A Dream of What Could Have Been

Tim Russert – Election Night – 2000 – MSNBC

I clearly remember that 2000 Presidential election night, the one that was unresolved until December 12th, when the Supreme Court decided that George Bush had won, despite losing the national popular vote. After all the controversy in Florida it was over. As Gore graciously conceded, my heart sank to whatever place hearts go when they know the future has gone dark as dark can be, at least insofar as the safety of the planet was concerned. Al Gore was not my ideal candidate, as no one can ever be my ideal candidate. I’m far away from those people who can function in the abysmal bureaucratic dinosaur known as the federal government. But I did believe that Gore understood climate change, and that if elected, he would have guided this country in the direction it needed to go to avoid certain disaster. Was it too late even then? I suppose we’ll never know.

A section of Gore’s position statement on climate – 2000 campaign.

But years after his defeat, he was still plugging away, along with many compatriots, at trying to convince the world that climate change was real. After his 2006 film “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, he was acknowledged for his dedication to this cause.

Photo – Scott London

On October 12, 2007, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to increase public knowledge about man-made climate change. In 2006, Gore had starred in the Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which was credited with raising international awareness about the global climate crisis.

My office in 2000.
View from my desk

Back in 2000, I was in my 22nd year at my job as a public official, specializing in the valuation of commercial property for real estate tax purposes. Our small office was a township unit, connected to our companion unit, the supervisor’s office, which specialized in addressing the needs of economically disadvantaged citizens who fell between the cracks in the social services net. That department often had social work interns working there, as a practicum toward their masters’ degrees. That year there were two earnest, wonderful young men employed next door, Brian and Kevin. We engaged in all kinds of conversations about politics and life. I was almost fifty – they were in their twenties. I’d had my share of voting for outliers in primaries. But in a general election, I put my personal preferences aside to vote for the person I thought would do the most good for large swaths of the population. These two great guys were going to vote for the Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader. For weeks we argued about matters of principle and self-interest. I tried convincing them that giving yourself a pat on the back after leaving the voting booth was morally bankrupt, given the potential for dire future consequences if George Bush won the election. Which is of course, exactly what happened. In Florida over 90,000 voters went for Nader. Perhaps a completely different couple of decades, both in domestic and foreign policy, would have changed the world as we know it today. I couldn’t speak to those young idealists for days. I was angry and scared. Looking at where we are now, I think I was prescient. As I’ve watched the world’s weather become wilder and more intense all over the planet, it’s clear to me that some of these droughts, floods, fires and now Hurricane Ian, needn’t have become so dire.

College days

Back in college in 1970, I affiliated with a group of people concerned about the environment. We celebrated Earth Day and looked for ways to participate in local actions to protect the planet.

“Households Involved in Pollution Solutions (HIPS) was founded as Housewives Interested in Pollution Solutions* in March 1970 by Barbara Anderson, an Urbana resident and mother of three, who was inspired by the activities leading up to the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. After attending a lecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about the effects of waste and pollution, she invited 10 fellow housewives into her home to discuss ways to address these concerns on a household and local level. By February 1972, HIPS had grown to nearly 500 members and was publishing a monthly newsletter about its activities.” – Urbana Free Library – Champaign County Historical Archives.

At the Prairie Dispatch, a community newspaper started by a group of young activists, including me and Michael.
Michael at the Prairie Dispatch

Some community people started an alternative local newspaper. We ran columns about all aspects of political life, including the environment. Every week, Michael went out to photograph an example of disrespect for the natural world. He called those the “Junk of the Week” photos. See if you can spot him in the one below.

Junk photo by Michael – 1974

So here I am in my 70’s, sadly pondering how one quick turn, one election can change the future. I think lots of us know this now. I fear for our fragile planet and how the world will be for my children and grandchildren. And in a sentimental moment, I am in Florida, Florida, Florida. Since Hurricane Ian with all its fury made landfall, coupled with the incumbent explanations of how its ferocity is fueled by the warming oceans and so much more science, I found myself thinking back over the years, as I am wont to do in my alone moments. As a child I only went on one vacation, up to Michigan with my family when I was twelve. I went to Washington, D.C. during college for demonstrations. And at twenty I took a grand hitchhiking trip across Europe for a few months with two girlfriends. But I really didn’t start traveling much until I was with Michael. He had a grandmother and a great-aunt who lived in Sarasota, Florida and had taken many family trips there when he was a kid. Before he met me, he’d traveled back down for spring breaks. Ultimately his parents decided to buy a new condominium under construction on Longboat Key, just adjacent to Sarasota. In the winter of 1974, we took our first long trip together, headed to Ft. Myers for a camping experience. That hilarious adventure was the beginning of our many visits to the Gulf Coast. (For an amusing account of that journey, I refer you to another blog I wrote: https://reneerocks.blog/2022/01/12/a-fun-memory-on-a-gray-day/

Lido Beach – Sarasota

As I watched the news, seeing all the destruction, I realized that except for my home state of Illinois, I’ve visited Florida more than any other part of this country. We spent spring and winter vacations along the Gulf with Michael’s family. We traveled to Key Largo in the east, went through the Everglades, and spent several days exploring the old city of St. Augustine. I can’t remember how many times we went to Orlando for Disney World and Epcot with our kids, as well as once with my sister and her boyfriend. But mostly we were on the Gulf. Although I’ve always considered Lake Michigan to be my ancestral waters, I spent loads of time with Michael along those beautiful white beaches on Longboat, Ft. Myers, Bradenton, St. Pete’s and Clearwater beaches. Michael’s parents had the luxury of a boat which we took to Captiva and Anna Maria Islands. In 2012, we had a trip scheduled for Sanibel Island, the perfect spot for gathering seashells, lying on the beach and being quiet. We’d been there a few times and especially loved the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, home to multiple species of wildlife and especially gorgeous birds. When Michael was diagnosed with his rare and dangerous Merkel cell cancer that year, we cancelled the trip, not knowing if there were any trips left in our future. But he survived that first hard year and we rescheduled our Sanibel trip in 2013. I dug out a bunch of photos from that wonderful time.

Love the guy who carried my bag of shells.
Michael floating at the pool’s edge

On that trip we stayed at the Island Inn, the place we’d had to bail on the year before. The owners were sensitive, gracious and understanding so we were delighted to rebook with them. As I watched the devastation on Sanibel with its causeway destroyed, making vehicular traffic impossible, and cutting residents off from the mainland, I looked in my drawer of scratch paper and found a pad I’d saved from that last trip.

Destroyed Sanibel Causeway

Here is their current website notice as of early evening today.

The Wildlife Refuge is believed to have taken a direct hit – its website says it is temporarily closed. The devastation of housing on the island which is without water and power is dreadful, as is the status its continental neighbor, Ft. Myers Beach. So many people lost everything. I have no idea if it will ever return to its original condition, or if that is at best a pipe dream, given the continued warming of the oceans. Living near these beaches may be a piece of the past.

Since Michael’s death, I’ve visited the Gulf town of Naples twice, spending time with my dear friends, Betsy and Randy, who are like family to me. That city, too, suffered heavy damage during this hurricane, prompting them to consider pulling up stakes and staying north where they have their home base. The Naples place was passed on to them by their parents. Perhaps worrying about it is more anxiety than is reasonable, given the current state of the world. But oh, I had wonderful times in that beautiful locale.

So here I am, astonishing myself by dreaming of how different life might be if Al Gore had been elected in 2000. A pretty simplistic attitude, fueled by the memories of so many treasured life experiences, not my ordinary go-to approach to complex issues. But I hardly ever allow myself this luxury of just imagining an easy fix for anything, so I’m giving myself a pass, at least for a day. Meanwhile I’m thinking of that climate change denier-in-chief, Governor Ron DeSantis, who pretends to be a man of the people instead of the Ivy League pack he loves to malign to the press. Below is one of his absurd quotes trying to turn science into a left-wing trick.

As reported by Laura Cassels in the Florida Phoenix, DeSantis — while speaking in Pinellas County on Dec. 7 — referred to climate change as “left-wing stuff” and neglected to even use the word, “climate change.” He said, “What I’ve found is, people when they start talking about things like global warming, they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. We are not doing any left-wing stuff.”

He’ll be standing in line, with hands open to receive the federal aid Florida will need to come even partially back from this disaster. Keep your eyes and ears open for the hypocrisy about to come our way. And dream a little dream of Al Gore. Sigh.

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