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White elephants symbolize journey, responsibility

I returned from visiting to my parents in Sunnyvale, Calif., with two beautiful ivory elephants and placed them into our daughters’ rooms in Ellicott City. Each time I pass by those elephants, I get flashbacks of my past, a sense of guilt and a sense of resolve to do better — all mixed together.

The elephants’ journey with us is the typical immigrant success story: a family entering the U.S. with two suitcases and debt, and emerging a few decades later with very successful children.

Eight-year old me held those ivory elephants in my carry-on from Burma (Myanmar) to Hong Kong, then to Seattle and finally to Minnesota. They remained packed as we spent several weeks in the basement of my uncle’s home. I have no memory of those elephants in the difficult years my family of five spent in a cramped two-bedroom apartment. I do remember those elephants emerging once we could afford our own little home on the busy corner of Jefferson and Hamline avenues in St. Paul, Minn.

Seeing those ivory elephants reminds me of my family’s journey to hold onto something of the past while building a new future. They also remind me of how our planet has changed since those ivory elephants were legally purchased in the early 1970s.

Back in 1970, most Americans treated the world as though it had infinite amount of resources — from oil to ivory. In the almost 50 years since 1970, much has changed including the doubling of the human population while many other mammal populations, such as elephants, have been cut by half or more.

The scary part is that today, when we should know better, we continue to use resources and energy as though our world is unlimited. Certainly, I bought into the American dream of owning a single-family home, driving, having two children and traveling to visit family and friends. In that process, I have used a disproportionate amount of resources for a world with 7.7 billion people. Despite using community solar energy, ride-sharing in an electric car and minimizing my purchases, all those choices combined will not change the world my children inherit unless we begin to tackle root causes of climate change, such as fossil fuel use.

I know that I benefited from the era of available fossil fuels as it made possible our cross-global trip from Rangoon (Yangon) to St. Paul, as well as my parents’ jobs, the goods we were able to buy and our ability to choose world-class education. Almost all of the goods and foods around me are made possible by fossil fuels as well as my ability to visit my family. It would seem impossible to transition out of the very things that have made us who we are. Here lies the seed of the guilt I have: What am I to do with the knowledge of this changing world and the need to change from the direction that seemed so good for my family?

Guilt never does any good unless it becomes resolve to do better and find solutions. Right now, we pretend that the driver of our economic engine, fossil fuel, has no ecological consequences. But we know that it does. For example, the $3 gallon of gasoline is only priced for how much it costs to extract, refine, ship, store and sell it. What about all the ecological consequences along the way of extraction, refining, shipping, storing and using? We have several centuries’ worth of data on the ecological costs of fossil fuel extraction and use without considering ecological costs: oil spills, water contamination, Superfund sites, poor air quality and climate change. Let’s face those facts and work on how we can transition to 21st century energy sources much more rapidly.

My parents sought a better environment for their children to grow up in, and that meant moving to America, taking on whatever jobs they could to provide for us, buying a house near public schools and having their children educated. Because of their sacrifices, I am blessed to be educated and financially sound, and part of the most powerful nation in the world. Hence, trying to provide a better environment for my children in the 21st century should include tackling the largest threat to their mental and financial well-being — climate change. That is why I work tirelessly every day to have bipartisan climate legislation reintroduced and passed in 2019.

Those ivory elephants in our daughters’ rooms remind me daily to be part of the change I want to see.

Sabrina S. Fu is a professor at the University of Maryland University College and co-regional coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic region of Citizens Climate Lobby. Her email is

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