6 Questions with Mark Hineline, author of “Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home”

September 9, 2019

We know that the Earth’s climate is changing and that the magnitude of this change is colossal. At the same time, the world outside is still a natural world and one we can experience on a granular level every day. Ground Truth is a practical guide to living in this condition of changing nature, to paying attention instead of turning away.

Ground Truth features detailed guidance for keeping records of the plants, animals, and seasonal changes that occur in our neighborhood. This practice is known as phenology—the study and timing of natural events—and these records can be put to practical use by scientists. We talked with author Mark L. Hineline about how he came to practice phenology, and why it’s more important now than ever.

The media and scientists highlight increasing temperature when they talk about climate change, but you discount temperature and instead highlight phenology. What is phenology, and why do you think it is more important than temperature?

Temperature, global temperature, is very important. But as people going about our daily business, we’re not equipped to make distinctions at the scale of a degree or two, or even five degrees. Humidity makes a difference in how we experience temperatures. So does a light breeze or a wind. To say nothing of how we are attired or when we last had a meal! For this reason, what scientists are telling us about temperature and warming is something that we cannot do a good job of confirming through our experience. The result is that we have to place a lot of faith in what scientists tell us. In many cases, we are willing to grant science and scientists that measure of faith. But for complex (and entirely nefarious!) reasons, this isn’t so with respect to climate change.

Phenology provides people who aren’t scientists with a tool to check up on the scientists. It doesn’t provide instant gratification—it takes time to get the confirmation if you happen to be stubbornly skeptical—but it does the job.

Phenology is the study of seasonal events in nature. We would be better off if the Belgian scientist who named it had called it “seasonography,” the description of seasons, instead. But he didn’t.

For many plants and animals, seasonal changes in temperature (along with day length) trigger changes in growth, reproduction, and (for animals) migration. A tree may bud according to temperature, and the buds may burst at a particular temperature. In that way, the tree (or any number of plants and animals) provides information about the temperature at a given time in a given place.

It’s not that temperature is unimportant. Of course, it is! It is rather the case that a phenological observation provides a more local and in some ways a more precise indication of how climate is changing.

How did you come to be interested in this topic, and what do you love about it?

There were two common avenues for finding an introduction to phenology – through Henry David Thoreau or through Aldo Leopold. (Ground Truth is now a third way.) In my case, it was through Thoreau. As I prepared to teach a class on the history of environmentalism, I read Walden and “Walking,” as well as works by scholars on Thoreau. That’s where phenology popped up. It seemed to me that keeping a phenological journal, rather as Thoreau did, was a good way for students in the class to have an experience comparable to Thoreau’s rather than just reading about it and listening to my lectures. So I began using the exercise for grading. In time, it occurred to me that phenology was a way to track the consequences of climate change.

I don’t love climate change, for many reasons. But I do love the fact that it is not just an abstraction. It is something that, with patience, you can watch unfold. You can watch how the interconnected web of the natural world copes with carbon emissions and their consequences.

Climate is nature. It’s not currently the best version of nature we might experience, and it’s important to do whatever we can to diminish carbon emissions, perhaps to eliminate them altogether. But climate, even changing climate, is nature, and I chose long ago to love nature, no matter what comes.

While you were working on this project, what did you learn that surprised you the most?

In history, philosophy, and sociology of science, there was a discussion, years ago, about how the context of the discovery and the context of justification may or may not be related. Philosophers have argued that scientific discovery is one thing while making clear claims about whatever scientists have discovered is quite another. The two may or may not be logically related. As I’ve worked on this project, I’ve seen a similar conflation of ideas. Scientists and journalists have had a tendency to conflate the context in which the best evidence for climate change can be found—the Polar Regions—with the contexts in which climates are changing. That’s nearly everywhere on Earth, but too often we only hear about the Polar Regions. I understand that it might be exciting to go to Antarctica and experience exotic ice in order to report on some new evidence of melting or about ice cores, but doing so displaces the phenomena. Go for a walk outside. Your climate is changing. Mine is, too. I’m surprised that the narrative of climate change, at this late date, hasn’t changed along with our climates. Surprised and quite frankly troubled.   

We’ve seen a lot of discussion in the media lately about “climate despair,” the idea that thinking about the realities of climate change can lead to depression and hopelessness about the future. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

Some degree of climate despair is inescapable for current generations living through this time of change. Climate change is a two-headed monster. Some of the actions we must take will make it hard to enjoy simple pleasures that we take for granted today, that we’ve enjoyed all our lives. Or, if we don’t act, and act with haste and determination, we will live on a planet that is less hospitable to our species and to other species than it was when we were born. I’ve chosen to believe that the second of these will not come to pass, fully, that the people of Greta Thunberg’s generation will turn this all around even if my generation does not. So that leaves the sense of loss over those simple pleasures.

I’ve enjoyed getting old cars running and keeping them running through most of my adult life. For a long time, this seemed more environmentally responsible than buying new cars. Moreover, if I came upon a problem that I couldn’t fix quickly, the car would just be off the road for a while and I would walk, or bike, or take public transportation. But I can no longer do all of this in good conscience. I don’t repair old cars anymore because they have no place in our world, and I cannot repair new ones. So the day is coming when I will dispose of my trusted tools for doing repairs. I’m not looking forward to that. They are like old friends.

Rather less personal is this: to travel or not to travel and how to do so is now a moral choice in a way that it has not been before. I tend to believe that, absent the carbon footprint from travel, getting away from one’s home from time to time is good for humankind and for the world. Meeting other people, experiencing other cultures, and seeing other places makes for a broad political and ecological empathy. I think that eliminating travel altogether as a way of reducing carbon emissions may be counterproductive in the long run. The need to think about that causes me to despair.

Phenology, on the other hand, especially the sort that I recommend—in one’s dooryard—is a way of dealing with climate despair, as long as it is also combined for now with climate activism. And, my pleasure in auto repair notwithstanding, I do genuinely believe that a world that is regulated to control climate emissions will be a better one than the one we live in now – healthier, quite a bit less noisy, prettier, more human and humane, more pleasurable in many ways.

Where do you anticipate your research taking you next?

I just returned from the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, where I spend a month on a McColl fellowship looking at papers from and maps of the Transcontinental Excursion of 1912. William Morris Davis, a geographer and geologist at Harvard, organized the Excursion to provide an introduction to the many wonders of the North American continent for forty-three European geographers. Aboard a private train, the excursionists traveled more than 13,000 miles, twice across the continent, in the company of Davis, a full-time staff of about ten American scientists, and another ninety or so scientists who popped on and off the excursion to showcase their areas of expertise. I intend to write an account of all of this in the form of a graphic narrative. It’s a wonderful example of a scientific practice about which little has been written—the field trip, or excursion—and it’s a snapshot of the natural and human geography of our continent, frozen in time.

What’s the best book you’ve read lately?

Two books, if I can be forgiven. The first is Megan Raby’s American Tropics: The Caribbean Roots of Biodiversity, a book that is getting much-deserved recognition. I read it with students in my senior seminar on biodiversity this past spring, where it stood out among the books on our reading list. Along with Robert Kohler, I organized the first session on the importance of place in history of science back in 1997. Although I can take no personal credit for Raby’s book, I am glad that the new direction in history of science I pointed to so long ago has resulted in such a fine work of scholarship.

The other is Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, a journalist’s history of the development, American use of, and ultimately the suppression of psychedelic drugs such as LSD and psilocybin. I was afraid to try LSD in the 1960s and early 1970s when it was widely available as a street drug. Now, thanks to Pollan’s book (which includes sections of experiential writing, of which I would clearly approve), I’m saddened by the thought of what might have been—generations of treatments for mental illness and addictions.

I’m hoping to get time to read Laura Dassow Walls’ biography of Henry David Thoreau, which was published while Ground Truth was in press.

Mark L. Hineline is instructor in history, philosophy, and sociology of science at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University.

Ground Truthis available now! Find it on our website, online at any major booksellers, or at your local bookstore.

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