When I was in college, English majors were required to take at least one math class (or approved math substitute) and at least two science classes (for which there were no substitutes at all). Both requirements filled me with dread. In high school, when it was my turn to go to the board, the trigonometry teacher would watch my slump-shouldered attempt to do the impossible, and finally say, “You can’t solve that problem, Margaret Renkl? Even Kellie Tolbert can solve that problem.”
Kellie Tolbert was the trig teacher’s eight-year-old daughter.
My problems in science were even worse. All I was capable of seeing through a microscope were my own eyelashes. I made it through high-school biology strictly because my lab partner was a future artist who could see microscopic creatures through a microscope. In my notebook I would draw a crude approximation of the elaborate images I watched her draw in her notebook, and by that method I managed to squeak through.
In college, fortunately, the math requirement could be dispatched with a course in logic, and I earned a very respectable B in the course despite the unhappy discovery that logic stinks of geometry.
My approach to the science requirement was just to ignore it. For more than three years I ignored it. At the last possible minute, with only two quarters to go before graduation, I signed up for Biology 101—an introductory class involving, yes, microscopes—and Biology 105, a course in environmental science. Biology 105 consisted entirely of reading, attending lectures, and taking tests. For an English major, there was nothing terrifying about a science class with no lab. If you could read you could pass environmental biology, and I could certainly read.
By mid-quarter, I was making a solid A in Biology 105 and a solid F in Biology 101. I dropped 101 on the last day to withdraw without taking an F on my permanent transcript and immediately signed up to try again in the spring. But by mid-quarter of my final college term, I was once again failing.
If it weren’t for a kindly dean who saw no good reason to hold back a senior already accepted into a graduate program that did not involve a single microscope, I might still be trying to graduate from college. It was my good luck that Sociology 201 counts as a science requirement if you ask the right dean.
Obviously no one will ever mistake me for a scientist. Nevertheless I understand that what scientists do is crucial. When I was in preterm labor with my second child, I was grateful to scientists for inventing a medicine that would keep him from being born too soon. When a tornado touches down in my zip code, I’m grateful to scientists for tracking it and warning those in danger to take cover. When I turn on the tap, I’m grateful to scientists for making the water in my city clean enough to drink.
But scientists can’t solve problems without funding, and they can’t solve problems when elected officials hinder their work. Despite what the president of the United States and the director of the Environmental Protection Agency believe, and despite their apparent inability to read the evidence offered by scientists, our earth is in grave danger. Peripheral glaciers have already passed the tipping point. The vulnerable Great Barrier Reef is bleaching for the second year in a row. Seventy percent of the butterfly species in the U.K. are now in decline from weather-related stress. Mosquito-borne illnesses are on the rise as changing temperatures affect the insects’ range. Environmental biology can be terrifying after all.
And yet, just yesterday, the president of the United States omitted any reference to climate change in his Earth Day address. Perhaps I should write the president a letter about my experience with ignoring inconvenient truths. For that matter, perhaps I should write the president a letter and recommend an elementary course in logic.
I’m not a scientist, but I stand with the scientists. And I spent Earth Day planting clover in places where the moles have churned up new bare spots in my yard. Clover is good for the soil, good for the water supply, good for the bees and the butterflies—good, in short, for the earth.