The Ethiopian government says that 23 million citizens planted 350 million trees Friday, which would be better than the 220 million a province in India got in the ground earlier in the week. The Ethiopians plan to have 4 billion trees planted by October. This is a good start to the trillion we need (https://www.trilliontreecampaign.org/ ). You probably didn’t notice this planet-saving activity amid another week of grim and silly American behavior.
The next two decades may well write the story of the next million years. The story could be an autopsy about our tragically missing survival gene. Jonas Salk wrote an optimistic book called, “Survival of the Wisest” in which he argued that our species can adapt at the cultural planetary level precisely because we are not hard-wired for any one set of environmental circumstances. We are not doomed by our genes to repeat the ugly Cro-Magnon versus Neanderthal racial conflicts. We can eclipse one season’s best ideas (bronze clubs) with another’s more appropriate one (the United Nations). Mr. Trump does not tweet because of his genes; and we need not respond to him because of ours. Granted Dr. Salk did not imagine Mr. Trump. But he was familiar with World War Two, sickle cell on the Mississippi Delta, numerous pogroms and our dalliance with nuclear Armageddon. He still thought we could be wise. Not likely, but possible.
We might stupidly squabble past the time that any number of trees could prevent a planetary boil-off. Life would become impossible for all but a few hundred thousand clinging to some isolated niches. Human civilization would collapse of thirst, then hunger. Visit Mesopotamia, if you want a preview. Meanwhile the trees that got planted in the 2020’s will have kept growing. Long after civilization stops pumping carbon into the air the trees will keep sucking more out, triggering a deep chill. The few surviving the bake-off, will face a doozie of an ice-age turning our temperate blue marble into an iceball.
Fortunately, nothing will disturb the orbit of earth, which is perfect for life. So, in a few hundred thousand laps around our little star, life will try again. That future homo sapiens sapiens sapiens might have better instincts (if not quite a gene). Maybe they’ll find it impossible to steal from their grandchildren. Perhaps they will know not to pee in their own soup or that of their neighbor. They will again evolve libraries and librarians (probably not academics) to serve their instinct to understand the wondrous planet they will be grateful to live on. They may wonder about the thin layer of plastic marking our thin season in the archeological record. Maybe in one of the grand canyon caves where we find 4,000 year old grass figurines, they will find one of our plastic trail maps, full of ignored warnings. Who would ever be so foolish to need them?
Or maybe we will follow the Ethiopians and plant some seeds of compassion along with the trillion trees. If we don’t plant some compassion fast, nobody is going to be around to water the seedlings. I don’t mean shouting at the Neanderthals with tactical gear in the Wal-marts to get compassion. Of course, they’re dangerous, but mostly because they are in the way of saving the planet for both of our grandchildren—millions of them.
Stupid fear-based violence is like smallpox, once the leading cause of death planet-wide. We need to surround those spreading the disabling fear with a sea of grown-ups wise enough to de-escalate conflict and make it difficult to spread. Just like violence, smallpox is actually difficult to catch and slow to spread. Bill Foege noticed this when he was a missionary in the Biafran war and realized that if people were armed with the knowledge about smallpox, they could alert community health workers who could inoculate everyone nearby and stop the spread. Violence is like that. Surround it by its opposite. Make it hard to spread.
If the planet spins on without us, it won’t because we lacked teachers–King, Mandela and Gandhi, of course. You have dozens of people in your life to learn from, too. All the great ones annoyed their followers by teaching us to focus first on our own anger. Only then try to forgive those that threaten and then build a bridge of respectful practical kindness to another. Take care of their thirst and hunger. Over and over and over.
This is the most first and most fundamental work of public health. You can’t do public anything without a public that can talk. Read this article in the Journal of Public Health Practice by public health lawyers, no less! (Gandhi was a lawyer, too.) This is the creative capacity better than a survival gene that Salk was hoping for.
Wouldn’t you rather do this this than plant four billion trees in the rocky dust of Ethiopia? Take the temperature down a notch. Be the messenger we need. Plant a tree. Today.