed willfully evil. Anyone who sells the future health of the planet out from under their own children–can they be anything else?

I left teaching biology in 1987 for a lot of reasons, but this corporate-political assault on nature was high on the list of the main reasons we packed up and moved from the mountains back to the city–from a daily immersion in the state of the planet as a teacher into 17 years of willful blindness towards a dismemberment I could not bear to watch.


That willful ignorance ended when I agreed to return to the classroom, teaching Environmental Biology at Radford University in 2004 and 2005. That blindness and deafness to the plight of the world ended when I discovered that, with the new weapon of the written word discovered only in 2002, I was not powerless to face the debacle of the out-of-control Growth Economy.

But then a new and even more sinister chapter began in November 2016. Its force and focus and intent has been a kind of Kryptonite to those of us who come from where I come from, given the history recounted here. It is almost lethally discouraging and depressing–the turning of the prior “lost decade” of NYT focus paling in comparison to the callous hopes of this administration.

But maybe at the end of the book, even this blatant attack on all that is holy to biology watchers like me will be shown to have feet of clay. Things really are going the way the inconvenient facts have suggested they probably would if we did nothing.

Cities are consumed in flames, entire regions use the last of their groundwater; glaciers melt and babies in India die from the heat; and entire populations of once-familiar and essential plants and animals disappear. Millions are displaced by eco-crisis, hunger, and lifeboat desperation of their local despots who feel the boat rocking more each day.

Even deniers share a common biology. It’s a shame it has taken another three decades to begin just slightly to get their attention. As we rush to the edge, I hope we act as if we remember that putting on the brakes needs to happen before becoming airborne–not pushing even harder on the gas.

Share this with your friends!

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. When you left teaching in 1987, were you as aware as you are now that you needed to escape from the reality of what was happening? Just curious. I can’t remember my state of mind 30 years ago, that’s for sure. I hope you can share this essay with a wider audience. It sure does resonate with me and I bet with a lot of folks.

  2. Kathy, thanks so much for sharing that supportive response. I am very much uncertain how much personal narrative like this to include, should I follow through with the One Place Understood book. It seems important to me, especially in light of the last chapter of “so what” on the importance of nurturing a “personal ecology” in ourselves and in our children as we create the “new story” of our relationship with the planet and each other. I’m uncomfortable with so much first-person, but it seems necessary in a “memoir of place.”