Regeneration Stories in Scarred Times: My Son, Our Planet
Ever since my son was diagnosed with a rare ocular syndrome and retinal scarring last winter, I have found myself returning to the promise of regeneration—in our stories, our health and our ecosystems.
When it comes to our health, the potential for regenerative medicine seems to be growing. I have plowed through reams of scientific studies in stages of despair and encouragement that this growing field may hold hope for “regenerating damaged tissues and organs in the body," according to the National Institutes of Health, "by stimulating previously irreparable organs to heal themselves."
Regenerative medicine institutes abound in the U.S. and abroad, specializing in eye and heart diseases, tissue replacement to organs affected by cancer. Global demand for stem cells has created a multi-billion dollar market. Japan’s government recently kicked in $1.7 billion for its regenerative medicine industry.
Recent breakthroughs in stem cell research, such as last summer’s study by the Oregon Health and Science University on patient-specific embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning, make headlines regularly now.
But my son Massimo’s future depends not only on these huge investments in regenerative medicine; his generation needs a similar investment in regenerating our ravaged ecosystems. Facing the silent tsunamis of climate change and environmental destruction, my son’s planet is as scarred and imperiled as his sight.
In a way, my total focus now on dealing with such damage goes back further than the diagnosis. My son was born four months after the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in 2004.
Only days after the tsunami struck, I stood on a scarred beach on the tip of South India. Broken parts of lives and communities and landscapes, no longer coherent, were strewn in a way that seemed beyond rebuilding. The same shores I once saw from the plane, cloaked by palms, were literally swept away.
And yet, after visiting Mitraniketan, a "village regeneration" project in the nearby western Ghat hills on the Tamil Nadu-Kerala border, which had transformed a once deforested and impoverished community into a sustainable tropical forest village, I could not imagine any other place on Earth that curried the still small possibility of hope for renewal.
This small possibility of hope has sent me back to reconsider what I discovered in India.
More than a half century ago, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore spoke of the power of stories as one the main ways for the "regeneration of the Indian people," in a post-colonial nation, to "educate them out of their trance."
Nearly ten years ago, I broke from that "trance" on the devastated beaches of India by hearing the stories of how Mitraniketan brought its vibrant forests and community health back to life.
Inspired by Tagore’s belief that the “source of regeneration, material and intellectual, is in the forest,” Mitraniken emerged in 1956 from the efforts of a small group of determined children and Dalit (or lower caste) villagers in the Western Ghat hills of Kerala to begin the long process of healing and “calling back the soil,” and adapting modern science with traditional ways to reclaim and replant indigenous trees and sustainable agricultural plots. In the process, they embraced community and forest-centered education ideas as part of a larger cultural movement to regenerate villages that had been written off as hopeless wastelands.
Ever since my trip, this photo of despair and determination on the deforested hillsides surrounding Mitraniketan in 1957 has sat on my desk as a reminder of the parable of regeneration in the most discouraging of times.
My son's health predicament has shaken me out of a similar trance today—on many different levels.
In the last year, I have held my son's hand on the banks of the Mississippi River, as we watched his native state of Illinois teeter on the extreme edges of climate change from a prolonged drought that brought the nation’s greatest river to record low depths to an emergency state for spring flooding.
Earlier this spring, we stood in the ruins of a reckless strip mine in a rare stand of old growth forest only 15 minutes from his birthplace in western Illinois that was recently granted a new permit, despite racking up over hundreds of Clean Water Act discharge violations into nearly waterways.
Just like in India, I believe a key part of protecting my son's health is in defending his native forests, as Tagore admonished, as the source of regeneration and its “diverse processes of renewal of life,” and in finding success stories of regenerative medicine and environmental renewal.
By nature, I think writers understand the role of regeneration in storytelling. In many respects, I consider our narrative work a literary process of recovery; the challenge of unearthing, exposing and shedding light on stories that give new life to historical realities considered to be lost or damaged.
Trauma narrative and storytelling play a huge role in that process of recovery—of returning to new, albeit changed, lives.
If we look more deeply into our literary traditions, in fact, the narrative act has always defined the profound and at times dangerous role of renewal. As a penalty for bringing fire to humanity, Prometheus is chained to a rock in Greek mythology, where he watches in agony as his liver regenerates every night, only to be devoured by eagles.
A modern-day update on that story: The Monash University's Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute put out a paper earlier this year on the role of immune cells in the salamanders’ ability to regenerate arms and legs. The Institute’s researcher optimistically called it a “smoking gun” to “tweak the human wound-healing scenario.”
“At the day's end, thou shalt see my scars and know that I had my wounds and also my healing,” Tagore wrote.
As I move forward as a writer, and as a father, my only hope now is that regeneration stories, like regenerative medicine, will continue to show ways our damaged health and ecosystems can heal themselves.
Visit EcoWatch’s CLIMATE CHANGE page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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World's Richest One Percent Are Producing More Than Double the Carbon Emissions as the Bottom 50 Percent
A new report from Oxfam found that the wealthiest one percent of the world produced a carbon footprint that was more than double that of the bottom 50 percent of the world, The Guardian reported. The study examined 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions and wealth inequality from 1990 to 2015.
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