“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” ― George Bernard Shaw
I could not believe what I was seeing. I closed my eyes for a moment but when I opened them nothing had changed – the thermometer was still reading 50 degrees. This was unprecedented; a clear sign of global warming. I could see the climate changing in front of me as I drove into Vienna. Well, I wasn’t actually driving, I was sitting in the passenger seat having been given a lift by a generous Austrian who had seen me standing by the roadside with my thumb held high; it was called hitch-hiking, a popular way to see the world amongst students.
Of course, I didn’t know that I was seeing climate change, it hadn’t been invented yet. The temperature had reached 50 degrees but I was still a teenager having not quite reached 18 – it was 1961. It was hot in Europe back then, and air-conditioning was only for the rich, not for students staying in youth hostels. And certainly not in the cars that picked up hot and sweaty hitch-hikers.
Temperature was very much on our minds back then. The cold war had become colder but was threatening to turn very hot. The USSR had exploded some very large bombs and then organised the building of the Berlin Wall dividing East Berliners from their free compatriots in the Western half. With Americans and Russians glaring at each other across the border, many Americans decided that the time had come to built fallout shelters in their backyards in case of nuclear war.
Many thing have changed since that long hot summer. Now, with the ‘never-before-seen’ temperatures in Europe, we have to learn some new words. Several people have died from “hydrocution” – suffering a cardiac arrest when coming from the heat into cold water. Of course, this is nothing new. Back in 1976, David “Dado” Elazar, the ninth Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), died of a heart attack after jumping in a cold swimming pool after spending time in a hot sauna.
Watching an item about wind farms in China on a popular British news program, I was surprised to learn from the program’s very young presenter that the once green and fertile Silk Road was now a waterless desert. Yes, the presenter went on to tell me, the green, silk-lined road is now desert and home to nothing but thousands of huge windmills, churning out electricity for China’s energy-hungry economy. The young and rather naive presenter had no idea that the 6,400-km Silk Road had always been mostly desert and was certainly not lined with silk. No change here.
He was probably better acquainted with Silk Road, an online black-market platform for selling illegal drugs on the darknet. Launched in February 2011, it was shut down in October 2013 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) but continued to pop up in various guises until its backers were jailed.
There was another big change in the world climate in 1961 – on January 20th John Fitzgerald “Jack” Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States. As the youngest person to be elected president, and the first Catholic, JFK was a major change. His memorable inauguration speech “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” set a new tone for America. Sadly, we will never know what changes he might have brought about as he was assassinated in November of 1963.
In 1961, just weeks apart, two men found a way to escape the heat. In April the Soviet Union launched Vostok 1, the first manned spacecraft, carrying Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin. Not to be left out, in early May the United States launched Freedom 7, its first manned spacecraft, carrying Alan Shepard.
And for those trying to find change everywhere, 1961 gives us a hint that change is not always what it seems. Turn 1961 upside down and you get – 1961.