In the decade I was born our nation of 128 million people was in the grip of one of the first great man-made ecological disasters – the Dust Bowl. Although only about half million Americans were farming the thin soil of the Great Plains, in the 1930s their actions provoked a massive drought. Fierce winds swept across the Plains. Strong gusts sent the wispy soils spiraling into gigantic dark plumes rising 10,000 feet into the air, blotting out the sun, suffocating animals and stunting crops.

Relentlessly drifting east, the black plumes reached Chicago and on to New York where they blocked out the noonday sun and caused street lights to come on at mid-day. Dust and grit from Oklahoma and Texas covered the Statute of Liberty. As an adult reflecting on that time, I am amazed that the activities of a relatively small group of people could create a disaster affecting such a huge portion of the nation.

So imagine the impact of our population that has now ballooned to more than 310 million, when every day since then we have spewed pollution from power plants, automobiles, farm equipment, trains, ships and assorted other pursuits that give us the lifestyles we enjoy today. Simultaneously the world’s population has soared from approximately 2.3 billion in the 1930s to more than 7 billion.

The Dust Bowl showed us how man-made ecological disasters can develop unnoticed. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the “paradise” of South Florida now stand to inherit the disaster of sea level rise spawned by the effects of our greed, arrogance and ignorance.

Growing up here, I find it paradoxical how much I loved it and yet unwittingly reveled in its destruction. I learned to swim in the Dania Cut-Off Canal, chock full of manatee, and roamed the land with my friends feasting on mangoes, guava, papaya, sugar apples, mulberries, Bahamian cherries, crabapples, bananas and avocados. We could pick out the particular Snook we wanted for dinner as mullet roiled the water in great shoals. Catfish, bream and sun fish teemed in every fresh water body. People often said, “You cain’t starve us in South Florida ‘cause we can survive on mangoes and mullets or grits and grunts.”

Even the development that boomed after the Great Flood of 1947 and permanently changed paradise extended its steely hand offering gifts from nature. As powerful diesel tractors cleared the palmettos to build condominiums and shopping centers, rabbits scurried from their warrens with schoolboys wielding heavy sticks in hot pursuit. We would catch and skin them, slip a stick through the tendons of their hind legs and display them through the community for sale.

Out of ignorance we proudly cheered the “progress” that developed the beaches, filled in the wetlands and cleared the swamps. I happily worked at the Florida Lith-I-Bar company in north Dade that built concrete joist and beams for the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels and the Sky Way Bridge in St. Petersburg. Every time I pass one of those places I feel a connection, and yet I now keenly feel how I participated in the destruction of the place I loved out of ignorance. There was nothing in my history books or geographical studies that warned of the destruction we were wreaking on paradise.

Now we stand to inherit the disaster of sea level rise spawned by pollution-melting glaciers, and our offshore islands that protected us from storm surges have all been developed. Will we take heed to the events of the past and the caution of the world’s leading climate scientists? Will we act before the worst effects are upon us?  That is the big question facing us today, not only in South Florida but in Congress where a viscerally anti-science majority has just taken charge.

(Third in a series by Frank and Audrey Peterman, national award winning environmentalists and authors living in Fort Lauderdale.