Like a River Runs

words by William Defebaugh

photograph by Ashish Shah

 

Every Friday, Atmos editor-in-chief William Defebaugh reflects on the week in climate and culture, sharing stories of insight and inspiration.

words by William Defebaugh

photograph by Ashish Shah

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“Have you also learned that secret from the river; that there is no such thing as time? That the river is everywhere at the same time, at the source and at the mouth, at the waterfall, at the ferry, at the current, in the ocean and in the mountains, everywhere and that the present only exists for it, not the shadow of the past nor the shadow of the future.” ―Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

 

The concept of “the present” is a complex one when it comes to the climate crisis. On the one hand, a present-focused mindset without concern for future consequences is what brought us to this point. During the last few months, many of us have been holding on to the hope that this pandemic might represent a chance to change this, thanks to early reports of fallen emissions and wildlife recovery. But as countries start to reopen, we are presented with another possible reality.

 

China’s emissions are already back up to pre-pandemic proportions. President Trump is continuing to financially support the fossil fuel industry. A leaked COVID-19 commission report in Australia advises that taxpayers underwrite new infrastructure of the gas industry (including a massive new pipeline) as part of its recovery plan. The National Board for Wildlife in India has suggested opening up land on of its elephant reserves for coal mining. All of this while the Arctic is experiencing 80-degree weather. As Naomi Klein put it, “This ‘recovery’ is suicide.”

 

And yet it is impossible to deny the deluge of awareness that seems to be flooding industry sectors and the public alike. According to a new study from Yale, Americans’ concerns about climate change are at an all-time high—even in the midst of this pandemic. And this week, the CFDA and British Fashion Council issued a joint statement calling for reform within the industry, urging designers to start slowing down. “We are united in our steadfast belief that the fashion system must change, and it must happen at every level,” it states.

 

A new climate simulator out of MIT clearly demonstrates the impact of halting the creation of new fossil fuel infrastructure, and how it’s far more effective in reducing global heating than limiting population and economic growth. As Bill McKibben points out, when coupled with other necessary changes (more efficient building and transportation, reduced deforestation and methane emissions), it shows it is possible to reduce warming down to 2 degrees.

 

For our new issue, photographer Ashish Shah captured life and death along India’s Ganges River, which faces immense amounts of pollution despite its status as a holy entity, symbolic of purification. “The flowing water is passive; it does not defend itself,” Shah says. “The river stays there quietly as strangers use it as they wish, without thinking of the immediate consequences.”

 

If disregard for consequence is the danger of the present, then its power is the understanding that said future is not fixed—that we are living the future at this very moment, and therefore we still have a chance to direct its course. That it’s possible for us to bridge the separation between public opinion and government action. It’s true what Shah says—water can be passive. But it can also be a force to be reckoned with, when it decides to be.

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