Fading Stars: How We Threaten Our Survival

March 25, 2018

My father taught me my place in the universe. When I was very young, we would peer up as he pointed to the stars and constellations in the supremely dark night sky of 1970s Australia. I hung on to his every word, my developing brain trying to understand the incomprehensible distances between everything out there.

Of course, I couldn’t grasp his entire education — I still can’t — but those close moments imprinted a strong emotion inside me. A sense that I, we, our planetary home, were so very small, yet somehow mattered. It’s hard to describe. It felt overwhelming, and it felt comforting. It felt like truth.

In February, my partner and I spent a wintry week in Yellowstone National Park. We snow-shoed in the sub-zero elements surrounded by bison and elk, coyote and otter. We stopped to listen to the howls of a large pack of wolves that had moved into the Old Faithful area. And, walking to our cabin at night, we gazed up into the Milky Way, which was impossible to miss.

Then a blizzard came and obscured the sky. A ranger was giving a presentation that night about light pollution and how it smothers our atmosphere and obliterates the ability of almost every person on Earth to view the stars. This is true for 80 percent of us living in North America, with its abundance of crowded, outrageously illuminated cities.

Having lived much of my adult life in relatively rural settings, I admit I was taken aback to learn that we were on the verge of completely cutting ourselves off from the night skies, the same ones our ancestors connected to and communed under. I missed my dad, dead since 2009, wanting him to comfort me with some wise piece of philosophy. And I knew I would have to dig in and contribute even more to the struggle to return our species to a right relationship with the natural world.

Threatening our very survival, climate change (or breakdown or disruption) is the most pressing challenge we collectively face. For the vast majority of human history, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have hovered around or below 300 parts per million. That’s been a sweet spot for us, keeping the global climate relatively stable and comfortable.

During the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution and our newfound reliance on fossil fuels, however, these levels have steadily risen, spiking to more than 400 parts per million for the entire year of 2016 and predicted to increase further in the coming decades. Environmental scientists warn we have crossed over to a dangerously disruptive new reality through our own inaction on C02 emissions.

Climate change is here and now, the reason behind now common extreme weather events — from increasingly powerful and more frequent hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and wildfires in California, to last month’s unusual start of spring, followed by wild winter storms, in the Pacific Northwest. All this with the terrifying promise of more to come.

The issues are intertwined. The street, home and billboard lights that pollute our nights are mostly powered by the burning of coal and gas, and so we are delivering a cruel double whammy to the Earth’s unique atmosphere, the thin blue line upon which all life depends.

It will be a loss of profound consequence should we indeed be the last generation to see the stars. If we lose our ability to connect to where we come from, to the stuff of which we and our planet are literally made, our species will surely be lost forever.

If this doesn’t alarm you, you’re not paying attention. There has never been a point in our collective history quite like this. That said, there has never been such opportunity or reason to act. As insurmountable as our problems appear, there are practical solutions and abundant ways to get involved.

Having a sense of your place in the Universe brings responsibility. It’s a mathematical near-certainty that life exists someplace else; paradoxically, as far as we know for sure, life only exists here. That seems like something worth fighting for.

Alvord Desert, June 2020. Photo by Mike Butters

This essay first appeared in The Olympian newspaper on March 21, 2018.