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EYES WIDE OPEN: First chapter

OPTICAL ILLUSIONS

paul-beeEverybody lives inside his or her own movie. Mine had usually seemed a light comedy. Then I noticed the first dead bee on the driveway. Then three or four every week. Then the weeks became months. The soundtrack turned ominous. What was this‑‑Stephen King?

When I was a kid, we used to cut out articles about strange goings-on and bring them proudly to school. These were "current events." Interesting fact: they only happened to other people.

The same with history. Every June we turned in our history textbooks even though our teachers might only have reached the Model T Ford. Who won World War I? Have a nice summer! History was the dusty past, unconnected to us.

Staring at the bees, I knew otherwise. History is happening right here and right now, whether you live in New York City or, like me, in little Aromas, California, a town too small to merit a traffic light.

What was up with the bees, I wondered. And the environment in general. What obstacles are we facing?  What solutions have we come up with?

The great thing about history happening right now is that it's all around you. That's also the not-so-great thing. There are plenty of facts, but we're so close to them that it's hard to know what they mean or which ones are important.

This is especially true today. Adolescence is dramatic and untidy; so are periods when societies change. In times like these, the street-level scene can feel too confusing to comprehend. But in the course of trying to answer those questions, I found some ways to get altitude. Each of the chapters after the introductory section offers a different lens to peer through. Suddenly, we can make out patterns and principles that are driving the headlines. Having names for them will grant you power. You'll begin noticing the same things going on elsewhere‑‑in advertising, politics, and the whole culture we're part of.    

It all starts with seeing, and seeing through the everyday world's two biggest illusions.

It's always been this way. Air-conditioning. Phone calls bouncing off satellites. Clothes driers and gas lawnmowers. Driving to school and flying cross-country. They're all so common that we hardly notice them, but they're barely older than your baby brother. Over the past 200 years we found out what coal, then oil, then natural gas, then the atom could do for us, making leaps in agriculture, medicine, and a hundred other fields that have given us the world of wonders we inhabit. No humans have ever lived as we do.

Everything's fine. Technology's successes have been flat-out dazzling. Now, in our era, its side effects are emerging‑‑the jaws behind the environmental crunch. Modern farming gives us astounding harvests, but its pesticides killed many of the insects that used to pollinate our crops and most likely did in the bees I found. The amazing new world we've created has created new residues. These have led to big unintended problems, from ozone holes to changing climate. These problems were so long-term that we couldn't see them for the first 200 years. Suddenly, they're in sight, close enough to touch.

downstreemThis environmental news may turn out to eclipse all the wars and other doings in your history textbooks. Other books and resources will give you much more detail on the science involved. My subject is how we're responding to the writing on the wall, with a focus on the United States. Progress, we now know, doesn’t bring only good things. Causes and effects can be separated by decades and jump over continents. National borders are increasingly beside the point while the oceans and atmosphere are more important than ever. We're all trying to catch up with these facts. It's a changed world.

The more I researched, the more I realized that science is only part of the environmental story. Money turns out to be as important as molecules. Science explains what Nature is doing; money often explains what we're doing. Power and politics are bound up with money. That's why they're included here and why I've drawn on history, psychology, and sociology to help explain what's going on.

What you won't find here: a list of 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. Instead, the book is a briefing that will launch you on your own list. Notice. Gather information. Reflect. Refine. Act.

You've got power in those acts‑‑what you buy, what you eat, how you get around, what candidates you support, where you throw your energies. The book's goal is to give you a foundation under your decisions.

EYES WIDE OPEN. Copyright © 2014 by The Brown-Fleischman Family Trust. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.