Hay Fever (and climate change)

It’s not the hay, though.  It’s the ragweed.  Ambrosia artemesiifolia or Ambrosia psilostachya, both from the Sunflower family.

I’ve had ever-worsening allergies here at Hopi for the last five years or so.  Last summer was the pits – Kerry even had to give me a lift to Flagstaff (my eyes were swollen shut) just to escape the pollen.  Keep in mind, I’ve never had allergies until now.

The cause?  As best I can tell it’s the ragweed.  And the Russian thistle (a brush against the plant causes my arms to break out).  And also perhaps lodgepole pine (up at Vail the second week of June, I’m a runny, congested mess).

Yeah, yeah, yeah.  We’ve all heard it.  And we all have allergies.

Which is my point exactly.  In the last few years, it seems that everyone here is walking around with itchy red eyes, swollen faces, and congested sinus.  Hopi Health Care ER is full of it.  And this year I’ve done my own informal survey, asking every checkout clerk in Flag, every person in a chance conversation, etc. if they have allergies.  The answer has been uniform, 100%.  Yes.  But not like this.  Or not until now.  Or never this early.  Or it is way worse then I’ve ever experienced.  100%.  Not one person (out of perhaps 100) answered differently.


I asked the pharmacist in Walgreens about it.  “There’s probably some pollen or something in the air that they’re allergic to,” she said.

Now there’s a waste of eight years of education.

What’s interesting is to have a widespread allergic response at Hopi.  They’re an isolated, genetically uniform population that have been living in this environment for over two thousand years.  By now folks would have either adapted to allergens native to the environment.  Or if they had always been this severe,  I doubt people would have settled here in the first place.

So at a birds eye view, what’s going on?  Non-native invasive species (ragweed and russian thistle) have moved in.  But that happened with grazing and land disturbance at least a hundred years ago.  What’s happened in the last few years?  It could be diet or lifestyle related – think homeopathy.  Bodies were once able to cope with local allergens because folks spent most of each day out on the land and had exposure year round, as well as consuming micro quantities through the local food.  Now people are holed up inside in cubicles or watching TV at home.  But it still doesn’t quite add up.

The best answer through my lense came from Bill McKibben a few weeks ago in his book Eaarth.  It’s climate change.  According to McKibben, a recent study showed that ragweed grows 10% taller and puts out 60 percent more pollen with increasing temperatures. Ten of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last 13 years.  In addition, the pollen season has extended because the growing season is longer.  And ragweed pollen can travel hundreds of miles.  It doesn’t need to be growing here.

What holds true for ragweed may hold true for other plants.  A friend who was in Beaver Creek this last month (and is normally not prone to extreme allergies) was a mess.  She described walking through “storms of pollen raining through the air”.

Which means climate change isn’t going to just result in trivial disasters like super cell storms, class 5 hurricanes, severe flooding in the upper and lower midwest, 365 straight days of rain in Columbia, and massive tornados wiping out Joplin Missouri.

All of our eyes will be swollen and itching, too.



That’s the maximum number of CO2 parts per million that the planet can tolerate and still sustain life as we know it.

We are presently at 392.

I heard Bill Mckibben speak (for the third time) yesterday. I was reminded of why he was once such a hero of mine.

I remember when I read his first climate change article. Vermont. 1997. The Atlantic. Presaging Elizabeth Kolbert and Al Gore by a decade, he observed that something serious was happening to our planet, that if we didn’t act soon to curtail carbon emissions we would soon pass the tipping point.

His current message: we’re too late.

In the last few decades the global temperature has risen by one degree. 2010 was the hottest year on record. Last year we experienced cataclysmic drought in Russia leading to massive crop failure.  Last year grain prices spiked 70%.  Similarly Australian agricultural production has been decimated by severe drought and flooding. As the atmosphere warms, it holds more moisture.  Dry places are becoming drier.  Wet places face super storms.

All that is the consequence of one degree. We have enough carbon front loaded into the system that in the coming decades we will face another degree increase. Nothing we do can stop this. The consequences won’t be pretty.

If we don’t stop mining, pumping, and burning, the atmosphere will increase a third degree. That’s when things, as far as homo sapien civilization is concerned, will probably come to an end.

I won’t live to experience it. My daughter will. This I know.

What can I do now to help her?

1. Push back to 350. That means I have to stop adding carbon to the system. The effects of this action made today, though, won’t be felt for another 25 or 50 or 100 years. It’s a longterm play, and a small hedge at that.

2. Push for political action . Five weeks ago our congress passed a resolution denying the existence of global warming. The current administration may soon approve large infrastructure development to support the mining of tar sands in Canada.  McKibben calls now for mass action and civil disobedience. Especially by older people. Without even thinking we and our parents created this damn mess.

3. Community. Courage. Connection. These are from my friend Amy Levek. To that I would add compassion.

We’ve come to rely on very complex technical systems. If those fail us, what will sustain us? Human relations. Along with the courage to act. And the courage to face that which we fear most. And connection to a single place. If we feel that connection, if we realize that the place is us, then we won’t violate it. We can’t. Lastly compassion, the opening of the heart. We all will suffer. Some more than others. We all will need it.