When I was a kid in Wisconsin in the 1970s, we didn’t have global warming. We had litter, and we had pollution. Well, and nuclear annihilation, but we didn’t really learn about that until fourth or fifth grade, and even then it didn’t make a lot of sense. We did have endangered species. And of course, man-made extinction, but those dodos and pigeons were long gone, so it was kind of hard to grasp what we’d lost.
About these problems, there were things we could do and not do. Do: make a yearly trek down the road with a garbage bag to pick up beer bottles; avoid killing things; plant trees. Don’t: throw candy wrappers out the window; leave toilet paper in the woods; deep-six soda cans in the lake. Don’t: leave the lights on when you weren’t in a room; burn stuff that’s plastic; own a factory. Do: listen again and again to the 33⅓ RPM six-inch Flexi-disc Songs of the Humpback Whale.
On February 24, 2017, I shared a picture of my blooming iris reticulata bulbs on Facebook. They started blooming on February 21, the earliest by a week they’ve ever bloomed in my northeast Ohio yard. A lot had sucked about the previous few months, and it cheered me to have a week of warm weather which coaxed the flowers to pop—deep purple, pale blue, sunshine yellow—their velvety petals dropping open, speckled like Gerard Manley Hopkins “dappled things.” Within minutes, a friend commented that his snowdrops were flowering and that his walnut was budding out. “What does that portend?” he asked. “It sounds like it means that someday there will be shade,” I said. He responded, “Or that they will freeze and fall off.” On each flower post someone shared, for every “Pretty!” comment, there was at least one “Oh no! Too early!” Then it got good and cold again, and everyone calmed down.
Songs of the Humpback Whale was included in the January 1979 issue of The National Geographic accompanying an article titled “Humpbacks: Their Mysterious Songs.” The album was pressed on a floppy black square of vinyl, and our kiddie record player had a hard time keeping the speed even—speeding up and slowing down as the needle circled the grooves. The National Geographic Society pressed ten and a half million copies of the flexi disc, or sound sheet, the largest ever by the manufacturer, Eva-tone. On the recording, zoologist Robert Payne narrates over echo-y moans and chirps and squeals of whale songs, which he explains are “probably the longest, loudest, and slowest songs in nature.” When I heard these songs in 1979 at the age of eight, I had no memory of seeing the ocean, which I’d visited when I was very small. The noises suggested a huge space, an infinite and dark concert hall. When people try to explain size to kids, they often rely on the familiar school bus unit. A female humpback whale is about the length of one and a quarter 72-passenger school buses. The much bigger endangered blue whale is the length of over two school buses and weighs more than 15 school buses. The average depth of the ocean is around 310 school buses, or, if you would like to be confused, 242 humpback whales.
We didn’t have global warming back in the 1970s, but we did have “inadvertent climate modification,” which sounds like someone accidentally bumping the thermostat—and pretty much is. Scientists figured we could affect climate, but weren’t sure which direction. Aerosols cooling versus greenhouse gases warming? In 1975, a scientist first used the term “global warming” in a paper appearing in Science. Then, in 1979, the same year as the release of Songs of the Humpback Whale, the Charney Report, a study by the National Academy of Science, debuted the term “climate change” in its discussion of the impact of increasing carbon dioxide on the planet. The report found “no reason to believe these changes would be negligible,” a mild and lyricless way of saying bad things were probably afoot. Global warming usually refers to surface temperature issues, while climate change covers that warming as well as other impacts of greenhouse gases. Nowadays, the term “global climate change” means everything we should wisely fear.
Litter, when I was a kid in Wisconsin, was beer bottles and soda cans, Styrofoam cups, candy wrappers, paper products. When we’d scour the ditches on our quest for garbage, we were mostly fishing out cans and bottles. On both sides of the road near my house lay wetlands, the marshy western edge of Lake Keesus’s Marquardt’s Bay, and we’d pluck things out from among the cattails. I don’t remember finding fast food detritus, but that may be because there was no fast food restaurant within miles and miles of the place. Six miles away, in Hartland, there was an A&W drive-in watched over by a big fiberglass bear who wore a sweater and no pants and a chain-link pen in the parking lot holding a llama for some reason. You got your root beer float in a big glass mug. I couldn’t tell you how far away the nearest McDonald’s was—too far for a kid on a bike.
I also remember pulling out plastic six-pack rings, which made me feel particularly helpful, since we were told they could strangle ducks and turtles. We knew that we were supposed to cut up the rings when we threw them in the trash, I guess to protect the wildlife in the landfill; I didn’t really think it through. After outcry about the rings harming wildlife, manufacturers switched to rings that were “degradable,” which meant that they became brittle in sunlight, a short-term solution, since the bits of plastic could still be eaten by creatures or enter the eco-system in tiny parts too small for a kid to pick up on the side of the road. Recently, a craft brewery has invented a six-pack ring that’s made from barley and wheat and is completely edible by marine life, or at least by marine life who want to eat barley and wheat. I assume it’s edible by human life, too. An ad for the brewery explains that Americans drink 6.3 billion gallons of beer a year and half of that beer comes in cans. Against a backdrop of a six-pack ring floating in blue water, the ad says, “Most of the plastic six-pack rings used end up in the ocean.” I’m not sure where they get that “most,” or how one would measure such a thing, but if I’m doing my arithmetic correctly, those rings strung together would be the length of 83,760,683 school buses—or 65,333,333 humpback whales. This number seems impossible until I consider that you can buy 4,300 six-pack rings (made in the USA!) for 130 bucks.
What there wasn’t in those ditches—I know for sure—were plastic t-shirt style grocery bags. In 1987 I was a junior in high school the first time my mom came home from the store with plastic grocery bags. I remember looking at them lined up on the kitchen counter and thinking, “That looks like a bad idea.” Each bag’s translucent skin held only a few items—a carton of ice cream or a few cans of soup. At least you could cram a ton of stuff in a decent paper bag. Plastic t-shirt bags first appeared in American groceries in 1979, and even though 75 percent of stores had them available in 1985, only a quarter of customers preferred them. By 2003, four of every five grocery bags were plastic. Today, of course, they’re ubiquitous.
Songs of the Humpback Whale was kind of impossible to sing along with, so I also played various Sesame Street albums on our kiddie record player, including one featuring a song called “The Garden.” In it, sultry Susan croons with Oscar the Grouch about litter, a dark moral lesson evoking a kid version of apocalypse—not to be confused with “Garden Song,” sung by John Denver on a 1979 episode of The Muppet Show, a cheerful melody about planting seeds, accompanied by a choir of oversized pansies, a prickly pear, and a watermelon, all flapping throatless wedge-shaped mouths. In “The Garden,” Susan warns that if we throw trash on the ground, pollute the air, and toss junk in the ocean, we’ll regret it. It’s prescient. She sings, “You take a lot of trash and dump it in the bottom of the sea. The octopuses and the oysters won’t complain to you and me. But someday you might get hungry for a tuna fish fricassee, and you’ve got a glop glop grungy glub garden where the ocean used to be.” Goodbye sad humpback whales. The song ends with the ominous suggestion that you might end up with this mess “where the whole world used to be,” a nightmare image of Earth as landfill that horrified me and scared me straight about any plans to litter I might have had.
Kids today have global warming, but they can’t learn about it from the current Environmental Protection Agency website. In May 2017, the EPA pulled its page A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change in order “to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt,” as the website states under the banner, “The page is being updated.” NASA, however, has a Climate Kids website, which goes into such things as arctic oscillation, a description of which features a photo of the Obama’s puppy Bo enjoying deep snow.
The site also discusses the choice between paper and plastic, concluding that both are bad for the environment and suggesting that one should bring one’s own bag to the grocery store, though it says that the checkout clerk may forget to ask you, “Did you bring your own bag?” Fifteen years ago, I had to convince checkout clerks that I didn’t need my groceries packed in plastic bags before putting them in my cloth bags, and just the other day a clerk insisted against my protests that she put some cleanser I’d bought in a plastic bag “so it wouldn’t explode all over everything else,” a phenomenon that has never once happened in all my shopping years. As I watch shoppers head to the parking lot with enormous nests of blue plastic bags in their carts, I want to travel to some of the places like California that have banned the use of the t-shirt bag, so I can see if it feels like 1979. Though the United States is cutting edge about making stuff, they’re behind on banning stuff. Lots of countries, including China, have bans on using plastic bags or giving them away for free. In Kenya, trafficking in any way with plastic bags—making, selling, using—could get you a $40,000 fine or four years in jail, or one-third the recommended life-span of a school bus.
I’m curious what people are teaching second- and third-graders about the environment nowadays. As I poke around looking for lesson plans about climate change, I begin to think maybe it’s a bit like nuclear annihilation—off-limits until fourth or fifth grade.
What I find for the younger kids on the sites about climate change is a lot like my own Dos and Don’ts from 40 years ago—pick up litter, turn off the lights, don’t waste water, ride your bike. Some feature Dr. Seuss’s book The Lorax, which was written in 1971. A new addition to the Dos is “Recycle paper, plastic, glass, and cans.” We had recycling, sort of, but it was just us going around with a wagon collecting neighbors’ newspapers so we could get some cash for them. There weren’t plastic water or soda bottles back then and no such thing as curbside recycling, at least where I lived. It turns out that just taking a school bus can help the environment, so that’s a pretty easy thing for little kids to do; each bus keeps an average of 36 cars off the road. But some of the lessons I find just have me scratching my head. The NASA Climate Kids website suggests making an ocean ecosystem dessert out of blue Jell-O and Swedish fish. And then—eat it? Maybe NASA should stick to educating us about things in space, like the school bus-sized asteroid that buzzed between earth and the moon in January 2017, a few days after President Trump’s inauguration.
It’s not fair to dump unsolvable problems on the kids who will inherit them until they’re at least partly responsible for the damage. Little kids are victims of damage, not perpetrators, though the United States does produce about 428 humpback whales’ worth of disposable diaper garbage a day. Maybe on the list should be “grow into the kind of person who cares, but who also acts on their concern.” But that would be hard to measure with school buses or with humpback whales. Maybe these Dos and Don’ts we share with kids only make us, the older generations, feel less guilt for our own complicity in the world’s problems and our confusion about how to fix it. Somewhere between kid-hood and adulthood, I forgot that the world wasn’t always this injured. I’ve been witness and accomplice to destruction, which felt inevitable, because a lot of people do care and act, and still the situation is dire. We ask kids to believe something we don’t really believe ourselves—that they can change the future; if we believed this, then we’d address the root cause for what it is: our own human weakness. One thing I remember about my Dos and Don’ts is that they felt like a battle cry against an outside danger, some evil force trying to ruin my planet, and, strangely, that made it feel like there might be a solution.
Though not much seems to have changed in the environmental curriculum for second and third grade over the last decades, I consider one thing little kids do learn in school today that I was never taught: how to barricade themselves within their own classrooms while a “bad guy” roams their halls with a firearm. In one lesson, kids are taught to stack chairs and desks against the door, and “make the classroom more like a fort.” I find a photo of fifth-graders crouched on the floor, holding their textbooks as though they might use them as shields. Another lesson teaches students to throw objects at the bad guy to distract him; one school recommended students keep canned goods in their desks for this very purpose. These lessons suggest that simply knowing and following the rules will save their lives. What the students aren’t taught is that the bad guy is very likely to be one of them.
I’m about as old as the lifespan of a humpback whale. As an American, that means I’m probably responsible for around 74,000 pounds of garbage thus far, or 1.14 humpback whales. To put it another way, my pile of garbage would be as long as 226 school buses. The nation produces 21,412 humpback whales of garbage each day—or 7,815,492 humpback whales a year. A school bus produces emissions, including half a baby humpback whale of carbon monoxide and 40.5 adult humpback whales of nitrogen oxides in its 250,000-mile lifespan. A humpback whale produces nothing that damages the world it lives in. Instead, it contributes to this planet the longest, loudest, slowest dirge—its mournful songs.
Mary Quade is the author of two poetry collections: Guide to Native Beasts and Local Extinctions. The recipient of three Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Awards for both poetry and creative nonfiction, she teaches creative writing at Hiram College. She has new essays also appearing this spring in Mid-American Review and Broad Street.
Header photo by Tomas Kotouc, courtesy Shutterstock.