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The Taste of Change

Bananas used to be better back in our great-grandparents’ day. They tasted better and had a nicer texture, and didn’t bruise so easily. The old bananas were a kind called Gros Michel (Big Mike, in English). But a fungus killed all the Gros Michel plants starting in the 1890s. 

By 1947, they’d been replaced by a different type, called Cavendish. The industry chose Cavendish because it shipped better and resisted the fungus. The fact that it tasted worse apparently wasn’t really a consideration.

If all you’ve ever had is Cavendish bananas, you wouldn’t know what you’ve been missing. You might just think bananas aren’t that great.

Imagine being someone living in the 1940s, who loved bananas, and all of a sudden bananas changed and stopped being good.

But loss has been happening for a long time. It’s a fact of life.

A few years ago I visited Australia and went for a walk with a local guy, and he pointed out a koala bear high up in the treetops. I couldn’t see it, but I thought, that’s all right, I’ll have another chance. I didn’t ever see a koala on that trip. I always thought I’d go back to Australia someday and see them. 

Since then, the population of koalas has been decimated. They were already in trouble from loss of habitat and other pressures, but Australia’s bushfires two years ago severely affected the forests where they lived. Those fires burned 47 million acres – 10 times the size of the Rodeo-Chediski fire. Koalas are now listed as endangered, and they’re a lot harder to get to see.

When I think of loss, I always remember a man I saw at a lecture once, who had been in two horrible accidents in a row, leaving him a quadriplegic. He had a great outlook on life: he said, “Before my injuries, there were five million things I could do with my life. Now there are four million.”

Is the lesson to appreciate simple things like bananas while you can? To do things while it’s possible – even if you think it always will be?

I think so. The phrase “carpe diem” – seize the day – was invented in ancient Rome, which tells you people have always needed to be reminded to live life to the fullest.

But something else is going on, too, something new. Loss has always been a fact of life, but the people living on Earth right now are experiencing it in spades, maybe more so than any generation since Nero’s. Probably more than that, even.

We’re living through a mass extinction of animal and plant species – a thing that hasn’t happened before in human history. (The last mass extinction was 65 million years ago.)

We’re living through climate change that is drastically reshaping our world. Within a decade or two, the Arctic won’t be frozen anymore, the Amazon could well have changed from rainforest to savanna, and the coastlines of the world will be significantly redrawn. 

The Earth has needed us to change, and we haven’t. Last week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shows we’re standing on the edge of the cliff. We need to stop moving toward disaster, and start backing away – fast – now. 

That means drastic, immediate change. To have any hope of avoiding the worst outcomes for the climate, we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly – today.

Either way, whether we act or whether we don’t, change is upon us. 

And that’s the lesson I want to take from the bananas and the koalas. Not to take things for granted. But also to accept the inevitability of change. Resisting change has gotten us in this mess, and paradoxically, has practically locked in a bigger change.

When I’m out for a walk with my puppy and he decides to sit down and stop walking, I pick him up and carry him. That’s what’s happening to us. The world is not going to let us sit still any longer.

But that isn’t all bad. I carry my puppy because I know where we’re going, and he doesn’t. I know how big the world is and that even though he’s enamored by some little piece of trash or doo-doo, he’ll be happier when we get where we’re going.

Having been through massive, overwhelming changes in my own life, I know how hard it can be to believe it’s not the end of the world. Every time, those changes showed me the world is much bigger than I thought it was. That change and loss are real and painful, but always give way – eventually – to growth and wonder. 

The Earth-scale changes we’re beginning to undergo pose a challenge to faith in a larger world, a larger purpose. That, in itself, may be their unexpected gift.

Just a few days ago I had a loquat for the first time. They’re ripening now on a big tree near my house. It’s a yellow fruit, the size of a walnut, with soft flesh, like a very ripe plum. They taste like a mix of apricot, plum, and cherry. They’re delicious. My puppy likes to have a bite. 

Change is terrifying, and loss feels tragic. But when you work your way through the fear and grief, change can taste like a loquat.

It’s never really the end – I believe that. Change is just change. Even when it’s a doozie.

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