We have seen some amazing and inspiring things over the last 10 months, but since visiting Bryce Canyon in the last week I have been feeling haunted. At Bryce Canyon, Amy and Oliver once again checked in at the National Parks Visitor Centre where they picked up yet another junior ranger program booklet – their sixth in the last five weeks.
That evening, tucked up in a quiet, unofficial campsite on a dirt side road just outside the boundaries of the National Park and with nothing else in particular to do Amy, Oliver and I started working our way through the booklet. Of all the junior ranger books they have tackled this was the most engaging with a range of exercises that required some real effort. One such exercise involved the completion of a series of tables to help estimate their carbon footprint over an average year.
We jumped in and by multiplying the carbon associated with various food, travel and other lifestyle choices with the amount consumed we calculated that they produce 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year and that this would require the planting of around 105 trees each to offset. Much discussion on climate change ensued. This was not the first time it has come up as a serious topic of conversation this year, but it was the first time our personal contributions to the problem were thrown into the mix.
Environmental pressures on our planet have been apparent throughout our travels, although their presence has tended to niggle uncomfortably away in the background rather than sitting firmly front and centre. Dams on the Mekong, choking view denying smog in Nepal, shrivelled glaciers in Iceland and Europe, bark beetles killing millions of trees in Yosemite because the winters are no longer cold enough. I could go on.
None of this, I should say, was concerning me the week before when Emma and I took a walk (Amy and Oliver opted to stay behind with Granny) up to the Angels Landing in Zion National Park. The Angels Landing sits atop a thin rocky monolith supported by 500-metre-high vertical cliffs. It looks down over the ‘big bend’ in the Virgin River and across to the rim of the Zion Canyon in all directions.
Degradation of the environment couldn’t have been further from our minds as we made our way across the ridge of rock, a fin as some describe it, no more than a metre wide and dropping hundreds of metres almost straight down on either side. It was stomach churning in places and I like hanging off cliffs! My predominant thought that day was how wonderful it is that the National Park Service still has the appetite to allow visitors to take on a little personal risk – despite the six people that have fallen to their death.
We weren’t thinking of environmental degradation the day beforehand either when the four of us walked for kilometres, knee deep in the waters of the Virgin River, up through the Narrows of the Zion Canyon. Ice-cream headaches in our feet made it unpleasant for the first 10 minutes after which they went numb and we were freed up to enjoy the canyon and the sense of adventure.
Back in Bryce Canyon and even after completing the carbon calculations, thoughts of climate change still took a back seat to more immediate considerations. Like the fact that Bryce Canyon is not really a canyon at all. It’s an eroding plateau which forms part of the upper heights of the much larger Colorado Plateau – a most unusual geologic feature.
The Colorado Plateau spans four states across 362,600 square kilometres. It is also known as the ‘Grand Staircase’, a series of plateaus spanning the geologic ages and climbing ever higher from sea level down near Death Valley to more than 2900 metres around Bryce Canyon. It is through the Colorado Plateau that the Colorado River has carved the Grand Canyon.
At the altitude where the Bryce Canyon occurs the weather tends to oscillate just under and just over freezing for about 180 days every year. The continuous freezing and thawing has a most unusual impact on the sandstone rocks. Water seeps into cracks, freezes and prises them apart before thawing out and doing it all over again. The result is the visually spectacular ‘hoodoos’ upon which we gazed and through which we walked.
The hoodoos are just cool. ‘Some are short, some are tall, but one day all the hoodoos will fall.’ So wrote some poetic junior ranger in a passage now quoted by the resident senior ranger geologist. Amy and Oliver didn’t come up with anything quite so poetic. In fact, they skipped over that exercise in favour of the carbon calculations.
As we drove away from Bryce Canyon my mind drifted back to carbon and climate change. I comforted myself (although deluded may be a better word) that at least our drive back to Las Vegas was relatively carbon friendly, descending as it does from over 9000 feet all the way back down to 2000 feet. Gravity powered almost all the way.
It was a drive down the Grand Staircase. Along the way we spent a night in a very scenic canyon along the Virgin River filled with Joshua Trees and cactus before pulling up at the Sam’s Town RV park in Las Vegas – filled once again with RVs which were for the most part personal bus size vehicles. My heart warmed to the one tiny little caravan, parked next to our motorhome. It was only three metres long.
The next morning, we returned the RV, bid a fond farewell to my mum at the airport and moved into an Airbnb townhouse in the suburbs. A quick note in relation to my mum before I move on. She is most excellent. Over the last few years in particular she seems to have developed a most inspiring outlook on life.
It’s mellow and it’s accepting and it’s non-judgemental and yet it is not in denial. Live and let go. Care, but don’t be weighed down by what you cannot change or control. These are my impressions of my mum. We hope you had a good trip home Granny. It was a pleasure having you along for part of the ride.
Yesterday, still in Las Vegas and enjoying some down time from running hither and thither, and perhaps because our consciousness had been piqued by Amy and Oliver’s junior ranger work, Emma and I sat down to watch the National Geographic presentation ‘Before the Flood‘ about where the world was at when it came to climate change in the lead up to last year’s Paris Climate Change Conference. It was terrifying. Half way through I wanted to turn it off but felt compelled to watch to the end. It’s not easy viewing, but I hope you will take a look.
As if this was not enough I was also reminded of news headlines I have come across over the last few weeks raising the cheery prospect of imminent mass extinctions and the prediction that by 2050 the weight of plastic in the oceans will match the weight of marine life. Even the Las Vegas weather forecast last night chimed in with presenters marvelling at unseasonably warm weather. It’s about ten degrees warmer here than it should be right now. I know that is not directly attributable to climate change, but can it be dismissed?
What are we supposed to do with all that information? How do we reconcile the fact that living the way we do is part of the problem, with the fact that so much of the lifestyle we lead is or was determined by the world into which we were born and our kids were born?
And… how does any individual influence change in a world of nearly 9 billion people dominated by the competing interests of over 200 national governments, institutional bureaucracies, multibillion dollar global corporations and countless competing vested interests and lobby groups?
These things I ponder when all is quiet in the backseat, occasionally disappearing into fits of silent despair. Fortunately, a little of mum’s wisdom managed to help drag me back to the surface. What will be, will be, and what is important is to do what we can. This at least brings the locus of influence, if not the locus of concern, back under control.
In follow-up to our carbon counting exercises and ruminations, the four of us found ourselves brainstorming the kind of things that we could actually do that would be in support of the kind of world we would like to live in. Number one on the list was to calculate the carbon footprint of our flights this year. Oliver and Emma tackled the task as part of morning school work. By the time we get home we will have flown 57,749 kilometres producing (between the four of us) 19.428 tonnes of carbon.
The next step is to find a credible offset program through which to reduce our impact. Offsets are not ideal perhaps but the best available option given the choices we have already made.
Back to the brainstorming, Oliver wants to invent a device that will generate power and charge a mobile phone as you peddle your bike. We will get out there and plant those 105 trees each with Greening Australia or some such similar organisation when we get home. We will continue in our efforts to eat less meat, particularly beef, (a little research on the greenhouse contribution of beef is informative) and we will opt for one car rather than two when we get home with a corresponding increase in public transport and pedal power.
It’s not much in the scheme of things and it won’t change the world but hope and action is a whole lot more pleasant place to reside than inaction and despair. It also places us amongst the swelling ranks of those who are doing something and who would really like to see a whole lot more. This may well be more important than all of the former. Government’s after all tend to follow the electorate far more than they lead. Change on a global scale is only going to occur when we stop looking to others and when enough people line up and demand that is what they want.