For DC Ecosocialists, Threats to Cherry Trees Could Support ‘Crossover’ Climate Activism

In many ways, global climate change is a grim problem, one bringing drought, famine and displacement to Central American peasants, ever-more-destructive wildfires to California, and heavier hurricanes, monsoons and other tropical cyclones to coastal dwellers in places ranging from Mozambique to Puerto Rico, from New Orleans to New Jersey, from North Florida to South Asia.

Unfortunately, the human and natural disasters associated with the worst impacts of climate change can make it painful to think about.  This is one reason many people don’t.  Psychological denial is more comforting even for fairly honest people, especially when climate change’s most problematic effects seem far away.

But here in Metro Washington, DC, climate change is affecting a symbol of beauty and serenity, a symbol of psychological comfort and peace, that attracts more than 1.5 million visitors annually. And by addressing this particular effect of climate change in a relatively gentle manner, I think that ecosocialists and others arguing for a Green New Deal may be able to craft messages on the climate crisis that even some conservatives will be able to hear.

As the Washington Post and other local media have recently reported, rising waters and flooding caused partly by climate change are harming the famous Japanese cherry trees planted along the perimeter of the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial.

In fact, officials with the National Park Service report that for several years, flood waters have been covering certain sections of the paved path encircling the Tidal Basin on a daily basis, during high tide.  Besides making walking inconvenient for visitors, the flood water when it soaks into the ground endangers the roots of the trees.

According to the web site of the Trust for the National Mall, “During inclement weather, conditions are even worse; the edge of the sidewalk is indistinguishable from the deeper waters in the basin. This flooding is expected to grow more severe in coming years as sea level rise causes increasingly high tides.”

This gives hundreds of thousands of cherry tree aficionados who visit the Tidal Basin during cherry blossom season an attractive reason for supporting effective action on climate change, I submit.  To test that hypothesis, I visited the Tidal Basis in early April, toward the end of the season, with a politely worded sign calling for people to help save the area from increased flooding by supporting a Green New Deal.

I didn’t want to intrude too rudely on the experience of cherry blossom lovers coming to the Tidal Basin for a sense of tranquility and celebration of nature, which is why my sign focused on saving the “beauty” of the area, and urged visitors to walk gently around the basin to avoid damaging the grounds from overuse – something the Park Service says is a real problem.

I also didn’t mention democratic socialism in the sign.  My aim was to engage in soft and respectful persuasion around the climate issue, as befitting the ways that even many conservative visitors seem to think about the cherry trees in the springtime.

And I think my message worked, at least partly.

Of the hundreds of people who saw the message on April 12, many simply stared at it without emotion, and some older white men and women turned their heads in apparent annoyance.  However, a half-dozen people or more nodded in agreement, several young visitors to the Tidal Basin shouted encouragement, and one or two flashed me the thumbs-up sign. Two young volunteers working for Tidal Basin preservation for the National Trust for the Mall and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which have jointly launched a “Save the Tidal Basin” campaign, came up to thank me and ask if they take my picture standing by a flooded section of the bank.

Farther along the edge of the Tidal Basin on its eastern bank, in a shaded section of the visitors’ path near the FDR Memorial, the Park Service has built and maintained a number of benches where people can sit in peace under overhanging blossoms and gaze out across the water at the Jefferson Memorial.  Unfortunately, some of these benches are being inundated at times of high tide.

On my visit, the tide was at low ebb, but several benches were half-surrounded by muddy water, and pools of water on the sidewalk made it tricky for visitors to pass.   When I perched on one of the benches with my sign, several tourists paused to thank me for what I was doing, and three additional people took my picture; several asked what they could do to support the cause.

Based on this visit and two later ones I’ve made after the close of cherry blossom season, I think continuing low-key, polite efforts at the Tidal Basin to draw attention to the Green New Deal could help climate activists reach a local, national and even international constituency with the importance of effective action on the climate crisis.

In mid-April, as I sat on a bench in a particularly muddy part of the path along the Tidal Basin’ eastern shore, a troop of about 50 teenagers on spring break from a junior high school in Albany, NY passed by without a word.  As they walked away, though, I heard one of their teachers exclaim, “Oh, of course,” then say something to her students about political supporters and political opponents of the Green New Deal.

When I posed with my sign on a stretch of flooded pavement closer to the Jefferson Memorial that same day, an exchange student from Scotland struck up a conversation with me, wondering whether the USA is too rightwing as a society to accept Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s radicalism.   As we spoke, a flock of 20 Canada geese accompanied by two fuzzy brown goslings foraged for edibles along the wet bank behind me, and a pair of mallards waddled near them trying to filter out insects from the mud.  To my left, a great blue heron perched at the pavement’s edge eyeing the water for fish.  

It was a beautiful scene for any wildfowl lover, yet the sight of the Tidal Basin’s bank being transformed into near-marsh conditions offered visual proof to everyone present that sea level rise and higher tidal waters are real, not some figment dreamed up by liberal or socialist propagandists.

With the geese grazing behind me, one middle-aged man who said he was from the Caribbean, noting my message in support of H. Res. 109, the joint Green New Deal resolution that AOC and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts have introduced in Congress, tried to give me money for getting the word out about the climate problem.  Two other people also tried to give me cash the same day to support H. Res. 109, although I told them they needed to donate to the Sunrise Movement instead.

Later on as I sat on one of the half-flooded benches near the FDR memorial, a pair of high school teachers from somewhere in Pennsylvania, leading a group of several dozen students wearing T-shirts commemorating the passengers on Flight 93 during the 9-11-01 terrorist attacks, were more circumspect as they and their students passed.

But the trip leader, an older white man with a somewhat military bearing, nodded curtly and wished me good day as he stepped around the puddles.   I got a strong feeling, although it was only a feeling, that this Pennsylvania teacher probably isn’t that enthusiastic about either AOC or the Green New Deal, but that he couldn’t completely deny the reality of climate change when encountering the effects of recent Tidal Basin flooding face to face.

As local and national media have noted, climate change alone isn’t the only factor threatening the Tidal Basis and its roughly 3,700 cherry trees.  The Save the Tidal Basin campaign that the Trust for the National Mall and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are spearheading – with generous corporate support – is focusing on other problems also affecting the site.

These include the crumbling of the Tidal Basin’s seawall, which was constructed decades ago; the natural subsidence of the land around the Basin due to geological factors unrelated to global warming; and unexpectedly heavy crowds of people who visit the site.  All too frequently these days, especially now that the paved paths are often flooded from recent tides, visitors tend to stray off the designated walkways and trample the grounds nearby, compacting the soil and making it less able to support the trees.

The enormous increase in the paved surface area of the Metro DC region over the past half-century, by preventing rainwater from filtering into the soil, also increases the volume of water going into local rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. This is another cause of increased flooding, in addition to natural land subsidence and climate change.

Another big problem, according to some organizers of the Save the Tidal Basin campaign, is the woefully inadequate budget that the National Park Service receives for maintenance activities throughout the sprawling National Park System.  With visitor facilities at national parks across the country facing a huge backlog of unmet maintenance needs, it’s not clear how much the Park Service can dedicate to keeping the Tidal Basin and the cherry trees safe.

Climate change, however, is undeniably making the area’s problems worse.  Teresa Durkin, senior project director for the Trust for the National Mall, is quoted in the April 4 Washington Post as predicting that for the Tidal Basin, “Climate change will be catastrophic.  This whole area will be underwater.”

The Save the Tidal Basis campaign launched by the National Trust is apparently focused on extensive fund-raising to pay for a design competition in which noted landscape architecture firms will submit a variety of plans for addressing the area’s woes – such as the crumbling sea wall, for example – through structural means.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but democratic socialists and other progressive climate activists in this region have the freedom to press for essential actions on climate change and the threat of ever-rising sea levels that the National Trust, for example, probably can’t or won’t address for institutional reasons.

DSA climate activists, then, might conceivably play an important role in saving the Tidal Basin that could win us at least grudging support from a host of different local and national organizations that hopes to keep alive the legacy of DC’s cherry blossom season.  To the extent we can help to save the Tidal Basin from higher waters, we’ll be tackling an issue that has elicited sympathetic and emotional comment from a variety of local commentators, ranging from the often elitist editors of the Washingtonian to the publishers of the Washington Informer, a black-owned local newspaper.

While we’re on the subject of climate change and its threats to the Tidal Basin, at least some DSA activists might want to think about joining with more mainstream voices in agitating for a bigger maintenance budget at the Park Service.

This isn’t an obviously “revolutionary” issue, perhaps; it doesn’t entail nationalizing the banks or seizing the commanding heights of the economy.  But at a time when many democratic socialists are talking about the prospects of helping working class Americans through the “de-commodification” of our economy, pressing for adequate public support for a government agency that provides free recreational opportunities and access to nature for millions of Americans seems like a legitimately leftist concern.

Socialists might even want to argue that funding for long-deferred maintenance needs in the national parks should come out of the Pentagon’s obscenely swollen budget.  Whether we could ever sell this idea to the apparently military-minded teacher from Pennsylvania that I encountered in mid-April at the Tidal Basin, though, remains to be seen.

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