It may seem odd to some that I'm talking about global warming on Martin Luther King Day. But if Dr. King were alive today, I'll bet he would be concerned at how this threat has some terrifying implications for civil rights. In any case, I can't resist commenting on an event in my home state the other day, that shows how deep some Americans still have their heads buried.
In Choteau, Montana, the school board pressured the high-school principal to cancel a speech on global warming by a Nobel laureate. They felt that the message to their farming and ranching community would be "anti agriculture." The speaker, University of Montana scientist Steve Running, who worked with the UN science panel sharing the Nobel Prize with Al Gore, was shocked at this tragic tic of shortsightedness.
As a ranch-born Montanan, I share Steve Running's shock. As global warming kicks in, agriculture will be one of the first sectors to be devastated. In fact farmers and ranchers are already being bankrupted, as chronic and unprecedented drought ravaged large regions across the U.S. during the last year.
I wouldn't dare to guess how Dr. King might mention global warming in his "I have a dream" speech. But it would probably be in there somewhere. Something along the line of how little black kids and brown kids and white kids need more than schools where they can learn in equality -- they need food to eat and a world to grow up in that isn't devastated by war and natural disaster. All the civil rights in the world will not help much if Earth heads into one of the periodic convulsions that has marked Her history. The complete breakdown of societies and governments, and law and order, that would follow a global catastrophe -- or even a widespread famine -- would be horrific from a human-rights standpoint. All the different civil-rights communities who are fighting right now for justice (including our own gay community) would experience the horrors along with everybody else.
Choteau is a small town (pop. 1800) that sits just east of the Rockies' front range, amid a vast sweep of wheat farms and cattle range. And this isn't the first time that Choteau has been in the news for climate shortsightness. In late 2001, David Letterman, who owns a big vacation ranch nearby, took a poke at the town on the "Late Show." The town had done a fundraiser and sent money to the 9/11 families in New York, and Letterman pointed out that Choteau forgot about rural families right in their area who were suffering from drought. I imagine that some in the town missed the point and called Letterman "a goddam pilgrim" who had no right to criticise Montanans.
But the other day, the Choteau school board found itself the target of a whole heap of criticism...from other locals and from people around the state. High-school students and some townspeople raised enough of a ruckus that the media came to town again. Steve Running commented sadly to the AP, "I think there's a faction of society that is willfully ignorant."
If my dad were still alive, he'd have a thing or two to say to the Choteau school board. Con Warren ranched in Montana all his life, from the early '30s till he retired in the '80s. He became passionately convinced that a big climate change was afoot. He died in 1993, before the alarming recent figures on polar ice melt were in. But he spent his final years sitting hunched in his kitchen, rolling his handmade cigarettes and talking to anybody who would listen about the alarming things he'd noticed. The trend to drier, open winters with little snow pack. The changes in native vegetation. A creeping desertification across the whole West, which he compared to what's happening in the Sahel in central Africa.
Dad was even convinced that the rampant clear-cutting of timber in the Rockies was adding into a drier climate. "Trees make weather," he said. "They bring water."
The fact is, my dad was that rare bird -- a Republican who wasn't brain-dead about global warming. In order to make a living, he'd learned to pay attention to Mother Earth, so he couldn't deny the evidence that was right in front of his eyes. My dad never got a Nobel, of course. His only public recognition was being named to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1984 as recognition of his pioneering work in rangeland replanting after the big 1930s drought. I often encouraged him to do public speaking and help raise Americans' consciousness on global warming, especially around the state.
But Dad shrugged me off. "Nobody's going to listen to a cranky old cowboy," he said.
Maybe this new ruckus in Choteau will spark a change in local thinking. Like every other issue, global warming has to be dealt with on a community level, not just on a global policy level. People are going to be deeply affected at the community level...like all those islanders in the South Pacific who are making plans to move because they're already experiencing the negative effects of rising ocean levels. There have to be some farmers and ranchers out in that big country who share my dad's creepy feeling about what's ahead. Hopefully they will be cranky enough to make their voices heard.