Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming

Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming

Susan J. Tweit
Published: 07/08/2009


Twenty years ago, climate scientists first told Congress that carbon emissions were building toward a disastrous instability. Congress said, We need to think about that. Ten years later, the world's nations wrote the Kyoto Protocol, a set of legally binding controls on our carbon emissions. The United States said, We still need to think about it. Now we watch as glaciers disappear, the lights of biodiversity go out, the oceans reverse their ancient order.

That's from Barbara Kingsolver's Foreword to Thoreau's Legacy: American Stories About Global Warming, a new anthology from the Union of Concerned Scientists and Penguin Classics. This is no policy manual, no scientific statement; it's a collection of 67 brief essays and images contributed by writers, landscape architects, teachers, artists, grandmothers, paralegals, scientists, hot-rod lovers, and just ordinary people on their personal responses to global warming.

There's the woman who moved to the city so she wouldn't be driving 40 miles to work each day; the guy who marveled over finding a snake he hadn't seen in decades in his Michigan neighborhood; the grandmother who watches the snowpacks shrink from her stretch of the Sierra Nevada; the mom mourning the loss of the lodgepole pine forest her young son will never see replaced; the photographer documenting coral reef bleaching; the psychotherapist who sets out to buy a new Porsche Carrera—he loves their power and the sound of their throaty exhaust, but ends up purchasing a Toyota Prius instead.

Some contributions are thoughtful, some angry, some bemused, some upbeat. Each is deeply personal, and together they weave a chorus that urges us to pay attention and take action—for ourselves, if for no other reason.

I'm proud to be part of this effort to give the often-overwhelming issue of global warming a personal face. My piece, "Where Have the Butterflies Gone?" tells the story of Gluttonous, our accidental house guest, a swallowtail butterfly who hatched too late, tricked by an unusually warm autumn, and metamorphosed just in time for the first snows to fall on the peaks above our mountain valley. The story ends this way:

If this heartbreaking hatch of a single caterpillar, whose maturity comes too late to seed future generations, is the gift of global climate change, I grieve for us all. Because what we are losing is not just a single species but the thread of connection with the everyday wild that secures our place in nature's community.