We Know What We Lost

Although climate change will affect younger generations more in the future, I believe its greatest toll now is on the oldest generations. We’re the ones who remember when the weather was more stable, and destructive droughts or floods were rare events; when summer temperatures rarely reached the 90s; when lakes and rivers were full or weren’t smothered in algae; when beaches weren’t closed because of fish kills or toxicity; when Western skies were blue rather than brown or white.

In my lifetime I’ve seen many changes in the natural environment. When I first started visiting Rocky Mountain National Park some 50 years ago, one of my favorite trails passed several ponds surrounded by tall green sedges. Today, most of those ponds have dried up, and the fish and salamanders that lived in them are gone.

Near my home in Boulder, for some 30 years I regularly took refuge from the hot summer sun on a shaded trail through otherwise open fields; now most of the cottonwoods have died—probably from a combination of hot, dry weather and the 2013 flood (likely a result of climate change) that altered the water table. Now I avoid the trail during the hottest parts of the day.

Growing up in the Chicago suburbs in the 1950s and ‘60s, I remember long winters, but for children who loved sledding, building snow forts and ice skating, it wasn’t a hardship. Now winters in the Midwest have gotten warmer, and sleet falls instead of snow. You can’t throw snowballs with sleet or cross-country ski, and it’s not cold enough to keep the ice rinks open. But children growing up now, who stay inside most of the winter, don’t know what they’re missing.

At the Wisconsin lake where my family spent two weeks every summer, my brothers caught frogs along the shore, while my grandparents caught 40 fish at a time. Now the frogs are gone, and you can throw your fishing line all day without getting a nibble. At night in bed, I would listen to the whippoorwills’ eerie cries; now the birds are long gone.

Recent wildfires have closed some of my favorite trails. In my lifetime, they will never return to the way they were—a complex ecosystem with mature pine trees that supported a network of birds and other wildlife.

Each generation has lost something of the natural world. None of us living now remember when millions of bison ruled the Great Plains or when flocks of passenger pigeons, now extinct, covered the sky. And some things have changed for the better. More stringent environmental regulations have stopped the dumping of raw sewage in lakes and rivers, as well as protected endangered species. After almost being wiped out by the insecticide DDT, bald eagles have returned.

Yet the losses are starting to outpace the gains. On a global level, it’s huge, with unprecedented wildfires and floods, and rain falling in Greenland for the first time ever. On a personal level, I haven’t seen a monarch butterfly for years. This year I saw no muskrats at Lily Lake, where I used to see dozens criss-crossing the lake. Has the water gotten too warm? Once pristine mountain streams, from which I used to drink, are now choked with algae.

I’ve heard some in my generation say it doesn’t matter because we’ll be dead by the time the worst of climate change arrives—glaciers melt, sea levels rise, parts of the ocean die, and whole species of animals disappear forever. But for those of us who love the natural world, it’s wrenching to see the losses pile up and know that future generations won’t know that orange and black butterflies once filled the air or that forests once ranged across hills now covered by grasses.  

I try not to succumb to despair. Instead, I endeavor to celebrate what’s still here: the birds and butterflies that visit my yard; the wildflowers blooming into September; and the rivers still flowing, even though diminished by the drought. At the same time I mourn all the losses, I want to keep working to preserve what we have. I’ll throw my weight with the younger generations to fight for this planet.  

What choice do we have? We’re the ones who remember how it was—and, yes, who partly caused this mess.


Dear readers, what natural losses have you experienced?

5 thoughts on “We Know What We Lost

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  1. No, we won’t be around to experience the worst of what’s to come, but I grieve the losses of things my grandchildren will never see, nor great grandchildren if they are to come. I grieve the areas destroyed by fire and flood that may recover someday but certainly not in my lifetime. How can we expect our descendants to care about things they’ve never known, never loved or experienced? I’m very afraid we’ve passed the tipping point on global warming. Not enough people care enough to act fast enough. We can’t even enjoy what still exists in Rocky Mountain National Park without a reservation — not a result of global warming but it sure adds to my despair.

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  2. Oh, Kathy, that’s heartbreaking. And right to the point. It’s not only environmental disaster that’s taking our favorite childhood haunts away, though: when I spent some years back in South Africa recently, I was unable to walk on either the beach or the mountain that framed my apartment building—both had been taken over by desperate, drug-addicted (mostly) men who had been betrayed by the supposed “rainbow nation” Desmond Tutu envisioned. With nothing whatsoever to lose, and impunity enabled by an incompetent and corrupt police force, these guys would literally kill you for the possibility of finding some change in your pockets. Political corruption, corporate greed, global inequality—put them together with climate change, and the losses compound themselves.

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  3. You said exactly what’s in my heart. Thank you for this post. I think it would be great to submit it to a magazine or another blog so as many people as possible can read it.

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