As I prepared my paper proposal for ASLE 2011 (which, for now, I’m calling “Growing Up with Disaster: Two Stories”), I was struck by how the story of environment was told to me and how it’s being told to my young son. Growing up near the confluence of the Columbia and Snake rivers, and within miles of the Hanford nuclear reservation, I learned about the surrounding environment through informational placards and pamphlets provided by the Army Corps of Engineers, or through news releases issued from the Department of Energy. Dams were good. They provided energy, recreation, and irrigation water. Nuclear reactors were good. They provided the essential ingredients for the weapons that defended us, and they produced energy. This was all I saw and all I knew until I reached an environmental age of reason and began to question what had been carved into my consciousness. I have spent decades reflecting on the meaning of what I thought I knew, and what I think I know now.
My son is getting more direct lessons. He has experienced firsthand an oppressive and destructive winter, tornadic winds that left our yard strewn with 20-foot branches from a shredded maple, and extensive flooding. Record cold, record snowfall, record heat and humidity, record rainfall. These are not propaganda-laced PR pieces—this environment is all the world he knows, and it is changing around him. The stories he hears are of life and family. They are attempts to explain why he should not be worried (even though his parents are worried).
The irony of our life here is not lost on me: I, who learned to lash back at one-sided stories of human control of nature, now write about engineers who confidently believe that technology can be applied to our general betterment. This is not a case of coming full circle; I write mostly of what is possible, and cover no tracks in doing so. I wonder if this imagined better world will really be there for my son and what his age-of-reason moment will tell him. I want to be present for that moment to see what he discovers and to learn if there is yet another lesson for me.