Butterflies in December

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

I was sure I heard a cricket the other night, but the creek carries on conversations after dark, so I filed the thought away under “the many sounds of water on rocks.”

The next day a yellow butterfly circled our house and suggested that I really had heard a cricket. Tracey saw the butterfly too, or another one just like it. Later that evening there were moths around the porch light when we took the dogs out, and the day after we saw another butterfly. Butterflies in December, with crickets and moths, high on a mountain – it’s not just out of season, it is a bit strange.

“This is the warmest December I can remember,” said a neighbor. Pandora Pixel, host of that talking show on the Every Letter News Network, says we should panic. She interviews experts on the subject of global warming and tweets doom and despair like a virtual canary in a coal mine, with ads for stuff to buy before we die. Isn’t it a strange world where “tweet” and “doom” can appear in the same sentence and nobody notices?

I’m glad our butterflies didn’t appear in Pandora’s back yard, but this unseasonably warm weather suggests we at least consider her opinions, and those of the people perhaps more qualified to raise an alarm. The majority opinion among scientists is that the planet is heating up, and by the way, we can’t use the “canary in a coal mine” idiom anymore. It celebrates the exploitation of canaries and, more to the point, coal is a dirty word, even though the Chinese are mining more of it to get through this winter and make the solar panels to sell to the carbon hating world.

There is a minority opinion, also based on science, which disagrees about climate change, but that opinion is struggling to explain melting glaciers and, well, butterflies in December. Perhaps more important is the scientific disagreement as to the reasons for the warming, though the majority opinion holds that human activity is responsible. We can more or less disregard all political opinions on the subject, my opinion and yours as well.

It’s not so much that our opinions aren’t important – they are. Our opinions are part of who we are. They influence our behavior and they speak directly to our peace of mind, or lack thereof. Yes, our opinions about global warming are important – it’s just that they don’t matter.

They don’t matter because given the options we currently have as individuals, nothing we do or don’t do is going to move the needle one way or the other. For example, if every American stopped driving automobiles for a year, the reduced carbon footprint would be more than compensated by the increase already baked in to the growth of Asian economies.

“But every individual is responsible for a share in the state of the planet.” No argument there, but let’s look at some of the options we have to reduce the impact of our share. Maybe I can buy an electric car, for example. Fine, but not everyone has an extra $50,000 for a Tesla, and I can’t afford to cover my roof with solar panels when my entire paycheck goes to the grocery store and in the gas tank. There just aren’t enough rich people to save the world.

Furthermore, Tesla’s are not made from recycled plastic straws cooked in solar ovens. It takes a heavy industrial supply chain to provide the materials, particularly the rare earths used in batteries and electronic components, critical to the manufacture of any modern vehicle. Rare earth mining has huge ecological costs in disruptive excavation practices and toxic byproducts.

The rare earths for batteries and components, the metals for infrastructure, the asphalt for roads to transport it all, are not mined by solar excavators, processed in wind powered blast furnaces, manufactured in chocolate factories and transported in unicorn-drawn hemp fiber trailers over highways paved with good intentions. Not yet, anyway.

The trouble with modern thinking is that we have become habituated to the false dilemma and the “all or nothing” proposition. We must be all left or all right, conservative or liberal, progressive or regressive, zero carbon or dead. That kind of thinking is a mouse trap with a hair trigger. Ask Europe, getting a bit chilly in the realization that “zero carbon” is a fine goal when you have enough windmills and solar panels and storage capacity to last through a cold winter – before you start shuttering your gas and coal generation.

Did I just hear a conservative chortling and turning up the thermostat? Not so fast. While the manufacture of solar and wind power generation comes at a cost to the environment that is initially very steep, a solar panel pays for it’s carbon within 6 months to a year, depending on where it’s manufactured, and solar panels currently last about 10 years on average. The technology is improving all the time, becoming more efficient and less destructive to the environment. Hydrocarbons are solar powered too, but their cost is inflated by a “middle man” measured in geologic cycles.

It’s a “no brainer.” It’s inevitable if we intend for our great grandchildren to survive. But it’s not an instant winner lottery ticket either. It’s going to take time, and planning, and setting aside politics and opinions and letting science and innovation lead. That’s a tall order, I know, and it will require electing people who are not limited to all or nothing thinking or the belief that enough money and mandates will make the problem go away.

In the meantime, don’t worry about what Pandora Pixel says, or anyone else trying to stampede your attention with doom and drama. Buy a solar panel if you can, and if you can’t, turn the thermostat down and wear a sweater. Don’t be wasteful. Don’t be selfish. Use common sense. A butterfly in December is not a reason to panic, but it is an invitation to pay attention.

Away from the influence of politicians, pundits and Pandora’s, perhaps that butterfly also brings a message of hope. It’s still alive in December. Somehow it managed to survive multiple frosty mornings, temperatures in the 20’s and the lack of a single blooming thing in sight. It adapted, and lived to enjoy the sunshine for another day. So will we.

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