Fanning the Flames

By Jon Doyle

Welcome to Cascadia Climate Action’s weekly intern blog! If you’re just joining us, please take a moment to check out Eden’s post (here) on her introduction and personal motivations for pursuing a career as an environmentalist before continuing on to read about mine.

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Jon Doyle, and I’m currently an undergraduate senior at the University of Washington’s Program on the Environment along with Eden and Gabriella, who you’ll hear from next week. Like Eden and Gabriella, I’m interning with CCA as a part of my Environmental Studies capstone, which I’m coupling with research on the environmental movement.

I didn’t always expect that I would study the environment before moving up to Seattle from Elkhorn, Nebraska four years ago. Up until the end of my freshman year at UW, I expected to pursue a career in law, yet, I was always engaged with environmentalism in large part due to my parents and the household I was raised in.

A picture of my hometown, Elkhorn, just west of Omaha, Nebraska.

Both of my parents were devout Catholics who worked professional jobs in the city’s small downtown. Growing up, they taught me and my siblings that discipline, determination, and service were the keys to success. Discipline in our chores, determination in our school work, and service to the community through our church and school. Additionally, they made a point of keeping us informed about the world outside our hometown through our regular family dinners, the only time of the day that all of us could sit down together as an entire family. These dinners were my first exposure to the idea that humans were already stewards of the planet regardless of our choice to be so or not, a theme familiar to many Catholics.

You see, my siblings and I were very blessed that our mother would take the time to make our family dinners as international as the local grocery store would allow. “I won’t have you leave my household as an adult knowing nothing outside of your own traditional American cuisine,” my mom would say. Having grown up in Seattle with immigrant parents, my mother was very conscious of the seclusion the rurality Nebraska would bring to our childhoods and was determined to counteract as much. Always hand-made, some of my favorite meals my mom would prepare included Indian, Thai, Japanese, Swedish, and Spanish dishes.

“And don’t you dare think about wasting it.” my dad would add. “You children are so blessed by God with everything you are given, many children like you across the world and here in America go without.” He would often defend his claims citing a recent NPR story he’d heard that morning on the radio news about a drought or global warming. “In 25 years, when you are all adults, the world will be facing extreme resource scarcity, and it’ll be up to you to use what you have wisely.” Even in rural, red Nebraska, my siblings and I grew up with the understanding that humans have already impacted the Earth, and that not only was it our moral charge to be conscious and conservative, but that it was also an existential one.

That’s a lot to take on as an eight-year-old. Indeed, it’s a feeling I have no doubt that many of you reading this post, if not most, hate to relate with but still can nonetheless. In fact, some social scholars now describe the bombardment of harrowing news stories about the climate catastrophe -premier amongst others- as contributing to a new phenomenon called climate anxiety. In a book called, No Impact Man, Colin Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, describes another relevant term, stasis through obfuscation, in which people are so overwhelmed with catastrophic climate rhetoric that we’re paralyzed into inaction. And that’s exactly what happened to me.

After every dinner, I’d go to my room worrying about the state of the world and my inability to do anything about it other than bury myself in my school work or extracurriculars to prepare myself for a career in a professional, corporate world. And that’s how I coped, by not taking anything my parents ever said too seriously. Perhaps that came directly from the extreme privilege of my childhood, which I do not deny, but even the privileged can’t escape a phenomenon as global as anthropogenic climate change.

As I prepared for high school, I remember playing for my hometown’s baseball team. One afternoon, our whole team was grabbing a bite of pizza after practice and I noticed a clip of blazing fire in my peripheral. I turned to catch one of the TV screens overhanging the restaurant countertop, showing footage of a column of black smoke like one would see coming out of a volcanic underwater ocean vent, except it was billowing from the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico. I was mesmerized, shocked, and anxious. But even deeper still, I was disgusted. It was the first time I remember reflecting to myself, “How could we have let this happen? Why were people filming it instead of doing something!?” I watched and rewatched that same footage for weeks thereafter. Today it’s one of the few flashbulb memories I’ve acquired. A distinct remembrance of the time I woke up from my stasis, turning my attention to what was actually happening right in front of my very eyes.

Unlike the temperate West Coast of the United States, Nebraska and the neighboring lands of the Great Plains are seasonal, and dramatically so without any major body of water to buffer temperature extremes from the Gulf of Mexico to the south or the Canadian tundra to the north. Consequently, summers can be hotter than 100 degrees Fahrenheit and winters regularly reaching below the freezing point, sometimes below 0. This aspect of the weather in Nebraska filled my childhood with green summers and weeks’ worth of snow days, due to drifts of snow blocking people in sometimes up to ten feet. But it also served as a climate baseline for me.

Throughout high school, I would notice odd changes in the climate, all associated with warmer weather. Droughts and brown patches became a more frequent sight over summers, and winter snow days whittled down to 0 during years when it was too warm for snow to even ever stick to the ground longer than an hour or so. And the seasons started to blend into one another. The very stories my parents warned me about at our dinners were starting to become more visible to me in my everyday life. But what could I do about it? All this time I had been preparing for college applications, I hadn’t really thought about what ways I could help other than watching my own habits.

When it came time to head off to college, I intended to study political science at the University of Washington, known for many famous political scientists. And in one of my classes, we discussed what at the time was a current event, the Paris Climate Accords, formally known as COP 21. That day in my Food Politics class, I learned that there were people working to make a difference, and urgently so. I remember sitting there and feeling goosebump inspiration and focus. I began to reconsider the vision of my horizon and greater incorporate an aspect of service to my studies. And I’ve been on this path ever since.

I recently flew back home to Nebraska over the winter holidays to celebrate Christmas and a few family birthdays. Just like when I was a kid, our whole family sat down again every night and had many a wonderful meal over talk about the news. Perhaps being my last Christmas visit home as a student, I took the opportunity to ask my dad why he always would talk to us about our responsibilities, specifically as stewards of the environment.

“Because I see climate change this way, Jon. The house is on fire, and the adults downstairs are fanning the flames, with their children all locked in the attic.” He said with such sangfroid. I can’t forget it.

For those of us tempted to believe that we aren’t implicated in this analogy, you are misguided. We all are. The question now is, who are we in this analogy. Who are you? Who am I? Are we the parents fanning the flames, or the children locked in the attic?

As for me, I’m still working on being neither. Denial accrues interest, and inaction is defeatist. We need to put out the flames, for it’s all there is time left to do before the house burns down.