Donn Harris
Executive Director, Oakland School for the Arts; Chair, California Arts Council
SF/Oakland, California, United States

Do We Really Know What We Think We Know?

“I drove a fast car, ignored recycling, ate frozen food in plastic packages -- no big deal.”

Even back then, I always had mixed and complex ideas about climate change. As a proponent of almost every progressive cause, this was one I'm less sure about. The info and analysis I got back then was suspiciously in line with political affiliation, and I simply couldn't trust that. I thought it was possible we could be going through cyclical change that would shift back. My BIG IDEA was that we were horribly unaware of the unintended consequences of what we do, and often those haven't will have the most influence over the future.

So I was naive and cocky all at the same time. I figured it didn't make any difference what we did. So the results of our vehicle emissions, factory refuse, nuclear waste, enormous landfills and our feeble recycling efforts were going to amount to nothing the way I saw it. Global warming? Come on, that was just a hot day. Increased incidents of cancer? Well, there are more people now, of course there will be more of everything -- Alzheimer's, aphasia, autism, Asperger's, ADHD, acute anxiety --they're all on the rise. Is it the heat? Maybe this was just a prelude to the next Ice Age. There were an infinity of possibilities here. The butterfly flapping its wings and affecting climate 3000 miles away was either an affirmation of cause and effect or a humble admission that we must live with uncertainty.

This dichotomy fell along political lines as well. I was of the latter school: there was just too much in play for me to accept simple explanations and predictable positions. So I did nothing. I figured it would all take care of itself. I drove a fast car, ignored recycling, ate frozen food in plastic packages -- no big deal. I heard that poor people lived in toxicity and squalor and had low life expectancy, I figured that. Nothing new here, not much I could do.

We kept electing candidates who had good ideas about the economy and the environment was like an afterthought. So the outcome of the 2015 Paris talks was the usual -- a statement of support for the tired issues -- less reliance on cars, greater environmental controls, pledges of cooperation, maybe the occasional outlier (Turkmenistan, Albania, Libya) claiming it was all a hoax. I half-believed that too.

Turns out I was wrong. By mid century we were wearing masks 24/7 and cancer was way up so even when I paid attention and the most valuable thing on the planet was fresh drinking water and the poor were dying over it. I'm still not sure what I could have done but maybe something. Maybe I should have signed that petition outside the market. Maybe my kids -- your father -- could have joined the environmental club instead of taking piano lessons which he hated anyway. Or maybe I could have gotten out of my own way and looked at the facts.

It was all right there and I was too busy. Sorry.