The Only Story

There is only one story now.

Amsterdam (by Olivia)

I didn’t feel that way when Gen and I traveled to Prague and Berlin last month to see our daughter Olivia. I had many stories on my mind at the time, starting with the most important: how had our sweet, shy child fared? Olivia had been living in Berlin for nearly six months as part of a Study Abroad program offered by her college and although we had been in regular touch we were eager to hear about her adventure in person. In our family, Olivia is the quiet one. Caught between her garrulous twin brother and her excitable, overeducated parents, Olivia had to learn over the years to speak up. Now she was on her own in a foreign country! We’ve traveled a great deal as a family, including twice to Europe, so Olivia was familiar with the challenges. Still, when she took the train alone to Amsterdam on spring break, I fretted – like any parent. She was fine, of course. Her subsequent sojourns to Poland, Munich, and Copenhagen also went off without a hitch. She navigated Berlin with ease, mostly overcoming her shyness with strangers (she said it took her a long time to screw up her courage to order coffee in German). Before meeting us in Prague, Olivia made a lightning visit by train to Vienna. No sweat.

We wanted to hear all her stories.

View of Prague from the Charles Bridge

Prague was its own story. In the late 1950s my parents visited the famous city, hidden quietly behind the Iron Curtain. It made a huge impression on my mother. She loved its medieval architecture and sang its praises for years afterwards. Unfortunately, it became a melancholy tune over time. Escaping a miserable upbringing in West Virginia, she became a passionate traveler after marrying my father and graduating from college in 1952. She soaked up foreign sights and sounds with the same hungry energy she directed at books, plays, and movies. She desperately desired to see and do more (she would have burned with envy at Olivia’s opportunity). Life had other plans, however. Children, for instance. She took this change of plans badly. By the time I turned ten in 1970, she had begun a general retreat from the world. She never went overseas again and rarely left Phoenix. Prague became a nostalgic symbol of her previous existence – before domesticity, before self-medication, before diminished horizons. But Prague was a beacon too. It was a dream of hers to return. She showed me the amazing photos she took of the city and recounted funny stories about traveling in a Communist country. I knew she kept leftover Czech money in a box. We schemed on ways to go the city together some day – plans cut short in 1988 by her death.

Now I had a chance to take the trip for her and complete the story.

Berlin 1945

My father had a story too. On my writing desk sits a metal bookend in the shape of military badge, its blue and red center emblazoned with two trees, two crosses, and a lightning bolt. On its base are the words ‘Heads Up’ and ‘Berlin 1945.’ My father barely missed the war. Over his mother’s strenuous objections, he enlisted in the Army shortly after turning eighteen on December 25th, 1944. Six months later he was a member of a mobile radio unit patrolling the devastated streets of smoldering Berlin. The few stories he told me about his experiences involved fights between American and Russian soldiers, including one about an American who was deliberately pushed from a moving train by a Russian just as another train traveling in the opposite direction approached. Luckily, the soldier survived. Another story involved a drunken street brawl he witnessed between Russians and Americans servicemen. I never asked him about the physical devastation he saw in Berlin, which I regret, but it must have been a shocking sight to a small town boy from southern Arkansas.  

My father was there literally at the start of the Cold War, a nerve-wracking conflict that was important part of my life growing up, as it was for many Americans. This story was very much on my mind as Gen and I prepared to travel. This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of Communist East Europe, two events that were as inspiring and exciting at the time as they were surprising. I assumed Communism would go on and on. The huge crowds of rebellious citizens I saw on television, the hard fall of brutal dictatorships, the end of the Soviet Union’s evil empire, all accomplished in just a few months (ten days in the case of Czechoslovakia ) was truly amazing to behold. Two years later, the Soviet Union itself collapsed – perhaps the most astonishing event of all. In preparation for our trip, I read a book about the Soviet empire’s disintegration titled Revolution 1989 by journalist Victor Sebestyen. It is an incredible story told with wry humor and candor by the author. His descriptions of the peaceful protests by which regular people achieved their liberation were especially poignant. It felt a world away from the anger and polarization that infects so much of our behavior today. Alas, the heady, optimistic feelings generated by the 1989 revolutions have vanished in Eastern Europe, wrote Sebestyen, replaced by crass materialism and political cynicism – which means it has joined the rest of the world. But that’s another story.

This was exciting stuff and I made sure my notebook was safely stored in my satchel for the trip. By the end of our visit to Europe ten days later, however, all of the stories had become one story.

It began with our outbound journey from Santa Fe. Our second flight was delayed requiring an extra flight to London. By the time we reached Prague, ten hours later than planned, we had sat on four separate planes. We didn’t mind the inconvenience but I worried about our carbon footprint. Air travel generates a large amount of carbon dioxide per passenger (a recent analysis said a single long-haul flight creates more CO2 than one citizen produces in a year in many countries). Planes also pollute high in the atmosphere which makes them a conspicuous contributor to climate change. It is estimated that over four billion passengers will fly in 2019, five percent more than last year and up 300% from 1990. This is important because global CO2 emissions began climbing again in 2017 after stabilizing for three years in what had been a hopeful sign that the world was getting serious about climate change. In 2018, emissions rose to a record high, which a science reporter characterized as “brutal news.” Not surprisingly, a ‘flight shaming’ movement has begun in Europe called flygskam, which made headlines in the weeks before our trip. It’s a Swedish word, perhaps inspired by the dynamic young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg who stopped flying four years ago.

Shame aside, we did ponder not going on our trip. Rebecca Burgess, my coauthor of a book on regenerative agriculture and clothing, recently decided to give up air travel as a way of walking her talk about carbon pollution and climate change. I greatly respect Rebecca, who is doing amazing work, so her decision weighed on me. I hadn’t stepped on a plane in eighteen months and had only flown internationally once since leaving the Quivira Coalition at the end of 2015 when I flew to Paris for the United Nations climate summit. I work from home and Gen takes public transportation to her job in town every day. We haven’t traveled farther than Albuquerque or Taos in the past two years by car. We were trying to reduce our impact in other ways too – buying less, eating carefully, and staying home more. These activities also have a positive economic benefit, which nicely dovetailed with my carbon concerns. It all added up to a debate whether to go to Prague and Berlin, neither of which we’ve visited. In the end, we decided to go. It was a chance to visit Europe, which we love, and wanted to see Olivia!

A crowd at Prague’s famous clock

She met us at the train station in Prague late in the afternoon. She had arrived from Vienna in the morning, found the hotel, checked in, and taken a nap. It was so good to see her! After big hugs we purchased espressos-to-go (ah, Europe) and headed to the hotel, located in the center of old Prague, close to its historic Town Square. Dropping our bags off, we immediately beelined for the famous Charles Bridge, built in the fifteenth century and one of Europe’s must-see destinations – and extremely popular as a result. As we joined a steady stream of tourists flowing toward the Vltava River we queried Olivia about her travels and time in Berlin. We were accompanied on the walk by Prague’s mesmerizing architecture. The old town wasn’t bombed in World War II and retains much of its medieval character, though most of the ground-level shops have been converted to upscale stores giving the city the feel of an Old World mall. We didn’t care. We were just happy to be back in Europe, whose blend of history, culture, food, and human-scale life appeal to us on so many levels. The July air was soft and fragrant. Working our way to the middle of the crowded bridge, we were soon rewarded with a sunset view of Prague’s lovely profile. I tried to imagine my mother and father standing here all those years ago. It was very easy to why she loved this city so much.

Overtourism in Venice

Our warm feelings continued over the next two days as we walked ceaselessly around the city starting with its impressive castle, sitting regally on a hill across the river. One condition, however, marred our strolling and became a story in its own right. Prague was packed with people. We weren’t surprised. All year, I’ve been reading news stories about the plague of overtourism in Europe. When Gen and I visited Venice in 2008, the famous sinking city endured eight million international visitors. In 2018, the number had risen to nearly thirty million! Nearly twenty million people are expected to visit Paris this year, up from nine million a decade earlier. In May, workers at the Louvre, the world’s most popular museum and home to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, walked off the job due to overcrowded conditions. Although it’s a similar story in other cities, including Barcelona, Amsterdam, and London, it’s become a continent-wide problem. Between 1995 and 2015, the number of visitors arriving in Europe doubled from five hundred million to one billion and is expected to double again by 2030. There are many reasons for this trend, including low oil prices, the rise of budget airlines, the expansion of Airbnb, an explosion of Chinese tourists, and the popularity of cruise ships, the largest of which can carry as many six thousand passengers. The cruise ship industry, in fact, is running at capacity, totaling twenty-six million people in 2017.

The carbon footprint of all this traveling is huge, as you can imagine. The authors of a research article published in 2018 in the peer-review journal Nature Climate Change determined that between 2009 and 2013 tourism’s global carbon footprint increased from 3.9 to 4.5GtCO2e, four times more than previously estimated, accounting for about eight percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The story gets worse. “The rapid increase in tourism demand is effectively outstripping the decarbonization of tourism-related technology,” wrote the authors. “We project that, due to its high carbon intensity and continuing growth, tourism will constitute a growing part of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (article). All of this comes at a time when global greenhouse emissions MUST begin to decline if there is any hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. However, judging by the hordes of tourists we witnessed in Prague I doubt the crowds will be thinning any time soon.

I didn’t know it, but the outline of the one-only story began to take shape.

A segment of the Berlin Wall

On our last full day in Prague, we lingered in Wenceslaus Square, site of huge public demonstrations in 1848 (part of a Czech nationalist revival), 1918 (celebrating the establishment of the Czech Republic), 1968 (protesting the Soviet invasion), and 1989 when 400,000 people filled the large space demanding the end of Communist rule. It was very moving to visit the epicenter of so much civic action, even if the Square (a rectangle really) is ringed today with tacky tourist shops and cheap food eateries. The stories this place could tell! I felt the same way two days later as we visited an outdoor memorial to the Berlin Wall, not far from Olivia’s apartment in the German capital. The 1.6 kilometer park includes a remnant of the original wall (covered in colorful graffiti) and is sprinkled with slender information kiosks detailing the construction, maintenance, and impact of the nearly impregnable barrier that divided Berlin for twenty-eight years. It is a very moving story of oppression, conflict, defiance, and triumph – once again led by regular citizens. We visited the park on a sunny and warm Sunday and I was impressed by the large number of Berliners who walked thoughtfully along the course of the memorial, suggesting that memories of the Wall and its legacy remain fresh for many people.

Memorial to Murdered Jews

The story the Wall told about our inhumanity, resilience, and ability to overcome terrible challenges was repeated all over Berlin. The city was bombed relentlessly by the Allies during World War II and then reduced to rubble by the Red Army as it fought its way into the Nazi capital in April 1945, damaging nearly eighty percent of its buildings downtown. Today, you can still see bullet holes in many of the structures that survived the devastation. As we walked through the magnificent Brandenburg Gate I tried to imagine what my father felt as he stood here seventy-four years ago. It’s nearly impossible for my generation (much less Olivia’s) to fathom the shock and suffering caused by a war of this scale. Or our inhumanity. The Nazi era left scars that run deep in Berlin as we saw repeatedly during our five days. Most impressive was the cemetery-like Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, located near the Brandenburg Gate. We visited it late on a drizzly afternoon, wandering somberly among its black stele.

Babylon’s Ishtar Gate

The stories kept coming. A bout of museum-going brought Gen and I into contact with six thousand years of human history, including Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans. A visit to the Natural History Museum brought us face-to-face with an impressive T. Rex skeleton. Four hours in the National German History Museum barely scratched the surface of the complicated and bloody history of northern Europe. My head began to swim with stories of empires, gods, religions, wars, elites, injustice, revolution, exploration, discovery, conquest, enslavement, liberation, art, technology, love, death, exploitation, duty, greed, hubris, reformation, enlightenment, science, propaganda, persecution, genocide, atonement, and so much more. If there was one thread through all the exhibits it was this one: we haven’t changed at all in six thousand years, not at heart. Our technology has changed a great deal, of course, and we have lots of science now but I’m not sure about anything else. Democracy might an anomalous state of affairs, for example. When viewed against the long history of human governance dominated mostly by despots, it certainly looks like the exception to the rule. That probably means progress is illusory. After all, greed and hubris seem just as strong today as it was at the height of Babylon’s power.

Gauguin’s painting

Our tour through Berlin’s museums reminded me of a quote by the great biologist and humanist E. O. Wilson who summed up the human story this way: “We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of humanity.” This sentence can be found in Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, published in 2012. The cover features Paul Gauguin’s 1897 masterpiece on which the painter inscribed three questions: Where did we come from? What are we? Where are we going? Whether Gauguin considered these questions to be anguished or not, Wilson certainly did. In his book, Wilson works strenuously to provide answers with a provocative blend of biology, anthropology, art, neuroscience, and history. Although his analysis is a sober one, Wilson ends his book on a hopeful note, predicting that we’ll pull through our current dilemmas. He believes the human story will ultimately be an inspiring tale of discovery and adventure, not the dark Shakespearian tragedy that seems to be developing.

I’m willing to give Wilson the benefit of a doubt though mounting evidence points to the very danger he said we pose to ourselves and the natural world. This is the one and only story, I realized.

The realization began with my feet. As our time in Berlin went on each day became hotter and hotter. It didn’t slow us down at first. We kept walking despite the heat – hey, we were in Berlin! How hot could it be? Hot. On the third day, I developed a heat rash around my ankles that looked bad. I was having trouble staying hydrated too despite chugging water at every opportunity. The humidity wasn’t terribly high, so I blamed our difficult circumstances on the lack of air conditioning in the city, which including many of the museums. There was another culprit, however. No one thought to check the news, so when Gen and I boarded our train for the ride back to Prague to catch our return flight we were unprepared for what happened next. The date was Thursday, July 25th – the hottest day ever in Europe, part of a record-setting heat wave. Climate change, in other words. By the time we reached the airport the next morning for the long journey home, all the stories had melted in the heat and merged into just one story, one anguished question:

Where indeed, Mr. Gauguin, are we going exactly?

(photos of Prague and Berlin by Courtney White)

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