By Maurice Carter, Sustainable Newton Co-Founder & Past President
At Christmas, I wrote a post titled Climate Is a Dickens of a Problem, in which I referenced the ghosts of climate past, present, and future. This week, I encountered one of those kind and gentle spirits of our past in my own home.
My wife Kim and I were cleaning out our offices to prepare for home remodeling, when we found a letter tucked inside a hardcover volume on her bookshelf. It was from David G. Simons, MD, an elderly Covington resident who -- as it turns out -- was quite famous. His photo once graced the cover of Life magazine.
Writing on November 13, 2008, Dr. Simons was following up on a presentation he gave to the City of Covington Mayor and Council. (Kim was Mayor then.) His urgent message warned local officials about the threat of climate change. Reading the letter now, almost 15 years later, Bob Dylan's line from Tangled Up in Blue says it best: "Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.”
Every one of them words rang true and glowed like burning coal, pouring off every page like it was written in my soul from me to you.
I recall his presentation vividly -- Dr. Simons's intellectual confidence and his sense of urgency. I also remember sitting in the audience and thinking: this poor man has zero chance of getting these officials to heed any of this. Or even to understand what these risks mean for life as we know it.
Only later did I fully appreciate just how accomplished and famous Dr. Simons was, as documented in his 2010 obituaries in the English Journal of Medicine and the New York Times.
I share my feelings now because I believe they will resonate with anyone who has dedicated themselves to climate action -- or any other significant cause. I was struck by several things reading the letter and Dr. Simons’s handwritten notes in the front of the book.
Honestly, my first reaction was to laugh out loud. “Oh my God,” I told my wife. "I'm him!" Certainly not in terms of intellect, education, or achievements. But definitely in sharing the experience of giving it my very best shot in front of a group of leaders who can't quite distinguish the relative urgency of my message from the constituent who just called to complain about parking, speeding, or a barking dog. Among climate activists, in some sense, we are all David G. Simons.
Next came the frustration of reading explicit warnings about climate change he penned way back in 2008 and wondering "what has really changed?" Proposing to deliver a second presentation, Dr. Simons said he could "review with illustrations and facts the inroads global warming has already made and its rate of progress and significance for individual problems like loss of Polar (Arctic Sea Ice, Greenland Ice, and Antarctic Ice); loss of food production (world food crisis now); more violent storms, floods, and droughts (including our local drought); increased sea salinity; extinctions, poleward progressions of the seasons; etc." I felt like I was reading the morning headlines, not a letter concealed inside a book cover for 15 years.
But along with frustration, I also recognize how far we have come. Those are today's headlines. We talk about the reality of climate change now. Federal, state, and local governments are passing meaningful legislation (like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law), and corporations are making and acting on Zero Emissions and Zero Waste commitments. In Covington and in Oxford, Sustainable Newton representatives are serving alongside city staff and elected officials on committees dedicated to sustainability and climate action.
Overarching all of this, I am comforted to be connected to something so much larger and more significant than what I alone can do. The effort to address our climate crisis will, by necessity, outlive me. But it gives me encouragement to know I am a dot in the much longer arc of history in which all any of us can do is our very best in the time we have. I am fortunate to be connected to a larger community of activists locally and also globally. I am sure Dr. Simons had his allies too -- men and women who shared his concern, but also his devotion to stand up and create change. But we have come so far in building a better support network for those who strive to change the course of humanity.
I am a climate optimist. Not based of what we have accomplished already, but because of what I know we can do. The most rewarding aspect of my work with Sustainable Newton, by far, has been the opportunity to work with bright, young, energetic, determined young people from our local schools, Oxford College, Georgia Tech, Emory, UGA, and elsewhere. They let me know by their presence and engagement that our world is in very good hands.
No doubt, it was the same for Dr. Simons. He writes in his letter about Rachel Oswald -- a young reporter working with the Covington News in those days. "Rachel and I meet every Wednesday afternoon," he wrote. "Yesterday she had a worthy brainstorm if I give another presentation. Why not contact the local colleges and invite their students to attend my next presentation?"
I’m making my shoulders strong
There is a lyric from singer-songwriter Susan Osborn that sums up both what David G. Simons meant in his lifetime and where I strive to find meaning in mine:
I’m making my shoulders strong
For the young to stand upon,
Stepping lightly on the backs of those
Who hold me up.
It’s a chain of life unending,
Ever new and ever bending,
Grateful is the heart for the chance to be alive.
Strong shoulders. Light steps. Grateful heart. These are the things with which our future is made.