About Olivia Potoczak

I am currently a senior at Albion College. I morphed my two disciplines, science and English, together to create my own environmental writing path. I have a deep rooted passion for the environment that only grows wider and deeper with time. The planet is damaged and changing under our feet and above our heads. I am a voice for my generation, connecting the human to climate change.

The Miss Lasqueti’s of the world

I read a book in my contemporary lit class called The Cat’s Table, written by a guy named Michael Ondaatje. I wrote an in class essay on different book’s critique on power for my final exam Wednesday night.

. Here’s a quote that got me thinking:

“The thing is that men, with the kind of power that comes with money and knowledge, assume the universe. It allows them easy wisdom. Within such a universe there are codes, rooms you must not enter.”

Basically this quote is saying, dudes with power (presidents, politicians, super wealthy people) that are given money and the secrets to leading people and a country are stuck in a set way to do things. Do this, not that. Don’t say that, or believe that, or act like that. Whatever it is.

The recent climate summit in Peru collided with these thoughts. Agreements are flimsy and not that helpful for the climate because each country has their own priorities, agenda, path, and limitations. It makes sense on some level. It’s difficult to justify messing up the present because of some future projection.

Here’s another important quote from the book:

“What is interesting and important happens mostly in secret, in places where there is no power…Those who already have power continue to glide along the familiar rut they have made for themselves.”

As I was writing through awful hand cramps, I asked myself, well where does true power lie? In the individual. The individual is free of a rigid code. They can move about and strike more powerful change than someone who is given a cap on power.

A crazy lady in the novel, Miss Lasqueti, inspired both of these quotes. She appeared to be a spinster who threw romance novels into the ocean, but Miss Lasqueti ended up being the character the influenced the path of most events in the plot. No one thought she was capable.

Hmm. So this idea of the individual created another question. Do I know any individuals that are doing or saying or active in something related to the climate?

Yep. I have a crew of awesome people in Ann Arbor, Michigan: Fedy, Andrea, Chris, Noir, Jackie, and so many more. Most of them have some environmental related major or minor, but regardless, we all share similar ideas about the environment and have conversations about it all the time.

A group of them went to the March on Climate in New York City. My friend Jackie is an environmental education teacher in the foggy, ancient Redwood Forest. Fedy wants to live fully sustainably and learn how to farm sustainably. They believe in divestment from fossil fuels. Chris wants to learn about the policies and inner workings of environmental action.

Many friends work for Clean Water Action in Ann Arbor. And this blog is my platform; people come up to me on campus, send me messages, any communication and tell me they read my blog. My friends tell me how they used the climate change knowledge I share with them in a class or discussion.

This generation, the Millennials, the whatever-the-hell-you-want-to-call-us, hold the power. Plus, it’s important not to forget that we are the ones who will live with the consequences. We can influence more people and spread more awareness than someone who is already confined to a specific path, such as the people currently in power.

If we want this planet to sustain us, something needs to be done. I don’t know what that is, or what it entails, but we are the ones who can wander widely, in all directions, to do something about the pickle we’re in.

The Most Beautiful Place

A001814-R1-24-1A

This blog, this kind of writing, is what I want to do with my life. I want to be an environmental writer; it is what I am passionate about. Unfortunately, yet gratefully, Albion doesn’t have an environmental writing major, so I created my own path.

Whenever I’m given an assignment, whether it is in my fiction-writing workshop, drawing, or geology class, I tweak it so the work is about or contemplates the environment. If you’ve ever had a class with me, you start to pick up on this.

Right now, I’m taking a break from revising my short story for fiction 322. It follows this girl’s discovery of her sense of place. Sense of place doesn’t have a formal definition. But to help explain the development of my character, I’m using quotes from some of my favorite environmental writers that I read in high school—the dudes that inspired me to write about what I do and how I do it.

This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.

Edward Abbey

When you have a sense of place, you’re aware of your surroundings and how you interact with it. A sense of place is cultural–it’s a deep connection to the world outside yourself; it’s home.

Most people are on the world, not in it — have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them — undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone, touching but separate.

John Muir

I don’t believe any one has the exact sense of place because it isn’t just the physical location or thing. It’s what you, the human, get from it. It is what you find on the velvet petals of wild flowers, in the grooves of coarse bark, in between the blades of grass and cracks of the sidewalk, in the canopy of trees, in music that moves inside yourself, in the glass of your favorite beer. And whatever you see helps to make who up you are. It forms your identity.

Sense of place is something I think about a lot in terms of climate change. I ask myself all the time, why did we let the earth degrade underneath our feet? And I believe, when you boil it down, it’s because most people don’t feel a sense of place. They are separate; they don’t see the purpose in being connected to their natural surroundings, and then don’t feel responsible for it or care what’s happening to it.

Civilization has so cluttered this elemental man-earth relationship with gadgets and middlemen that awareness of it is growing dim. We fancy that industry supports us, forgetting what supports industry.

Aldo Leopold

If you have a strong sense and connection to something that you identify with, that is what you will care about, that is what you will act on. It’s not a bad thing to have passions in something other than nature, but a heightened awareness of the natural world might just be what we all need.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

John Muir

Life Gets in the Way

This week has been hell. I’m generally busy during the semester, but the floodgates of shit opened up on me Sunday and Monday. It was the classic build-up of work from all classes and directions that left me with no choice but to stay up until the sun rises and to do it all over again.

IMG_2459

I tried to sit down yesterday and type up a blog post, but my brain felt like mashed potatoes. I was technically awake, moving around, sitting in class, eyes open. But when I spoke, my words came out in the wrong order and all garbled together.

Students, I can confidently say are stretched thin. We are expected to do all our homework, and do it well. We are not to miss class and fall behind, even though we didn’t sleep because we were doing homework and caught the campus plague because of sleep deprivation. We are encouraged and expected to do extracurricular activities because it will look good in the job market; you have to beef up your résumé. You also need a job. Money doesn’t grow on trees, even though it’s paper.

The present moment in school doesn’t exist; it’s a perpetual future in some ways. I have to constantly be on my toes, thinking about what I have to get done today, tomorrow, the next week, in three weeks. Make a list, make another list, write things I’ve done so I can cross them off, one more list. Don’t fuck up.

Even though it feels like a never-ending push to the future and whatever is at the end, work can only be done in the present moment.

I have my own life, and I’m real fucking busy. And I know I’m not the only one. There are lots of other Millennials that feel similarly because we’re trapped in the present moment but thrust mentally into the future, worrying about things that haven’t happened yet and what we’re going to do with our lives. We have to pick our battles.

I do the best I can, which is why writing this blog makes me happy.

What’s the Deal with Smog?

The day before we all settled down to our hectic Thanksgiving dinners, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) released a statement that they plan to set a new limit on how much smog is allowed in the US.

I found this out today when I was poking around on grist.org and discovered this article about smog.

Smog is ozone that is ground level where humans can breathe it in. When I think of ozone, I picture the invisible and ominous “ozone layer” way high up in the stratosphere. Ozone is a good thing up there because it blocks out some of the UV rays that can cause skin cancer, but when ozone seeps and gathers low to the ground, it’s real bad.

It acts like a carcinogen. When you breathe in too much smog, it starts to diminish your lung function. This is why the American Lung Association is very interested in the EPA’s announcement:

The EPA hopes to limit smog concentrations to 70-65 ppb (parts per billion in the atmosphere). Apparently, 60 ppb is the most ideal for health, not 70 or 65 ppb. 60 ppb. Lots and lots of health benefits will come with 60 ppb: less cases of asthma, less kids missing school, less adults missing work, and less premature deaths.

All good things. Everyone loves clear air. But the US hasn’t even met the last smog-standard. It’s hard to limit smog because that means we have to change the way that we do things, which is never easy.

Disappearing Glaciers

I wish I could paint a beautiful and vivid picture of what it is like to see a glacier in person. I have seen hundreds of pictures and watched movies about their formation, structure, and retreat, but I haven’t had the privilege to see one face to face.

I am young. There is time to travel to the US’s Glacier National park or other mountain peaks and witness the glory of these icy creatures, but time’s running short for glaciers all around the world.

In as little as 15 years, the mountains once capped in thick layers of slow moving ice will be gone. Tick, tock. Tick, tock.

The USGS (United States Geological Survey) has some great and very stark before and after pictures of glacial retreat. Check them out here. 

Way up high in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the air is thin and impressively cold. Even in the height of summer, snow can fall in this arctic air. Over time, the snow accumulates and accumulates and starts to condense–think about the snow that collects on your driveway during the winter, and if you don’t shovel it, it turns into a treacherous, bumpy ice rink. A driveway glacier.

During my junior year, I took the class Glaciers and Climate Change. I was super geeked and talked about it nonstop before the semester started because it’s all about what I study. But once I was in it (it’s a 300-level geology course…), it felt like this intimidating figure I had to hang out with and try to understand. Despite the intimidation, I was still blown away when I learned about the dynamic, inner-workings of glaciers.

It’s like they’re alive. They move by creeping and crawling, flowing inch by inch. They find balance.

Since glaciers are made of ice, they melt when it’s warm. They spit out water from a labyrinth of channels that weave in the base of the ice. Lots of melting means the glacier loses mass–they’re out of balance, but in the winter, snow falls and helps to compensate for that loss.

Now, imagine an unusually warm winter on a mountain peak that’s normally capped in the thin, frigid air. The air this winter bites skin a little less. The sky is laden with a thick coat of clouds, but no white flakes make the dizzy dance to earth.

It’s a warm winter because humans chug, chug CO2 molecules into the atmosphere. The sun strikes those molecules that trap their heat like a pan on stove.

The glaciers start to sweat. Streams of water run down their slopes just like a runner that picks up her pace, sweat starts to drip.

The situation above sucks the most for glaciers and their majestic beauty, but that’s not the only cost of the disappearance of alpine glaciers.

In the west and elsewhere in the world, a whole lot of people and creatures depend on the winter meltwater from glaciers to fill their streams with fresh, crisp mountain water.

When these glaciers run too far and sweat themselves shriveled, there won’t be any melting anymore. The landscape will dry and shake off its icy grip, inviting trees to creep up the mountain. Wolverines will paw the ground, looking for the snow that once created their dens. Plants will turn into brittle tinder that fuel raging wildfires.

Gollumism

When you walk in the backdoor of my co-op, you are faced with a heaping pile of random tools, nails, broken light bulbs, and coolers. Right next to this clusterfuck is a door. When you creak open this door, you walk up a dark and shadowed staircase. When people walk up my stairs for the first time, they often say, “Where the hell are we going?”

“What is this?”

Or: “I can’t see shit.”

But the stairs curve to the right and you emerge into my shire home. My friends have named it the shire and hobbit hole because the burnt orange slanted walls and arching alcoves above the windows open to a magical JRR Tolkien den.

There’s a pile of pillows and a hot chocolate-brown couch atop the multicolored carpet, warm lighting, art sticky-tacked to the wall, patterned fabric everywhere, usually a cat, and good tunes seeping through the paper-thin walls and floors.

My hobbit home

Just like a hobbit, I don’t really like to leave. It is my sanctuary and safety. I love being alone, or rather I’m comfortable being alone. I can sit with my thoughts, listening to music while I draw, write, do homework, or whatever and be completely fine.

It’s easier to be alone. This sounds selfish–and we have to be selfish creatures in some ways because it ends up benefiting us. Being alone has its merits.

There’s no one else to worry about; focus can be given to whatever is most important. Such as today, I tried for hours to get some sort of work done, but my productivity was bombarded by friends coming to talk to me or house responsibilities to take care of. I was a little irritated. But now I am free and focused and not worried about anyone else.

There are also drawbacks. I don’t think anyone wants to be Gollum, the twisted hobbit reject.

If I refused to leave my room for anything, or avoided social contact with anyone, living as a strange, creepy hermit because I didn’t want anyone encroaching on the thing I love (my room), I’d have a problem.

For one thing, no one likes a weird little dude that’s obsessed with his precious. And for another, I’d stop caring about anyone else and what they’re going through (such as Gollum fucking up Frodo’s mission to destroy the ring) because all that matters is protecting my precious.

And sometimes, all the countries that make up the Earth can fall towards the negative side of isolation, turning into little Gollums. We’ve all worked hard for what we call our own, whether it’s in our country or someplace else, and we want to protect that from other people, and not get our hands messy in someone else’s business unless we have to, unless our precious is being threatened (the hobbits taking Gollum’s ring).

This isolation, this separation we create with real and imaginary walls, makes it hard to care about someone else or someplace else because we don’t feel obligated to help them since they’re over there and we’re over here. Gollum didn’t give a fuck about Frodo’s mission–he just wanted his freaking ring back.

But climate change is knocking on these walls. It may be hard for people in Michigan to care about sea level rise since it won’t be our problem; it’s not going to affect anything that is our precious.

Now imagine for a second if climate change could cause the Great Lakes to rise and swallow up all the cottages dotting the coastline and rolling dunes–the places we love and care about threatened. It wouldn’t feel good, and it would feel even worse if no one would help us or stop the thing (increasing global temperatures) that’s threatening what we hold most precious.

We feel. We connect. We empathize.

Some science: Why Humans Are to Blame

All right. Let’s get sciencey. 

The main climatic changes in geologic history are driven by how the earth moves around the sun, how it wobbles on its axis, and how it wobbles on its path. These are called the Milankovitch Cycles. These cycles tell us when the Earth will be in an ice age or an interglacial period, like clockwork.

Many, many other things push the climate to change that are less predictable—if there is too much, or too little, of one greenhouse gas, which can happen when a ginormous volcano erupts and belches tons of CO2 and debris into the atmosphere. Events like this can change the clockwork of the Milankovitch Cycles.

Currently we’re in an interglacial period. This means that we should steadily be getting colder. But this changed when humans went through industrialization and started pumping CO2 into the atmosphere by combusting fossil fuels.

What is CO2? Its official name is carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas, a part of the greenhouse effect.

The atmosphere on earth is made of gases. If we didn’t have this atmosphere, the earth would be an ice ball. The greenhouse gases (CO2, Methane, Water, and a few others) radiate heat. When the sunlight goes through the atmosphere, it warms and excites the gases, which in turn release heat like sitting near a fire. This layer of gas keeps some of the sunlight that is reflected off the earth in the atmosphere.

A thicker layer means more gases to radiate heat, and make it harder for sunlight to escape back into space–the temperature on earth rises.

CO2 levels are rising, and it’s not because of a volcano.

Responsibility

The sink begins to fill with piles of crusty plates, and soaking pots swim with blooms of mold. Stacks of crusted cups and mountains of silverware line the counters. Housemates pass in and out of the kitchen with shaking heads or blind eyes; this place is a mess.

But no one admits that they contributed to the mess, the communal mess. “It wasn’t me;” “If anything is mine, it’s like only a spoon or two;” “That is totally Katie’s dish–I’m not cleaning that;” “Dude, my hand is not going anywhere near that water.”

With ten people living in a house together, it’s easy to brush off responsibility for a nasty looking mess. There are nine other people, nine other chances, for it to get cleaned up.

This is sort of like the idea of the tragedy of the commons.

A commons greater than my kitchen in Albion is the Earth. We all live here, all of us billions of humans (and animals).

Now things get interesting. There are endless amounts of people that could do something about climate change, so I’m safe. Everyone else is burning fossil fuels, so I might as well too. Those guys over there don’t believe that humans caused climate change, and I don’t either.

Basically, if everyone is yelling that it’s not our fault, then we’re not going to do anything about the changing climate. And those dishes won’t ever get done either.

But, if I do say so myself, I like a clean kitchen.

My kitchen in it's clean and lovely state

My kitchen in it’s clean and lovely state

An Agreement

Earlier this week, President Obama and China announced their pledge to reduce and put a cap on emissions.

Many people (including myself) are pretty pumped about this. It’s a big deal that the US and China are recognizing and acting on climate change, especially since the two countries are responsible for 45% of greenhouse gas emissions.

They are two powerful countries that don’t always get along or agree, but they put aside their differences. It sends a positive message to the rest of the world–lunchroom enemies can share a cookie.

Not only does it send a message to the globe as a whole, but it also sends a message to every individual, whether they agree about climate change or not.

But, I think it’s safe to say, change sucks. Things are going to change for us all if we put a cap on CO2 emissions, but things are going to change a whole lot more if we don’t respond to that change. The Earth will no longer be the one we know. We won’t be able to live here without struggle. Internal conflicts will rise as resources dwindle, hordes of humans could die from surges in vector-born diseases, populations will flood inland on the tides of the rising ocean as the ice sheets overflow into those steel gray waters.

We, the Millennials, will be the ones dealing with those unfortunate consequences. “It’s not our problem; it’s the next generation”—we are that generation.

Personally, I’m proud of Obama and Jinping’s promise because addressing climate change is not easy. Whatever happens in the future, since no one can truly know, it’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be easy to talk openly about our future path as an entire species. It’s not going to be easy to transition the world’s societies to alternative fuels.

Even though this agreement is a powerful step, there’s some booby-traps and gigantic walls to scale.

First booby-trap: the US and China did not get their gold stars in emission reduction. Politicians throw around promises to reduce emissions, but then they end up emitting even more.

Second booby-trap: the media tries to be fair and show each side of a debate, but this fairness is screwing with the climate change debate because there really is only one side if you look purely at science.

When 97% of scientists collectively agree, it’s absolutely nuts. The nature of science isn’t to drink the Kool-Aid and agree with everything–beyond a shadow of a doubt, scientists need the data to support something before they agree with a claim.

As the booby traps show, an agreement isn’t a promise.

Confusion Vortex

As summer fades, the tips of leaves are lit with vibrant colors. Everything is a shock of red, orange, and yellow against azure skies quilted in folding gray clouds. I was tromping across the quad, ignoring the orderly sidewalks, with my head tilted back to watch the leaves as they floated and drifted in an intertwining waltz with the gusts of winds.

And then one day, the trees are all bare–I can never pinpoint when exactly this shift happens. Their spindly arms are naked and exposed. The air chills. Sweaters and jackets are hugged close as memories from the 2013-2014 winter surface once again.

Does polar vortex ring a bell?

The main memory that sticks out for me from that winter was when I’d walk to my Glaciers and Climate Change class at 7:50 AM. The wan dawn sky was muted, and the air bit so ferociously that as soon as I stepped on the porch, my nose would get this shrinking and stiffening feeling from my boogers instantly freezing.

Those winds us Midwesterners experienced that winter were, quite literally, from the actual arctic.

The air current that circulates around the North Pole is crazy cold and keeps the ice sheets frozen. And usually it stays up there, but the polar vortex winter was caused by this arctic air current (the infamous polar vortex) becoming wobbly and unstable, which caused it to spill some of that frigid air where it shouldn’t be.

This normally contained air lost its balance because of climate change like when a group of kids are playing ring around the Rosie and one sweaty hand slips from a grip.

As the global temperature rises, that steady, circulating air is becoming unpredictable and sloshing out cold air in response to the different atmospheric conditions.

That polar vortex winter was a unique event. That’s not stopping lots of people from using this new word to describe anytime it’s cold, such as right now, the 2nd week in November, because the northern latitudes of the US are experiencing snow storms earlier than usual.

My good friend Steve, who lives in Marquette, sent a picture of a foot of snow, and he victoriously declared he has a snow day today. In November.

And a couple weeks ago, my sister, Sophia, and her boyfriend in Maine had a snow day as well.

Weird.

But it’s not the polar vortex’s fault this time. Yes, the cold is coming from the North, but this wintery spell is from other air patterns.

There is a low-pressure system hanging out in the Pacific from a tropical storm, and it’s creating a ridge of high pressure near Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The high-pressure ridge is acting like a funnel, redirecting (rather than spilling) the Arctic air down Canada and into the northern U.S., which results in the unseasonably cold weather.

It feels like those arctic winds are back, but they aren’t. This time around we can’t blame the polar vortex for our frozen boogies.