Her historic snowfall: when will it be the last in her lifetime?

This essay, by Hailey Sewell, is one of three winners of the 2023 Sustainability Writing Awards hosted by the Office of Sustainability. You can read more about Hailey here

During the winter of 2007-8, there was a total snowfall of more than 100 inches in the city of Madison. The biggest storm occurred just before the turn of the new year. I don’t recall the total inch count (I was only five). But it was the first snowfall I can remember. There was so much snow that neither of my parents went to work. My brothers and I went out every hour to shovel the drive, to not let it build up too much. It was this snowfall, that cold blanket of clouds, which birthed a poet from its frost. Layers of ice kiss the flowerbeds of dead brush, tucking it in like a child ready for bed. It was this storm that taught me a love for the outdoors even in nature’s harshest storms. And it was this storm that I decided never to leave the snow. I would stop time and live there forever.

I told myself I would bundle up every day. Be sent out and work in the bitter air, nose cold and socks wet, just to be in the wonderful gift that was snow. This was my dream.

Today, I often find myself thinking of the lack of these magical days. Being an adult isn’t very magical. It feels like there is less snow and the winters are shorter. There has been less magic, more conflict, politics, violence. I wonder if the child sitting at my elementary school desk will ever know about a snow day. A day when feet of snow pile up and hold them up inside their home. One day they would smell cinnamon hot cocoa and sticky banana muffins made by their nana. Will they find the snow as magical as I did? I think of this when the fresh blankets fall. Then the snow comes to melt, and soon it is spring.

When the snow is still falling in January, I make resolutions. To use less single-use plastics. To completely cut dairy out of my vegetarian diet. To believe that the people I’m voting into office will follow through with promises. But just like all New Year’s resolutions–and most politicians–we do not follow through. Western society values wealth and convenience far more than the health of the natural world and those severely affected by an ever-changing climate. And without rapid social change, there will be no solution, there will be no more snow. Madison will begin to feel like St. Louis.

Humanity has been sleeping for 270 years. The stopwatch began with the Industrial Revolution, and year by year we do worse and worse. We rarely follow through with our New Year’s resolutions. Corporations make resolutions, too. They promise to “go green” by 2025, but that gets pushed back to 2050. Politicians promise less offshore fracking and more resources for renewable energy, but the guarantees never seem to happen. This will go on until someone holds them accountable. Efforts like the Kyoto Protocol have failed. Many of the countries who signed the Paris Agreement are not on track to lower emissions enough to avoid the inevitable. We will see more than a 1.5°C increase in average global temperatures. We will then see drought, floods, rapidly rising sea levels, and the death of billions. These ideas sound morbid, impossible even! They are not. They are true. And they are coming.

I have learned more than I want to about humanity’s fate. About everywhere we went wrong and every time we had the chance to save ourselves, and every time we failed to do so. I imagine what this campus could look like in 175 years. When humanity is gone, and this university—twice as old as it is now—stands still. Wildlife that could survive the heat living in Bascom Hall, State Street desolate and covered in weeds. The day would come, and night would fall. All of our things would sit. Shell. Amazon. BP. And we justify supporting these companies and lifestyles because of convenience. When it becomes more convenient to surround your life with completely renewable energy, only then will you make the switch. Too many people can help bring change to environmental protection and policy. People with the privilege and economic stability to live more sustainably day to day. Those same people can be the start of a bigger movement to provide access to sustainable alternatives to every person (regardless of intersectionality). But we do nothing. And the people who are most concerned and who have the most knowledge of climate change—youth, indigenous communities, and women—are silenced and spoken over.

That snowfall in ‘07 opened my eyes to magic. As it fell silently, fascination flowered in me. Today, I wish I could write about snow, and the sea, and how excited I am to experience the wonders of life over and over again. But I cannot. Because without a resolution we can all agree upon, humanity will become obsolete. Our trees and rivers are crying, but because we cannot hear them, we walk by them without a second thought. There is no thank you card for the trees that are trying their best to take carbon out of the atmosphere, no nod of approval or acknowledgment of life. Only silence. And when the snow begins to fall and a new year comes about, humanity’s resolutions will include those of capitalism and greed rather than doing all we can to fix our mistakes. Corporations and politicians are washing our bodies with gasoline, and we are pushing ourselves closer and closer towards a flame. And although not everyone will burn at the same rate, there is no way to escape the mercilessness of nature.