At the onset of 2020, the world watched in horror as Australia burned. Videos of koalas being rescued lit up social media. And then 2020 happened, in all of its spectacular crappiness, and we forgot.
Only the damage we’ve caused our planet didn’t go away just because we were preoccupied. Anyone who can’t see that now, as the entire west coast of our country is on fire, isn’t looking. These fires are absolutely a product of deforestation and climate change, both a consequence of it and serving to escalate it. It’s not just a 24-hour news cycle making it more noticeable, the number of wildfires has grown and will only get worse.
An intergovernmental panel on climate change said the scientific evidence for warming of the climate system is unequivocal. This is not a liberal or conservative debate. It’s not a US thing or a European thing. First world or third world problem. This is about survival of the human species. Earth will go on, even if it has to purge us to do it. The question is: Will we survive with it?
I’m not being hyperbolic. The 2019-2020 Australian brush fire season cost 34 lives. Twenty-five have already been lost on the West coast this year, with officials bracing for mass fatalities. We’re facing the most active hurricane season in NOAA’s 22-year history. While there is much debate around the cause of COVID-19, studies show that climate change causes an increase in pandemics. With the COVID-19 worldwide death rate at 916,000 and counting, is that something we’re prepared to face on a regular basis?
Respected scientists throughout the world point to a series of cascading tipping points in climate change — when one is breached, it acts like a set of dominoes, triggering others. Of the fifteen identified tipping points, seven are active and two are waking up. Not necessarily breached, but showing signs we are on the threshold of the point of no return. An awakening tipping point of particular concern is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a critical component of our ocean’s circulation system. It’s destabilizing, and scientists aren’t sure how long we have until we can’t do anything about it. (Think of the move The Day After Tomorrow.)
There are a lot of things contributing to climate change. The way we produce energy, big agriculture, deforestation, transportation… but there’s one contributing source in particular I’ve become pretty much obsessed with in the last few months: plastic. From cradle to grave, plastic is pure poison to humans, to the environment, and to our climate. As convenient as the stuff is, the costs far outweigh the benefits.
Did you know there are currently 150 metric tons of plastic in our oceans, with more than 8 million tons being added to it annually? Entire swaths of the ocean have become wastelands. Animals are dying. Ecosystems destroyed.
The scariest part? That’s not the worst thing plastic is doing to us. Plastic rapes the environment at its creation, poisons the human body, and does not go away — at least not anytime soon. And, plastic adds to climate change at every single stage of its life cycle. Recycling, in its current state, is not the answer. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us before recycling is a viable part of the solution.
We have got to get serious about just stopping with all the damned plastic. I say this completely surrounded by plastics. It’s been a process in our house. First identifying one product we can replace, then looking around to find the next. I know that all by myself, I can’t single-handedly stop the avalanche of plastics, but I can stop them in my home. And then maybe the people in my inner circle will get sick of hearing me talk about it and stop them in theirs. And then perhaps their friends will as well.
I’ve been planning to start a zero waste series on my blog, reviewing the products I try in hopes of inspiring maybe even one of you to give it ago. Sadly, the first company I planned to review is currently shut down, having evacuated because of the wildfires. Hopefully, Silver Falls Sustainability Company will be up and running again soon so I can tell you how amazing their lip balm is. (Seriously, I haven’t liked a lip balm this much since rollerball lip potion was a thing in the '80s.)
I recently told a friend that I think I’m becoming a hippie in my middle age. She said I always have been, I’m just leaning into it more. Having grown up in a deeply conservative family — I’m an Air Force brat with agricultural roots in the Midwest, for crying out loud — I don’t say any of the above lightly. I understand that much of the work necessary to put the brakes on climate change will be more than hard. But we’re reaching the point where it’s not optional. We can either start tackling these problems now or we can watch in horror as our entire society collapses and hundreds of thousands of people die.
For those who’ve followed my work for any length of time, I hope it’s apparent how deeply my faith matters to me. It shapes my worldview and is a driving force in all I do.
In Genesis 1:26-28, God created man and woman and gave them dominion over the earth. Too many see that as domination. As permission to do whatever they please to animals and the environment. I’ve always seen it as a sacred calling to care for the world He gave us. To lovingly tend the garden and the animals in it. I recently came across this article about The Meaning of Dominion that illustrates it so beautifully. In it, the author explains that if you look at the Hebrew phrase used there, it would be more appropriate to say: Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness, so they may exercise skilled mastery among [or, with respect to] the fish of the sea and among the birds of the air.”
We have not exercised skilled mastery in our care of this beautiful planet we’ve been given. We haven’t, and we need to own it. And, sadly, our actions have consequences. Our lack of action does, too.
Some of you will read this and think “right on,” then share it and forget it. Some will read it, be upset that my viewpoints don’t align with yours, and put down my books for good. It saddens me, but I know it’s a chance I take by speaking my mind.
But my true and sincere hope is that you’ll read this and do a bit of your own research. Read the articles I linked to above. Talk to others. Look at what’s happening in the world around us and ask yourself, honestly, if it seems like a healthy, thriving planet to you.
And, if you come to the conclusion that it’s not, examine what you can do to help. Not what the government can do, corporations should do, your neighbor should do. What can YOU do to help?
Now go do it.
I have a weird Twitter handle. Nine years ago, when I was told by my new publisher to join Twitter, @HeatherHuffman was already taken. All of the obvious spinoffs were too long, and I am like a deer in headlights when it comes to choosing usernames. So, after weeks of trying to come up with a name/driving my family crazy, my sister suggested @Heathers_mark. (The underscore was so it wouldn’t read Heather Smark.) It seemed fitting and I was tired of thinking about it, so I went with it.
Aside from raising awareness for social justice issues like human trafficking and the failures of our current foster care system, a common theme in my novels is that we all have a unique mark to leave on this world. My tagline at the time was Leave Your Mark. It all evolved into graffiti parties instead of typical book launches. They were incredibly fun parties. The venue was a pub on Cherokee Street that was featured in several of the novels. Musician John Bartley, the inspiration behind the character Danny, played at them. Readers, friends, and family came from all over the country to launch my book babies in style. I hung giant painters canvas from the walls and everyone who attended signed or graffitied them.
Those tarps went on book tours with me. They went to fundraisers to fight trafficking and liberate captives from North Korea. They went to school talks, where 8th graders learned about modern day slavery, internet safety, and activism. People of all ages from all over the country signed those tarps, acknowledging that they, too, had a mark to leave on this world.
That time in my life — that campaign, those talks, those books — they are what I am most proud of (aside from my children).
And then life changed and through a series of unfortunate events (and unfortunate choices) I was forced to set aside the words and the causes and return to corporate America because kids require things like warm shelter and food in their bellies. (Needy little buggers)
And during the quiet years, life became less about leaving my mark and more about surviving and healing. It was a time of transition and pain and joy and growth and, ultimately, finding peace. During these silent years, I began to wonder if the mark I’d left was worth much at all. I gave talks about human trafficking to schools and women’s groups, but I’ve never had the impact of one sentence from Ashton Kutcher. The money I’d donated from book royalties was a joke compared to what he’d done. I began to feel silly. Useless.
It was too big of a problem for me to handle and there were so many other injustices I wanted to tackle that I didn’t even know where to start.
And then I got an email from a 70-year-old reader who said she’d learned about human trafficking through my books, so now she always keeps an eye out for it. This year marks a decade since Throwaway made its debut and I still regularly hear from readers who want me to know what the book meant to them. That is a rare and beautiful gift, and one I do not take lightly. The entire conversation with that reader is one I treasure on many levels, and I don’t think she’ll ever realize how timely it was for me. She reminded me that we don’t always know what kind of impact we’re having on other people, so we should keep doing what we know to be right even if we don’t see the results.
Not long ago, I was discussing climate change with my son and we were debating whether the responsibility for change lies with the individual or with corporations. I argued that while corporations certainly have the ability to make a greater impact, there are 7 billion people in the world. Surely if each of those 7 billion people did one little thing to help the climate, the cumulative effect would be great. Fast forward a month, and stories began to hit social media of the reduction in pollution thanks to quarantine.
Whether we intend them or not, our actions have impact. The ripple caused by our choices touches others, and we have no way of knowing how far it reaches. Not really.
I am realizing I got it wrong ten years ago when I encouraged people to leave their mark. Because we will all leave a mark of some sort on this world. It’s up to us to decide what that mark will be, for better or for worse. Rather than #leaveyourmark, I think the appropriate hashtag is #chooseyourmark.
There is so much about our world right now that breaks my heart. I can’t begin to know how to fix any of it. I know cognitively that control is only an illusion, we never really have it, but my life feels especially out of my control at the moment. If I can’t begin to know how to fix my problems, those of the world at large most definitely elude me.
So, I’ve decided to tackle the little things I can fix. I’m making a concerted effort to be kind to those around me — my children, my coworkers, the clerk at the grocery store… pretty much anyone I encounter. I ordered laundry strips and am switching our soap products to reduce the amount of plastic my family adds to the landfills. It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a start. And, being totally transparent, the nice thing really is taking a bit of effort at the moment.
I can’t say if I will ever have any kind of grand impact on this world. Hell, I’m almost 43 and I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. I have failed abysmally at choosing a life partner, I fumble my way through parenting, and most days I struggle to free the words trapped inside me.
But I can do little things to make the world around me brighter. I can encourage my children as they find their own path. Inch by inch, I can do my part to leave this world better for my having been in it.
Right now, the world needs all the brightness it can get, so I encourage each of you to look around you for the opportunities to make it better. I want to hear from you - what is your mark? What’s the thing you give the world to make it a better place? I promise you have something you’re capable of doing, whatever your circumstance. Share it with me and use the hashtag #chooseyourmark if you’re on social media.
The world is filled with an awful lot of darkness right now. Let’s see if we can shine a light together to make it a bit brighter.
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