Jane Holtz Kay: a Voice in the Wilderness

The sun rises and sets each day, and every morning we wake anew to life’s daily rhythms. Busy with ourselves, we often miss what happens beyond our sphere, confirming Auden’s poignant observation concerning the personal nature of human suffering in his poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts”.

Take the death of Jane Holtz Kay, for example, from complications of Alzheimer’s Disease on November 5. Apart from a NYT piece (November 20, 2012) calling her “a prophet of global warming,” her death has been largely missed by media. It’s probable most of us have never heard of her. That’s been true of me.

Out of curiosity, I researched Wikipedia and came up with nothing. A google search reported her death and provided a link to a Guest Book, presently with eleven entries, written by those who knew her personally.  I checked the archives of  The Nation magazine as well, since I had learned she was its architecture critic for 30-years.  No mention of her death.

Perhaps what really matters in the context of our mortality is not who we were, but what we did.  We touched lives, bringing healing, insight, and acceptance. We left behind an ongoing legacy of wisdom and wise counsel, making the world better.

In 1997, Kay wrote a landmark book on automobiles: Asphalt Nation: How the automobile Took Over America and How We Can Take It Back.  A classic, it demonstrates not only the cost to our environment (carbon dioxide emissions speeding up global warming), but the destructive social aspect of cars themselves: the loss of historical sites, decline in public transit, suburban sprawl and, not least, the automobile’s weakening of social ties. Interestingly, she points out the Amish repudiation of cars is not because somehow the combustion engine is inherently evil, but because it dilutes proximity and, hence, community.

She had written three other books on monitoring our natural resources and managing our urban space, but Asphalt Nation, timely and passionate, may be her most memorable. She left unfinished a follow-up called Last Chance Landscape, dealing with the fallout of global warming in our immediate future.

I think she’d be pleased that coal, at least, seems on the decline in the U. S. But then there are those  troubling developments in China and India, where auto manufacturing is increasingly viewed as a linchpin to economic prosperity.  According to the World Resources Institute, 1200 coal powered plants are at least in the planning stage globally, with three-quarters of them slated for China and India (rpt. in Time, November 21, 2012). Since coal is the single, most contributing factor in accelerating global warming, we may just all be doomed if these coal plants come on-line.

Such environmental callousness chagrined Kay enormously, and sometimes she lamented that she felt like a voice in the wilderness with nobody listening. That’s what makes global warming so insidious: it seems distant, vague, not immediate, despite the increasingly savage storms, drought, flooding and record temperatures. It didn’t even emerge as an issue in the four recent election debates. It’s also an inconvenient issue when governments can’t manage their budgets

Though the earth still spins and life seems to go on, the truth is each day is lessened in its quality by our crimes against Nature’s delicate fabric.  While the world may little note Jane Holtz Kay, we ignore her legacy at our own peril.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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