The other day, I walked into that new Amazon bookstore at Columbus Circle, and it’s pretty cool. The book selection is small but curated. The front covers, rather than spines, face out, displaying their colorful glory, and the lighting makes each book glow like a gem in a jewelry shop. If you’re an Amazon member, you can take anything home TODAY for the online price - funny how buying things from an actual store now feels like instant gratification. There was also an electronics section, where my fingers lingered on the leather cover of the Kindle Oasis. Overall, it was an impressive sight representing the consumer gains of an interconnected world, an e-commerce company that keeps bumping down the challenges of distribution, and the technological advances that are designed to make our lives easier.
As soon as I walked out though, I suddenly had an unexpected flashback to a memory decades old. The when: junior year in high school. The where: world history class. The who: me and a group of friends who all did very little work and still got pretty good grades. Our cavalier (arrogant?) attitude, impatience for classroom learning, and knowledge that we could get away with a lot, made for a pretty fun time. In world history class, we sat at the round tables way in the back of the room and basically did our own thing. At one point, we decided our superiority was self-evident enough to declare independence - we christened our table with a country name, drew up a flag and taped it onto a pencil for all to see, and moved our seats as far away from the rest of the class as we could. Amazingly, I don’t remember any backlash from the teacher for this obnoxious behavior. At my large, Midwestern public school, discipline was lax and my classmates were hilarious.
While thus self-segregated from the rest of the class, one thing we did was to browse this voluminous National Geographic magazine collection which nearly blanketed the room, lining the shelves and overflowing in baskets. The collection went back decades and was perhaps part of a bequest from an individual or library or both. I remember picking through a few every class, my eyes wide at the pictures, waiting for a noisy moment to surreptitiously tear out the most amazing ones for my bulletin board at home. I saved pages of rosy-cheeked children in foreign lands, otherworldly landscapes, and badass animals. The world in those yellow magazines was so different from this concrete, carpeted edifice in which I was forced to spend my days.
There was one picture which I didn’t tear out, but is seared into my memory. The article must have been about the Amazonian rainforest because that was the subject of the picture. This picture - I wish you could have seen it. I spent a nontrivial amount of time just now trying to find it for you on the internet but to no avail. Instead, let’s take this picture as a point of departure:
Now imagine that you are in a boat, traveling not too fast down this river. The sun is to your left, shining on the trees on your right upon which you gaze, head turned, but the sky behind those trees is dark with storm clouds. The forest, springing from the bank with an irrepressible lushness represents every living shade of green. Across the dividing line between plant and water, the river is also a vast plane of color, reflecting in mirror-image the forest and darkened sky, dotted with glints of sunlight. In the sky is a rainbow, impossibly painted into the scene. The colors were so vivid it was hard to believe this was a real place.
From that day forward, the word Amazon conjured up that picture and everything I had learned about the rainforest - its immense biodiversity, its critical role in keeping the balance of environmental gases viable for life, its mystical and largely undiscovered pharmaceutical promise, and yes, its rapid destruction in the name of human progress. I first learned about the destruction of the rainforest as a kid in the late 1980's, but facts from the last few years show that these and other environmental changes are happening at a faster pace than we've ever seen. We are now hurtling towards a future, if unmitigated, that will likely kill all of us sooner than we think. As a scientist and as a fan of being outside without baking from the inside out, I am probably already an alarmist, but this recent straightforward New York Magazine article had me scared shitless.
I know I am too young to be nostalgic, and I know that not everyone feels the same about climate change, but that day in the Amazon bookstore, I was unbearably sad - because the Amazon of my childhood, the Amazon of that picture, may someday be no longer, and our children will then think that the Amazon is just a place to buy stuff. I have no problems with the Amazon Books store. But whereas both that store and the rainforest can be things of wonder, only one is a thing of beauty and survival.