An Ocean Away
2018, Middle School, Prose
My family is comprised of coastal transplants: my mother from California; my father, New Jersey. She grew up sailing in the San Francisco Bay, watching sea lions loiter on shores and witnessing the fog roll in across the Golden Gate Bridge. He could find towering waves crashing against the rocks within miles of his house. They knew the beauty of the ocean, its power, its vulnerability. They learned to call it home. They realized they had to appreciate and safeguard this wonderful font of life that lay on their doorstep.
But I’ve lived in Kentucky since I was four. In Lexington, we have no fog, no waves. We have nothing to remind ourselves of that other biosphere – to us, the water is a world away. What, then, will prompt us to protect that which feels so distant? In the face of all our other worries, does the ocean really matter?
It’s not that Kentuckians are anti-environment, per se. Every week, I spend hours caring for horses in expansive fields. The trees we hike through are oaks, not redwoods, but we still know natural splendor. In fact, we relish it. Nowhere else in the country will you find people so dedicated to their riding, their hunting, their camping. In some ways, Kentuckians are not so different from the denizens of the coasts. It’s just that we have some added concerns. Where a Californian might see mountains, we see energy. Where a New Yorker might see a pleasant walk, we see a mining opportunity. The setting sun is wondrous, yes, but it’s coal that keeps the lights on. So what if some of it winds its way down to the ocean, coating the sea floor and toxifying the water? It’s a small price to pay for such a valuable resource.
A strange dichotomy is at play. On the one hand, we want to preserve our streams and our forests for future generations, to allow our love of nature and wildlife to be passed down like any other part of our culture. But on the other hand, we’d be fools to not make use of the power right beneath our feet. Solar panels and wind turbines are wise long-term solutions, but they’re difficult to enact in poor states where budgets are stretched thin, or in red states where the existence of climate change itself is up for debate. Mountaintop removal may ruin the landscape, but in the near future it’s cheap and efficient, valuable qualities in a frugal region.
As the child of ocean-loving migrants, I’ve grown up mostly apart from this coal-centric mindset. Every summer, we make an effort to sail in the San Francisco Bay or visit relatives in New Jersey. Yet in a state like Kentucky, first-generation southerners are rare. Many families, especially in rural areas, have been in the same state, nay, the same town, for decades. For a large proportion, the ocean is simply abstract, whereas the need for coal is an immediate reality.
The fact that Kentuckians are unconvinced that they need to protect the ocean does not mean they are inconvincible, just that no one has tried to convince them – or, at least, no one has tried to convince them in a manner not rife with condescension and a distaste for “the other.” I believe that this is why we as a nation have struggled for so long to conserve our waterways. It’s not that there’s a dearth of innovative ideas to help clean up the ocean, from microfiber-catching laundry balls to pollution-collecting buckets (Herreria). It’s just that the people who come up with solutions tend to surround themselves with other concerned ocean lovers. A broad swath of the population remains unconcerned with the effects energy production has on the environment, and sees no reason why their time and tax dollars should be removed from their own struggling neighborhood and devoted to an endangered fish they’ll never see, much less care about.
Many times, our instinctual response to these polarized opinions is simply to seclude ourselves, or else go over the heads of whomever we dislike. But undoubtedly, change must occur on a national, bipartisan level if we are to truly find a solution. First of all, the states with the most pollution are uncoincidentally also the states that make the fewest efforts to prevent pollution (Hochschild 253). All the environmentalists in the world can’t make up for the actions of those who are resolutely opposed to taking a stand. Targeting the problem where it is most pressing necessitates changing the minds of groups with different opinions. And secondly, even if the federal government manages to mandate that we reduce emissions, how will that impact the residents of states who had practically no say in the matter? Although it’s impossible to appease everyone, crafting a plan without the consent of key players is a sure recipe for disaster, dividing our nation and reinforcing the sentiment that the government doesn’t look out for its constituents.
Instead of bypassing people with dissimilar attitudes in our quest to confront the pressing issue that is climate change, we must work to convince others through thoughtful discussion and debate that rising sea levels and warming oceans are issues we must address, no matter how irrelevant they may seem to our daily lives. But how can we change the minds of climate change disbelievers who have grown to distrust us, and who, for that matter, we have grown to distrust? When we attempt to insulate ourselves against disagreement, associating only with those of similar viewpoints, where can we find the connections and common ground that are essential to pursuing a greener planet?
When some communities want to preserve the seas at the expense of business and others want to promote business at the expense of the seas, meaningful dialogue may seem unattainable, as if the difficulties of bringing the ocean inland are simply insurmountable. Yet if we are to ever move forward as a unified country, we cannot succumb to isolationism. I myself am certainly guilty of attempting to section myself off from peers who I deem irrational or incorrect. In a town filled with deeply rooted locals, my best friends’ families are almost all from New York or Berkeley, some just a few blocks away from my mother’s old home. At the same time, I have been witness to the transformations that can occur when we reach out to others in an attempt to understand their point of view.
Take my childhood playmate, the daughter of a coal mine designer, who now believes that humans are at least partially responsible for the warming atmosphere. Our didactic relationship worked both ways: from her, I learned that government regulation cannot be imposed without thought for bureaucratic realities and economic consequences. I won’t pretend that our talks were always the most civil, but we respected each other, and grew to respect each other’s viewpoints, enough so that we could come to accept certain facets of the other’s positions, tempering our ideological extremism with the realization that our “opponents” were not as insensible as we had believed.
Now, I am not naive. I understand that those who have built their lives around coal know more than we give them credit for, and will not be swayed by the simple repetition of facts they’ve seen borne out in their everyday lives. Miners themselves have firsthand knowledge of how coal dust on vegetation can withstand wind, rain, and other washing, accumulating and turning the undersides of plants black (De Place and Kershner). They recognize the risks of mining and burning coal, with the potential for black lung disease, acid rain and smog, respiratory illnesses, and other damage (“Coal and the Environment”). But I have faith in the capacity of words, of passion and emotion and vociferous debate. Conversations built on mutual respect and acceptance can succeed, especially when there is such a powerful argument to be made.
That’s why the ocean in a changing climate calls for a wave of change in society. We must not focus just on the waters in peril, but also the people who must necessarily be called upon to make change. In order to truly take action to prevent the damage we humans are inflicting on our world, we can’t afford to leave those who think differently an ocean away.
“Coal and the Environment.” U.S. Energy Information Administration, 23 Mar. 2018, https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/index.php?page=coal_environment.
De Place, Eric, and David Kershner. “How Coal Affects Water Quality: State of the Science.” Sightline, 20 Mar. 2013, http://www.sightline.org/2013/03/20/how-unburnt-coal-affects-water-the-state-of-the-science/.
Herreria, Carla. “3 Incredible Inventions That Are Cleaning Our Oceans.” Huffington Post, 8 June 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/inventions-that-clean-the-ocean_us_5938be94e4b0b13f2c66ee01.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. Strangers in Their Own Land. The New Press, 2016.
For most of my childhood, I’ve been privy to a peculiar experience: my family has instilled in me a deep environmentalism, but I have grown up in a community where a derision for environmentalists is commonplace. Indeed, many of my close friends don’t believe the planet is warming at all, much less that humans are responsible for the rise in temperatures. When people from outside of the South write about southerners, they frequently explain Kentuckian beliefs and attitudes as a product of a lack of education, rural upbringing, and general hillbilly ridiculousness. Although I can sympathize with the exasperation these authors feel at those who think global warming isn’t real, I also realize that this disbelief isn’t solely attributable to how “backwards” rural dwellers are, and that being disdainful or condescending towards those from other regions won’t contribute anything to the national discourse. For this reason, I decided to submit a piece on the Southern attitude towards climate change. I wanted to provide more of an insider perspective on one of the key barriers to implementing effective policy to counteract human impacts on the environment. There’s no use in creating idealistic, utopian solutions to climate change if we can’t find a way to convince others of the value of our ideas. It may be the debater in me, but I would rather put my faith in civil discourse as a means to create change, something I hope this essay can persuade you to do, too.