In this Adirondack reality, you virtually can
By Cayte Bosler
On a summer day, in the upland woods of New York’s Adirondack region, black-capped chickadees dart into the morning air, carrying critters in their little beaks, disappearing into the bristling boughs of spruce and fir trees. From the fragrant wands of evergreen come their singing. A flycatcher, too, alights on a branch, his song is curious and raspy. Trillium flowers keep company with moss and lichens in the understory.
Years go by, in that same boreal forest, summer announces itself earlier, warm and damp. Where is the flycatcher? His song is gone. Newcomers from the south, the tufted titmouse, a mockingbird, are spotted.
Decades unfold, the planet has warmed by 2 degrees celsius. The conifers gave way to oaks who now dominate the landscape. A sea of trillium is no longer underfoot. Instead, other flower names bloom among the deciduous trees: bluets, greenbriar, miterwort, spring beauty, mountain laurel.
Stephanie Tyski, a graduate student of Paul Smith’s College, felt called to provide a glimpse of the future of the forests of the Adirondacks, so she developed a device to show her interpretation. What students see when they strap on her virtual reality headset, is a forest slowly transforming in this way.
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“I had a few of my participants tell me that when they put the headset on, they expected to see the forest on fire or a barren landscape. Instead, they were greeted with – and this is an actual quote that always makes me laugh – a ‘soothing narrative’ and real situation.”
The virtual trail Tyski designed is of the Adirondack boreal forest at the Paul Smith’s College Visitor Interpretive Center (VIC). It unfolds digitally in striking details, even birds chirp. In the 2-degree warmed world, participants can poke around the same spot, investigating changes to trees, flowers and birds. It’s still a forest full of chatter, but drastically different, more akin to the climate of today’s West Virginia.
“Communicating climate change matters to me because there is so much talk in the world and very little way to understand it. There’s also so much fear mongering and misinformation in climate change communication that I wanted to create something that wouldn’t scare people or overly depress them. I wanted to give them a realistic situation to contemplate.”– Stephanie Tyski, graduate student at Paul Smith’s College
Inspired by immersive environmental education initiatives at Christian Schott’s Lab in New Zealand, Tyski taught herself to program for virtual reality excited by the possibility to engage people in her corner of the world about their local environments.
“Climate change is often spoken about on a global level that can feel so far away and disconnected,” Tyski said. “Bringing it to the Adirondacks, and specifically the VIC, can help people better connect with the subject.” People often emerge with an appreciation for the magnitude of environmental transformation that’s bound to come.
During her research, she collected comments from students at Paul Smith’s who anonymously shared:
“I didn’t know a few degrees could put that much change into an environment.” And, “It makes me feel sad that future generations won’t experience the coniferous, dense forest that the VIC has now,” they wrote. And that after the 2-degrees of warming, “It’s not the VIC anymore.”
Many scientists have speculated what this region may look like at various degrees of warming including how species are likely to be impacted. Tyski based her visuals off of Jerry Jenkin’s descriptions in “Climate Change in the Adirondacks” as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report.
In Jenkin’s best-case scenario, under varying temperature analyses, by the year 2100 the Adirondacks ends up with a climate similar to what West Virginia has today. At a more extreme increase in warming, the prediction looks more like that of Georgia.
Tyski plans to design more immersive experiences to educate people about climate change by founding the company Timberdoodle Productions (Timberdoodle is another name for the American woodcock, her favorite bird.)
By making various outcomes for the environment feel immediate and visceral, she hopes to add oomph for those already engaged in building a more sustainable world, she said.
“Being able to look at something that’s a half-mile that way and seeing how drastically it seemed to change,” a student told Tyski. “It puts everything very sharply back into perspective on why changing this course, the course of where we’re headed, matters.”
louis curth says
“It puts everything very sharply back into perspective on why changing this course, the course of where we’re headed, matters.”
But matters to whom?
Not to the privileged baby boomers counting their days, sitting comfortably on their money and political power. They don’t think it matters…
Not to the north country Republicans that we elect again and again and trust to bring us good governance, who now look away in silence as America’s democracy unravels. They don’t think it matters…
Not to the Supreme Court, whose rigid support of every jot and tittle of the founders semantics in our Constitution gives them cover to render fanciful decisions which are completely at odds with the needs of today’s America and its diverse population of all genders. They don’t think it matters…
But, for our young people, forced to live in the worsening climate challenged world we are creating, they think it matters – and they are right!
With this piece about virtual horizons, I’m reminded of Adriana Petryna’s concept of “horizon work” (https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691211664/horizon-work): the idea that between the myopic denialism of “we can control nature because we know everything” and the defeatism of “we’re doomed because we know nothing”, there lies a “horizon” — a useful demarcation point between the knowable and the unknowable — within and by which we can in fact move forward without wrecking the ship.
First, finding that horizon entails the practical acknowledgement that mapping the future is no longer possible in times of rapid change (if it ever was) — something that has proven equally as difficult, if not more difficult, for scientific institutions as for citizens. For example, conventional models for ecological response to climate change — including those that postulate a simple temperature-driven migration of ecotones to higher latitudes and elevation — are being seriously called into question by new analyses, to little fanfare (e.g., https://www.science.org/doi/abs/10.1126/science.abm4875).
And second, more challengingly, this demands what is known in anthropology as “reflexivity” — that we turn the mirror (or Claude glass, or camera) away from nature and towards ourselves, forcing us to contend with a world that is no longer black-and-white and yet crowded with long-neglected ultimate causes. Ironically, sometimes the best way to do that is through imagination.
“Not to the privileged baby boomers counting their days, sitting comfortably on their money and political power. They don’t think it matters…”
This is a slap in the face of many of us boomers who put many of today’s environmental protections in place. Where would we be without the EPA (we may soon find out!!). Indeed, many boomers care more for their money than the environment, but I disagree with painting us all with the same, wide brush.
Perhaps instead we should turn our attention and ire to corporations who now have few limits to their power in Washington and Albany. They pay politicians on BOTH sides of the aisle to maintain their profits at considerable cost to the environment and humans. The whole concept of a corporation is to enrich its shareholders. There is no pressure on them to work for the common good – just profits. If you need a villain for voters to react to, start there! Follow the money!!
louis curth says
I agree with you Boreas, there are many boomers who have fought long and hard on behalf of our environment and still do to their great credit. But what about the rest?
Bill McKibben recognizes the boomers waning support. That’s why he launched “Third Act” in 2021 in an attempt to rally older Americans around climate change. A year later, a clearly frustrated McKibben has written a new book; “The Flag, The Cross and the Station Wagon”, in which he ponders what went so sour with American patriotism, American faith and American prosperity.
Another book; “Our Own Worst Enemy”, by author Tom Nichols, argues that western societies have become self absorbed. He suggests that any renewal of western liberal democracy will depend upon ordinary people “who possess the civic knowledge and virtues to make the system work”.
“Ordinary people” sure sounds like baby boomers to me. They have prosperity, political power and most were taught, in their formative years, about the values and obligations of citizenship in a democracy. On top of that, they have a lifetime of common sense to draw from. So why are so many boomers indifferent to what is happening to our country and our democracy? Why don’t they demand action to fix the worsening quality of life speeding toward the young people of their grandchildren’s generation?
I would urge everyone, both young and old, to read and take inspiration from these words of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy:
“Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, they send forth a tiny ripple of hope.”
Now, in best July 4th tradition, let’s all get back to work!
Mr. McKibben also needs to recognize that not only are “green” boomers dying daily at an increasing rate, they are also likely on fixed incomes or preparing for possible retirement. I am not sure how he is gauging “waning support” with people struggling to get by on a retirement income – assuming they even have that. All many of us can do is vote. I can’t speak for the circles McKibben identifies with, but the remaining friends in my circle have not changed their stance, but perhaps are learning all things “green” are not going in the right direction.
So if boomers have done a poor job of teaching the importance of environmental principals and importance – blame us for that. But McKibben is wrong to blame us as a group of apathy and indifference while fighting an uphill battle against the corporate giants. McKibben has his own motives to watch.
Todd Miller says
It would be helpful that Louis Curth respond to Boreas’ comment (rather than totally ignoring it) that our corporate culture is one the major causes that got us into this climate change crisis. I believe that Louis dwells too much solely on Zen/Millennials vs Baby Boomers angle. There are other factors of causes of climate change that have been very sensitive to such as what Boreas stated and also the political divide in this country. For example, the following was excerpted from https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/02/04/age-gap-environmental-politics/
“Millennials were raised in an era in which the problem of climate change was widely discussed. This is not true of baby boomers and previous generations. But now, each rising cohort of voters grows up in a world in which environmental concerns are important and is likely to retain this perspective. Differences among age cohorts are evident even among Republicans. Multiple surveys reveal a generation gap in the GOP on environmental issues, especially on the subject of climate change. A recent survey of College Republican clubs found widespread recognition that climate change was real and in part a result of human activity, along with openness to solutions. While the public has increasingly divided along party lines about climate change, this is less true of younger cohorts. According to a recent Pew study, 57% of Republican and Republican-leaning Millennials believe that there is “solid evidence” of climate change, While 94% of Millennial Democrats believe this, it’s notable that majorities on both sides share this understanding. By contrast, a majority of GOP baby boomers and members of the pre-boomer “Silent Generation” do not accept that there is solid evidence, putting them at odds with overwhelming majorities of Democrats within their age groups.”