The Great Depression and the Great Warming

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What do the Great Depression and climate change have in common? The former transformed individual lives and geopolitics for generations. Its effects are still felt today. The decade-long catastrophe was arguably the most consequential episode of the 20th Century.

Our warming planet will have a similar, likely larger impact on us and on our descendants. It already has started transforming how we live. In 2099, Global Warming (let’s call a spade a spade) will be viewed as the single most significant occurrence of this century—if not of all time.

I was born in 1949, but the Great Depression, which started in 1929 with the stock market crash, is in my DNA. When the toothpaste tube gets gaunt, I rescue it from the bathroom and squirrel it away in my study. Otherwise, my wife will throw it out—with a dozen, maybe more, squeezes left.

I will drive my current used car until my mechanic refuses to put it up on the lift. My shoes and boots go through a duct tape phase before departing this vale of tears.

I come by my cheapness from both sides. My paternal grandfather never owned a car; he walked to work. His wife could stretch a penny like salt water taffy, according to my mother, who was no slouch herself in that regard.

My mother, like her mother before her, would break off the gnarly lower stems of asparagus before having the bunch weighed. She clipped grocery coupons and collected S&H Green Stamps. My parents had the same bed for the 68 years of their marriage, and when my widowed mother moved in with my brother and his wife, she took it with her.

The Great Depression had much to do with the fervent frugality of past and subsequent generations. Life was never easy, but the whirlwind of the 1930s was particularly perverse. The economy, like nature, was out of human control.

So people took control where they could. They used cloth rather than paper towels. Long distance calls were for special occasions. When my grandmother finished talking on the telephone she simply hung up, no “goodbye,” much less “Have a nice day.” Time was money. After the advent of dryers, my mother continued to hang the wash on the clothesline when the sun was shining.

We are facing another cataclysm that will have a dramatic impact on our habits. The warming of our planet is a much slower, albeit more persistent calamity than the Great Depression. Perhaps because of that, our reaction to it has been slow as well.

Some want to wish it away or absolve our species of any accountability. The greatest democracy on earth elected a global warming denier who wants to pump ever more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And the Republican Party, which controls Congress, is good with that.

The GOP, aka the Flat Earth Society, notwithstanding, the science documenting global warming is overwhelming. In addition, proliferating examples of extreme weather and hottest-years-on-record are making the case ever more dramatically. For example, Houston has experienced three “500-year” floods in the past three years. Time sure flies when your planet is warming.

Thankfully, not everyone is following our “leader.” The United States military, hardly a bastion of liberal thought, has acknowledged for years that global warming is real, is already affecting us, and is a critical national security issue. If the White House is perversely clueless, it is not only our armed forces that are taking action, but also states, municipalities, businesses and citizens.

Many of us are conserving energy: turning off lights, buying more fuel-efficient cars and energy-efficient appliances, putting solar panels on roofs, and hanging the laundry out to dry. There are as many ways to save energy as there are to squander it.

The question remains, however, whether our diverse, largely uncoordinated, and gradual changes of habit will be enough without the full faith and support of the United States government. After all, we are coming late to the party, and the earth’s population and energy-use per capita continue to rise.

So what will it take to wake all of us up, even the willfully somnolent Republican Party? Do we need a “Black Thursday,” the day the Stock Market initially crashed in 1929— followed, scarily enough, the following week by “Black Monday” and “Black Tuesday?”

Perhaps the next two back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes with sustained winds of 180 miles per hour will have to make a direct hit on Washington, D.C.

What do you think?

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