Here in Chicago, the sports pages have begun to fill with stories of spring training. Cubs fans are still misty with flush from the baseball orgasm delivered late last fall by their favorite team. Meanwhile, Sox fans lurk in hopes their team can rise from its lowly status of black and white ashes.
It’s all part of the seasonal cycles people love to follow. And speaking of cycles, that’s exactly what we did in 69-degree temperatures yesterday. It was fun. But it was also freaky.
As a nearly lifelong resident of Illinois, I’ve seen my share of ups and downs when it comes to weather. But for most of my life, the month of February meant freezing your ass off. We ran cold, hard intervals around Kaneland High School during weather so raw the backs of your hands would be scalded from the cold even when you wore gloves.
That was forty years ago. In recent years we’ve had several February warm spells that popped the crocus and snowdrops right out of the soil. For most of my life, that typically did not happen until well into March, or even early April.
In terms of running weather, I specifically recall a bitterly cold Shamrock Shuffle held in Chicago when the March temps were fifteen degrees. Racing that last mile into a stiff wind off Lake Michigan was some of the colder conditions in which I’ve ever raced. My thin Nike tights barely kept my thighs from frostbite, and my lips were blue at the finish.
March is still a dicey month no matter what year you choose. But February was almost always a lock for big snows and freezing cold. Things are changing in our climate. And it’s having effects.
Last week while doing research for a book I’m writing, I downloaded an Audubon Society whitepaper that models the anticipated changes in bird habitat due to climate change over the next eighty years. It also outlines the known changes due to climate warming that have already occurred in bird migration, winter and summer breeding ranges.
That information has been gathered over the last fifty years by birders conducting annual surveys in spring and winter. It also chronicles millions of bits of data from breeding atlas surveys conducted by citizen scientists. I know about these census efforts and bird studies because I’ve done them. The Audubon Society has gathered information of this sort for more than eighty years actually.
So we know actually know with great accuracy what’s happening to bird populations. That’s how science works. You study the patterns of cause and effect.
Every athlete should know how this works as well. You put in training in order to stress your body in positive ways. This produces a relative state of fitness, which you put to the test in races. Cause. And Effect.
But we all know how things can go wrong. A sudden cold or injury brought on by too much training can turn your workouts into a struggle. That’s a product of cause and effect too. Poor diet or other factors such as cold or hot weather can affect your results. The athlete that does not learn how to adapt to changing conditions will suffer poor performance as a result.
And if you don’t choose a coach wisely, all this madness can become the status quo. More than one coach has burned out athletes by trying to squeeze the maximum out of their protege in the short-term. All living things have limits.
That’s true of living systems, too. If you’re not making the connection here, here’s some help. The very earth on which we live is much like an athlete. It lives. It breathes. It chills. It overheats. All these factors amount to cause and effect.
And right now the whole earth is effectively suffering the effects of overtraining. Industrialization has turned out to be a stress on the climate. The planet can’t breathe fast enough to process all the CO2 being released by human activity, and we’re heating up as a result. It’s like the earth is being asked to run a mile while holding its breath, or encased in one of those plastic weight-loss jackets on an increasingly hot day. We know this for a fact.
February warmth is a symptom of climactic changes. But so are heavy snows in other regions of the country. The warming of the oceans is occurring with rapidity, leading to chemical changes that are killing off some coral reefs. This is the lactic acid buildup in our environment.
Some argue that human activity could never be the “cause” that produces these “effects.” They even pay for studies in an attempt to disprove the science that has shown climate change to be a real phenomenon.
Personally, I’ve watched the effects of climate change, and it is quite profound. The arrival time of spring songbirds has crept up by nearly a month in my own lifetime. This is based on empiric data, not some ideological perception. There are real and present changes happening all around us. Thousands of robins that once migrated south during winter no longer do so.
This is how evolution works, by the way. All living things are subject to the cause and effect of environmental and climatic conditions. If the weather gets too harsh or food supplies dwindle, populations either adapt or die off. We see that same phenomenon in winters when snowy owls populations fly south from Canada into the United States. If lemmings (their main food supply) suffer some disturbance that leads to a population crash, the owls are forced to find food elsewhere or they perish.
The same thing happens with human populations during times of drought or famine. Major migrations have occurred throughout human history. The potato famine sent many Irish across the sea to the United States. All it takes in some source of cause and effect to eclipse the status quo and human populations can be thrown into chaos.
If you’ve ever been in a race where there is not enough water at the aid stations, the cause and effect of such situations is dire indeed. A few years ago the weather for the Chicago Marathon turned out hot and stifling. Thousands of runners suffered heat stress and many could not get enough water to continue. Race organizers had to stop the race or risk having people die in the intense heat.
That race essentially served as a case study for the planet as a whole. Granted, race organizers could not control the temps that day. But when it comes to manmade climate change and the effects it is causing around the globe, we do have some degree of control how excessive that cause and effect cycle needs to get.
The changes are relatively simple. The solutions are progressing fast. Solar and wind power are turning out to be viable sources of energy. The conversion of vehicles from gasoline to electric can proceed apace as these energy sources grow in practicality.
Just a few years ago LED lightbulbs were far too expensive for most households to purchase. Yet the technology has advanced to the point where LED bulbs are now competitively priced. The market is embracing these bulbs as a result. They use less energy and last far longer than traditional light bulbs.
Yet technologies such as these are typically mocked by people who hate change. And yes, there are failures along the path to invention and conversion. That’s the nature of the free market. It is sometimes a case of failing faster in order to bring about true innovation.
Somehow we’ve come to a point where the opportunity to moderate human influence on the planet is being arrogantly opposed by people opposed to change. They happen to be the same group that mocks efforts to improve the American diet, and refuses to recognize the fact that the beef industry consumes 50% of the water used in America to produce a product known to cause health problems. The same goes for the sugar industry and cigarette manufacturers. Oil and coal producers as well. All these products have known negative health effects on human beings that can be mitigated through simple lifestyle changes.
Cause and effect often runs into stubborn belief systems. We’ve all known athletes who refuse to listen to coaches or trainers who warn that their habits might be harming them. Pride is the vicious enemy of purpose in many circumstances. But so is ignorance and the strange brand of confidence that comes with it. The priests who gathered up Jesus Christ and threw him to the Romans thought they were doing the righteous thing. On the surface, their cause seemed just.
That’s the exact same position we find ourselves in today. The cause of short-term economic preservation favored by today’s conservatives seems just. But the long-term effects of this are far more costly than this faction of society dares admit.
And those are the people currently in control of the political narrative. They’re concerned only with the short-term cause of wringing profit from the populace and the earth that supports it. That is their cause.
Some of us have been carefully watching the effects build up for years. We see it in the empiric changes in the birds and living things around us. We know that too many people are ignorant of the significance of these changes. Because blinded by their religion or their ideology or their politics or their economics, they are disconnected from these realities.
But cause and effect is an unforgiving reality. And the race we’re running is not a healthy proposition for any of us.