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Oxygen Nation: Whatever Your Politics, Embrace Your Inner Tree Hugger

In any war it's critical to carefully brand your opponent, and in the war over climate change and what to do about it, the "climate deniers" have won the branding battle.
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Rush Limbaugh describes climate change as a leftist, Democrat Party political movement, "a big fat lie," and a cult -- placing Al Gore as its High Priest. What could these two men possibly have in common?

The very basics: both Gore and Limbaugh are aerobes -- in other words, they require oxygen to live. They crave oxygen, and so do I, and so do you. The average human breathes in 6-7 liters of air each minute, extracting about 350 ml of pure oxygen out of that air. In a full day that adds up to about 500 liters of oxygen, or 1.5 to 2 pounds.

But none of us can make oxygen, and because we can't, we owe our lives to organisms that can: an even split between trees and plants, and all the phytoplankton in the oceans. In this way, I am a tree hugger. The former vice president and the current "El Rushbo" are tree huggers. Turns out every one of us is a tree hugger. (Phytoplankton are too small to hug, so that phrase never caught on.)

If you think you're the exception to the rule, try this little experiment: fly to the moon and step out from your Earth-womb landing module in the suit you were born in. Never mind the temperature: just inhale deeply. Enjoy. You've got a few seconds before the rugged individualist you are, or were, begins to drift lifelessly across the thoroughly deceased lunar landscape.

Why is it important that each of us confess to our inner tree hugger?

In any war it's critical to carefully brand your opponent, and in the war over climate change and what to do about it, the "climate deniers" have won the branding battle. They've been tagged with the rather harmless singular name, "denier," while those fighting climate change are often referred to as "environmental advocates," "nature lovers," "outdoor enthusiasts," "Earth activists," or the more pejorative "Earth freak" or "tree hugger." All of those descriptors evoke a certain fluffiness of character, a pathetic softness, as if these were the people who cried when they watched Bambi. These are the ethereal, ungrounded, low-GNP birdwatchers who walk off into meadows and stare at things. These are the sissy Whole Foods vegans, the lily-white pacifists watching nature shows on PBS.

This kind of branding trivializes the battle over climate change as an alarmist ploy from the "greenies," who care more about spotted owls and rare Amazonian frogs than they do their fellow humans. It gives the appearance that the struggle isn't about the science or its implications, but only about a way of life. It's the Audubon Society against the NFL. You stare at your birds, I'll stare at my flat-screen TV.

Rather conveniently, this cognitive severing of the intimate link between ourselves and the rest of the Earth allows us to take what we think we need, whatever the cost, the way condemning natives as godless savages greased the wheels of Colonialism. And because we imagine ourselves to be separate from the natural world, we also expect to be isolated from the consequences of our behavior, as if "What happens in Nature stays in Nature." It's as preposterous as an electric fan trash-talking the socket.

A few weeks ago a local conservative radio host came back from a commercial break with a voiceover, "And now, a man who has never had a relationship with a tree...." Really. Larry Flynt and Pope Francis? Both tree huggers. Sarah Palin and Jane Goodall? Both tree huggers. Being alive is about accessing energy, and energy comes up the food chain from plants, whose photosynthetic capabilities allow them to capture the sun's photons and use them to fix carbon. When we oxidize our food we get that energy back. Humans have no photosynthetic powers, and so we cling to those organisms that do as if our life depended on it. Which it does.

The Bible links original sin with eating the fruit of the Forbidden Tree, but maybe we weren't kicked out of the Garden. Maybe we left on our own accord, feeling separate from, and even demeaned by, the rest of low-life creation. The film Gravity ends with what some might see as an allegorical dawn-of-life scene, where Sandra Bullock's character comes crawling and gasping out of the water to the verdant shores of Eden, her lungs aching with gratitude. She was ready to hug the Earth. How about a group hug?

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