Waiting for Obama, Earth Day in the Everglades
“The miracle of light pours over the green and brown expanse of saw grass and of water, shining and slowly moving, the grass and water that is the meaning and the central fact of the Everglades. It is a river of grass.” – Marjorie Stoneman Douglas
President Obama spent Earth Day in the Florida Everglades, flying in the face of global warming denier Governor Rick Scott (R) and his mandate that bans the words “climate change” from the Tallahassee government dictionary.
After two hours of waiting in the heat, humidity, bugged by flies and the stench of porta-potties, the program announcer must’ve been as dopey as I was and his nonchalant introduction came after Obama had already stepped onto the freshly-cut grass. Mentally unprepared for the skinny man who casually crossed the lawn as if he was on his way to a neighbor’s picnic, I was almost disappointed, but as soon as he got behind the Presidential insignia Obama appeared to expand into his presidential stature and gave a strong speech that was full of sound bytes designed to create ripples (but not storms) in tea party cups. When the president said: “Climate change can no longer be denied. It can’t be edited out. It can’t be omitted from the conversation,” it was clear who he was targeting, and he continued to speak specifically to Florida: “Because in places like this, folks don’t have time, we don’t have time — you do not have time to deny the effects of climate change. Folks are already busy dealing with it. And nowhere is it going to have a bigger impact than here in south Florida. No place else.”
Framing Mr. Obama in the perfect Earth Day picture with a vast expanse of sawgrass, water and sky behind him must have been a nightmare for the Secret Service, who had been on the spot for a full week, planning and securing the site for a president who gets more death threats than any president before him. The audience was surprisingly small, with less than a hundred dignitaries, press, friends and officials that included Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, The Everglades National Park Superintendent Pedro Ramos, and Miami-Dade Congressmen Patrick Murphy and Carlos Curbelo and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The Science Guy, Bill Nye, had tweeted in advance “Heading down to DC to catch an #EarthDay flight on Air Force One tomorrow with the President. We’re going to #ActOnClimate.” He was instantly torn apart by retweets that called his plans “more like a way to pollute in style.” But what could he do? Nye was Obama’s personal scientist and warm-up act, providing that selfie-with-star moment for the hardworking officials, to which Nye submitted himself with all the blasé enthusiasm of a modern-day celebrity.
Dark clouds gathered over the horizon just to the east of the President and created the perfect illustration for one of his metaphors: “If you’ve got a coming storm, you don’t stick your head in the sand; you prepare for the storm,” which was followed by the warning that communities have to prepare for climate change as an economic imperative. “Protecting the one planet we’ve got is what we have to do for the next generations.”
Environmentalist and author Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who died in 1998 at age 108, was the main proponent for the conservation of the Everglades, and in a gesture that specifically highlighted the park, President Obama designated the Marjory Stoneman Douglas House in Miami “America’s newest national historic landmark.”
I was curious to see how the Miami media would cover the Florida visit, so I watched the Local News at Ten. The coverage was more “Anchorman” than “Doomsday” as the producers kept cutting away from the President in Miami’s backyard to their “Breaking Story” not far from the park – an SUV that had been driven through a Little Caesar’s plate-glass window. Their Earth Day narrative focused entirely on the President’s flattering remarks about the Everglades’ uniqueness, but the part about rising seawater ruining its eco-system was lost to further breaking news that no-one was seriously injured at Little Caesar’s. The two anchors cheerily noted how it could’ve been so much worse, and cut to one last shot of the President and three park rangers standing on a bridge, staring into the water as if they were playing Pooh Sticks. This was depressing and I wanted to find out how the rest of the media had covered of the Presidential Earth Day speech.
CNN focused on the debate, polarizing both political parties further and quoted Obama’s remark that “This is not some impossible problem that we cannot solve, we can solve it if we have some political will,” pitching him against global warming denier Marco Rubio who ranted Sarah Palin style: “Humans are not responsible for climate change in the way that some of these people out there are trying to make us believe.”
FOX declared Earth Day warfare by headlining that Obama “Ventures into Swamp and Enemy Political Territory” but to their credit added some important facts: “Here in the Everglades you can see the effects of a changing planet. This harms freshwater wildlife. The salt water flows in aquifers that flow into the drinking water of seven million Floridians.”
By the next news cycle, Earth Day and climate change were off The New York Times online front page and their earlier story of the event was bland and cautious. A search at USA Today yielded a complete video of the speech, but at most online news sources the story was buried. The Presidential Everglades visit hadn’t exactly gone viral, and its message seemed mostly lost to the media-fatigued masses.
After the speech and meet and greet, security detained the press for another hour, while the President toured the Ernest Coe Visitor Center for more photo-ops. We were hot, thirsty and sweaty and annoyed to be waiting again. Bored, we stared at the stage that was meant to inspire environmental compassion in Americans, when the tall grasses stirred, the bushes shivered and the water rippled, and out from the marsh came a pack of secret service troops. They were clad in camo khaki and black, had survival gear and guns strapped to every body part and resembled the armored alligators they’d been lying amidst – those famous indigenous Everglade gators and one of the species whose existence is directly threatened by the demise of one of the most remarkable ecosystems in the world.
On my way back through the flatland of the Everglades, dotted along intersections with long dirt tracks, stood small groups of Americans, waiting to see their President pass by. Some were African American, some were Hispanic and some were white. Farmers, men and women, were patiently waiting with their kids, holding small babies, hoping to catch a glimpse, a wave, a shadow, anything. Did they know why the President was in their neighborhood and what he spoke about? Did they already feel that their livelihood was threatened by rising sea levels?
I stopped at “Robert is Here” the legendary farm stand with famous fresh-fruit smoothies and shakes. As I stood sipping my mango shake the motorcade finally appeared in the distance, lights ablaze, fast approaching, the anticipation in the waiting crowd growing as they drew closer. Five gleaming black GMC Suburbans with blackened windows sped by; fast and arrogant as if mocking anyone who was hoping to see anything. An ambulance and a bomb-clearing unit followed in their wake.
I wondered which one held Obama and what he was thinking. Did he see the people and have the urge to wave? Was he craving a mango shake and did he want to stop and buy some fresh sunflowers for Michelle? How did it feel to be president of the United States? What was it like to carry, like Atlas, the weight of the world on his shoulders? Especially now, at the environmental crossroads that will determine the future of planet Earth.
Barbara de Vries, founder of Plastic is Forever, first became involved in ocean plastic activism in 2006, when she noticed plastic debris on the pristine beaches of Eleuthera, The Bahamas. As the former design director of CK Calvin Klein she uses her fashion experience to create collections that highlight the problem in collaboration with Barneys New York, The Nature Conservancy, Oceana, Surfrider etc. She has shown at Art Basel Miami, Gallery Diet Miami, the Coral Gables Museum and Mildred’s Lane, PA. Her work is featured in the documentary One Beach and her TEDx talk. Aware that one single person will never make a difference to the amount of plastic that washes up on every beach with every wave, Barbara teaches workshops and encourages everyone to incorporate beach plastic in their creative process.