A Glossary of the Unthinkable

2,243 total words    

9 minutes of reading

I want to sink my hands into it, this half-liquid, half-solid material, slip it between my webbed fingers. Like hands shaping clay, the alchemy of conjuring forms on a spinning wheel; like a zoetrope. No wheels here, though. This is a more chemical wizardry, the miracle of slipping H2O into CaO-Al2O3 (elemental shorthand for calcium aluminate), the main compound of cement that reacts to turn a liquid into solid. No bare hands here, either. This wants careful measurements and rubber gloves. A battery-powered drill mixer, an orange Home Depot bucket, a respirator—definitely a respirator—to avoid silicosis in the lungs, and safety glasses. 

I enjoyed no such protection from Seattle’s…

1. Heat dome: defined as atmosphere trapping hot ocean air as if by a lid, and upper air weather patterns that are slow to move. Meteorologists call this an…
2. Omega block: so named because its atmospheric contours resemble the Greek letter Ω.
3. Alpha and omega: meaning “the beginning and the end.” Revelation 1:8. 

The Composition of Meteorites. Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete.


This is my difficult beauty. I create sculptural statements with fabric and lightweight concrete of my own formulation—art to illuminate what makes us feel intensely human. Stepping out of my daily optimism and into my darker space, redefining beauty from what some find ugly. I relish the expressive potential of this rugged sculptural surface; its “science experiment” qualities make it compelling for expressing both left- and right-brain values.

Littleneck clam shells on the shore. Su Cummings.


Anyway, who decides what’s beautiful? I walk down the block to a sliver of beach to watch the sunset. My neighbors meander by, admiring streaks of red and orange. They see beauty. I see wildfire ash torching the edge of the earth. Looking down, pulling my fingers through coarse sand, stirring up bits of weeds and shards of clamshells. Running my fingers across their smooth matte complexities, bleached ridges incised into CaO, wearing down slowly into sand through eons of cycles of waves and sun and storms.

4. Anthropocenea geological epoch dating from the onset of significant human impact on Earth’s ecosystems. While scientists haven’t yet officially pegged the start of the new era in the mid-twentieth century, this period coincides with the start of the…
5. Great Acceleration: a post–World War II period during which socioeconomic and earth system trends have increased at a breathtaking rate. And the concurrent peak in…
6. Radionuclides, radioactive fallout from atomic-bomb testing during the 1950s, has been favored as a marker, locating a possible beginning of the Anthropocene to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

“If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest emitter in the world—behind China and the US.” This from a 2018 report by Chatham House, a British think tank.[1] Cement, the key ingredient in concrete, is the most widely used construction material in the world. Concrete has proved its efficiency over thousands of years in terms of cost, strength and durability. But more than four billion tons of cement are produced yearly, generating carbon dioxide (CO2). The industry spews about 8 percent of global CO2 emissions, behind only China, at 29 percent, and the United States, at 14 percent. 

If that scale’s hard to envision, consider that three tons of carbon dioxide taint the atmosphere for every person on Earth, every year. 

7. Greenhouse gas: a gas, like CO2, that traps heat in the atmosphere by absorbing the sun’s…
8. Infrared radiation: the energy that’s emitted by the sun, part of the invisible electromagnetic (light) spectrum.

A Review on Seashells Ash as Partial Cement Replacement.[2] Malaysian researchers studied seashell ash, including cockle, clam, oyster, mollusk, periwinkle, snail, and green mussel shell ash, as partial cement replacement. They documented the chemical compounds in each shell and tested their compressive and tensile strength. Results demonstrated the optimum percentage of seashells as cement replacement: between 4 percent and 5 percent. 

Beach shells. Su Cummings.


Will the beach still be here in twenty years?

9. Sea-level rise: the average level of Earth’s oceans, which began to elevate at the onset of the twentieth century. Between 1901 and 2018, the global sea level rose by an average of 15–25 centimeters (6–10 inches). That rate is accelerating, due mostly to climate change, which heats (and expands) the ocean and melts land-based ice and glaciers—all amplified by the…
10. Albedo effect: surfaces reflecting sunlight (heat). Light-colored surfaces return most of the sun’s rays back to the atmosphere. Dark surfaces absorb rays from the sun. Less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, and therefore more warming, triggering a vicious cycle of…
11. Thawing permafrost. Basically frozen land, permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is now suspended in Earth’s atmosphere. Think of it this way: twice as much carbon is trapped in Arctic permafrost than is already trapping heat in our planet. And, as scientific data improves, the projected timing for thawing keeps moving up. When it does thaw, that carbon may be partially emitted as a gas, which multiplies its warming power by eighty-six times compared to CO2, because it may be released as…
12. Methane: a greenhouse gas that, when released over a century, is thirty-four times more powerful than carbon dioxide. Shortening the timescale to two decades, it is eighty-six times as powerful. 

Under the 2022 heat dome, my Korean Fire camellia flatlined. My Chinese dogwood tree almost died, too. Leafy greens turned the color of ash. When it feels like the Sahara in Seattle, when wildfire smoke infiltrates the airways, it’s evidence that the consumption spree we’ve all enjoyed has ended. Wave goodbye to our wild blue yonder.

Why is it hard for so many to believe we’re entering a new era of climate emergency, one that requires immediate action? 

Black Rain (Reclining). Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete.


13. Scientific reticence: the timid language of scientific probabilities, when scientists hedge their own conclusions so conscientiously that they fail to communicate how dire the threat really is. Excessive caution imposes silence regarding the worst probable consequences of a warming climate. This feeds…
14. Climate denialism: aversion arising from fear or cherry-picking facts, or when humans assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere, and…
15. Displaced climate anxiety: the distress of facing the prospect of our own annihilation. Of confronting a problem that’s extremely difficult to solve. And reckoning with the unimaginable scale of the problem—the smallness (1.5 degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and intangibility of the numbers make them unfathomable. Climate anxiety is manifest as movies in the nature of a Mad Max dystopia.

All of which leads me to ponder…

16. Mass extinctions: a precipitous drop in Earth’s biodiversity, usually defined as the loss of about 75 percent of the world’s species in a short amount of geological time. Paleontologists established that animal life has experienced five major (and many minor) mass extinctions. Most were caused by extreme temperature changes and rising or falling sea levels. 
Human activity is again killing nature at an unprecedented rate. We’re experiencing the consequences, a probable sixth mass extinction, undoubtedly the result of human actions, including climate change. And how likely is it that we’ll give up our system of…
17. Fossil capitalism: an economic system that prioritizes continual growth over the welfare of the planet and its species. A system that plunders natural resources, deepening the climate crisis and oppressing the most vulnerable. Fossil fuels are at its core. Assuming we can’t bring ourselves to redefine what we value, I envision… 
18. Permanent Economic Collapse: which is self-explanatory. 

Fly ash for sustainable construction: A review of fly ash concrete and its beneficial use case studies.[3] Indian engineers surveyed years of international research on capturing fly ash, a combustion by-product from coal-fired electric power stations that is normally dumped in landfills, and using it as partial cement replacement in concrete to minimize CO2 emissions. They documented improved workability, reduced water demand, resistance to sulfate or chloride attack. And while the strength of fly ash concrete was less than traditional cement concrete at three and seven days, slowing construction time, strength was significantly higher at twenty-eight days. 

Frayed (Afraid). Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete.


19. Paris Agreement: the international agreement on climate change, which seeks to limit global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The cement industry is working to align with the Paris Agreement, but worldwide annual cement emissions will need to fall at least 16 percent by 2030—and that’s if estimates on carbon capture and storage (CSS) technologies don’t prove too optimistic.

Now I pull rubber-gloved fingers through this metamorphosing liquid. I’m reformulating my concrete with climate in mind. Whisking together fly ash and other carbon-lowering resources. Walking in northwest landscapes, I collect materials that function in my work technically and conceptually. Volcanic tuff from mountain passes. Diatomaceous material from the Columbia Gorge. Lime from Okanogan. Graywacke sand and seawater from the Salish Sea. Sourcing fly ash and silica fume and ground granulated blast furnace slag, all recycled from burning fossil fuels—ugly by-products, repurposed for beauty’s sake. 

20. The international debate on climate policy has focused on technologies, like CSS, and economic incentives. Individual behavior change is often deemed voluntary. But some behavioral scientists, studying human actions to promote health, have assessed the…
21. Cumulative impacts of behavioral changes. Through our consumption behavior, households are ultimately responsible for 72 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Governments and businesses must increase their focus on what drives collective behavior, on how historical barriers and structural inequities affect that behavior, and on how to change consumption patterns.

Every choice I make has consequences: buying a new coat or mending one that’s not worn out. Taking public transportation and avoiding traffic. Eschewing beef and minimizing single-use plastics. But most importantly, by pooling our shared values, joining groups like the Evergreen Collaborative or Carbon180.[4] By insisting that political representatives support climate research and education funding. And by voting with my dollars for products that really do make a climate difference.

I’m inhaling cool evening air.

Believe it or not, after exhaling this fear-fueled harangue, I find it isn’t yet time to accept the unacceptable. Here in my writing life, I needed to collate and contemplate this glossary to feel it sink in. 

But there’s revelation here, too. Because after descending deep into the facts and stats and diagrams of doom, into skepticism that we mortals are capable of the necessary behavior change, my natural optimism bubbled up through the toxic gases of doubt and despair. I had to translate the opaque language of chemistry and climate science into action I can take. 

Shell-rich beach at dusk. Su Cummings.


Leaning against a beached log, damp sand chilling my feet, I’m stretching into the deepening dark. A waning crescent moon has set; stars wink overhead. Our lit-up city limits the visibility of our galaxy, but closing my book, I spot Venus—it’s too dark to keep reading…

The Carbon Almanac.


22. The Carbon Almanac, a book with a lively sort of energy: hope and connection. “We can lean into…the hope that comes from realizing that it’s not too late,” I read.[5]
The book sprang from the work of hundreds of volunteers from ninety countries: researchers, scientists, writers, artists, and thousands of change makers. All explaining carbon’s impact on our systems for agriculture, biodiversity, our economy, energy, extreme weather like wildfires and heat domes, and human health. You can drill down into areas that interest you, like…
23. Resources for making day-to-day life choices to lessen your personal impact. Learn about the carbon-neutral home and the affordability of solar; sustainable construction (concrete!). Zero-waste fashion design, lower-carbon transportation, how convenience changed everything. And subscribe to…
24. The Daily Difference, a daily email subscription with tangible steps we can each embrace in our own resolve. There’s even a…
25. Carbon Almanac for Kids, downloadable for free!

It’s not too late, but you and I, we must act now. Climate change is not a “me” problem; it’s a “we” problem that will take passionate people like us, spinning through the atmosphere, determined to make a concrete difference.

[1] Johanna Lehne and Felix Preston, “Making Concrete Change: Innovation in Low-Carbon Cement and Concrete,” Chatham House, June 2018, https://www.chathamhouse.org/2018/06/making-concrete-change-innovation-low-carbon-cement-and-concrete.

[2] Wan Ahmad Soffian Bin Wan Mohammad, Nor Hazurina Othman,  Mohd Haziman Wan Ibrahim and Masazurah A Rahim, “A review on seashells ash as partial cement replacement,” November 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321659334_A_review_on_seashells_ash_as_partial_cement_replacement.

[3] Dheeresh Kumar Nayak, PP Abhilash, Rahul Singh, Rajesh Kumar and Veerendra Kuma, “Fly ash for sustainable construction: A review of fly ash concrete and its beneficial use case studies,” Cleaner Materials, December 2022,   https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2772397622001034.

[4] For an excellent list of effective climate advocates, see Robinson Meyer’s “A New Estimate of the ‘Most Effective’ Way to Fight Climate Change,” in the December 2021 issue of The Atlantic.  https://www.theatlantic.com/newsletters/archive/2021/12/most-effective-nonprofits-fight-climate-change/621013/. 

[5] The Carbon Almanac Network, Godin, S., editor (2022) The Carbon Almanac: It’s Not Too Late (1st ed). Penguin Random House. http://thecarbonalmanac.com

Photo credits:

[1] Beach shells: Bivalve mollusks, mostly of Mactra corallina. Alessio Sbarbaro, User_talk:Yoggysot-Own work. Permission details: Own work, share alike, attribution required (Creative Commons CC-BY-SA 2.5). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Conchiglie_Seashells_01.jpg#file.

[2] The Composition Of Meteorites. Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete. © 2023 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

[3] Littleneck clam shells: © Tom Corser 2020. Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seashell#/media/File:Shells_on_the_seashore.jpg

[4] Black Rain (Reclining). Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete. © 2023 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

[5] Frayed (Afraid). Su Cummings, mixed media with concrete. © 2023 Su Cummings. All rights reserved.

[6] Shell-rich beach at dusk: License Creative Commons 2.0.

[7] The Carbon Almanac.

  • Su Cummings

    Su Cummings is a Seattle-based writer and visual artist, using both forms of creative expression in order to excavate the space where bright humanity shades into dark. Her essays have been published in The Write Launch, Ground Zero and Carve Magazine (forthcoming), and on her creative sites including sucummings.com.

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