At summer’s end, if we’re lucky, we may find ourselves with bare feet and sun-warmed skin; our senses soothed, our bodies attuned to nature’s rhythms. A recent study found that more than half of American adults are traveling for Labor Day this year, leaving the hustle behind to squeeze the last golden drops of summer at beach, lake, park, and mountain; savoring deep memories and anticipating future pleasures. This time of year reminds us of so much to be grateful for in the natural world.
And so much we need. New research shows that the health of Americans is deteriorating — but at the same time, a growing body of studies validates what we know intuitively: being in nature heals us. Spending just two hours a week in green spaces enhances our health and well-being. There is something infinitely restorative in nature’s familiar tempo — the promise that the seasons will roll on as they always have.
Until they don’t.
News of relentless heat waves, flooding, and fires testify that climate change doesn’t take a holiday. Earlier in the summer, the roads and pathways of Yellowstone National Park were ravaged by flooding. In recent weeks, swimmers in drought-ridden Cape Cod have been frolicking in waters laden with feces. Right now, high temperatures are scorching the country, putting over 55 million Californians under heat alerts as the state braces for record-breaking temperatures over Labor Day weekend. Instead of enjoying cookouts, many may face rolling blackouts. Hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail are panting in meager shade and trekking through burned-out forests.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Outer Banks, with their wild horses and magnificent beaches, are slipping into the sea; acidic seawater and warming temps are killing reefs in the Florida Keys; and glaciers are melting in Montana’s Glacier National Park. Many of the summer destinations we love will not look the same in five years, ten years. Even next year. Napa Valley may be unable to produce the grapes for your favorite vintages due to hotter temperatures. In Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, precious Pueblo cliff dwellings are breaking into pieces from extreme temperature swings. Rising sea levels are narrowing beaches in Hawaii at a frightening clip: this year’s condo may have toppled into the sea by the time you start planning next year’s visit.
Summer is becoming a bummer.
Even along Maine’s cool and craggy coastline, long known as “America’s vacationland,” the signs are scary. Lobsters are swimming away from warming waters and erosion is swallowing parts of popular beaches.
Pete Nichols, the Maine native who leads the Midcoast Conservancy, warns that time is shorter than we thought to take action. “The 50-year climate horizon that has been the conventional wisdom for some time has recently been accelerated to a time frame that is within reach in the next 5 to 10 years,” he told me. “People visiting Maine are already experiencing the impacts of climate change through the warming waters of the Gulf of Maine, historically rich with cold water seafood all visitors enjoy.” That water, he explains, is warming faster than 96% of the world’s oceans due to a range of factors, including shifts in the dynamics of the Gulf Stream from glacial melt. Nichols anticipates more changes visitors to Maine can expect, from extended drought and warming lakes to harmful algal blooms and wildfires.
Yet he insists that this is no time to throw up our hands, reminding us that as we witness the glaring red flags of changing weather patterns, vanishing marine life and warming water, we can choose to commit to making changes in ourselves, our neighborhoods, and our communities. Nichols talks about developing a global network of consciousness around climate change: “If we stop and think about it, nature has all the solutions we need for climate resilience,” he points out. We can take a cue from the mycorrhizal fungi, he says, referring to that champion of the microbiome that feeds and connects trees and plants in a network that supports the local ecosystem. “We need to create a network that spreads climate consciousness through stewarding our immediate surroundings,” he says.
Kind of like the web of consciousness of Stranger Things’ alternate dimension — only this time as a force for good.
Even on a summer weekend holiday, we can share this consciousness as mindful stewards. There are the obvious things, like limiting air travel, eating locally, and avoiding plastic bags and containers. But as we go deeper into this mindset, we consider our connection to the outdoor workers, to communities of color, and to the women who bear the brunt of climate change.
Rather than resigning ourselves to a scorched-Earth future, we begin the process, step by step, of what author Jeremy Lent calls “Deep Transformation.” We move away from the notion of humans as atomistic, selfish individuals to a rediscovery of our profound interconnectedness, our shared fate. We reject the dualistic mindset, the separation of mind from matter that goes all way to back Plato, the fantasy that somehow we can transcend our material existence with technology and spaceships. We realize that Earth is our home, our bodies exquisitely adapted to this particular environment and no other. Our shared consciousness leads to shared action and to movements that can force governments to change direction. To come back to Earth.
Polls show that Americans want climate action, and finally, our government is beginning to respond. Everyone is still poring over the details of the 750-page Inflation Reduction Act, but the experts I’ve spoken to at the Institute for New Economic Thinking agree that the newly-passed bill takes small but meaningful steps to put in place programs that can help preserve the places we cherish, aiming to boost renewable energy while slashing greenhouse gas emissions and providing environmental protections like funds for wildfire risk reduction, forest management, wetland conservation, wildlife habitat protection, coastal restoration, and staffing for the National Park Service. These urgently needed investments can mean resilience rather than destruction for park, beach, or forest so they can survive to be treasured for many summers to come.
What we have is a catalytic moment, a surge of momentum to build the network of our collective climate commitment. Let’s seize it.