A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Environmentalism

Environmentalism . . . stewardship . . . going green . . . care taking . . . sustainability . . . these are good words, right? Well, yes and no. They carry a certain beneficence, I suppose. But often the beneficence they carry is illusory.  The thread that links them is their human-centeredness; the word is anthropocentric, roughly translated, regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence. This section of the blog will illuminate and perhaps challenge each of the concepts above as we allow them to emerge from a human-centered or anthropocentric perspective.

When we speak out about environmentalism, for example, we might lull ourselves into thinking that we are talking of the health of ecosystems, or a single planetary ecosystem. Strictly speaking, we are not. To talk about the environment is to talk about that part of the natural world (as though the natural world were somehow other than ourselves) which surrounds, or impacts, or otherwise engages humans.

The Achilles heel of all environmental efforts is that they succeed or fail at the whim, the convenience, the perceived need, desire, or self-interest of the humans undertaking them. A specific example. In May, 2009, grey wolves in the Northern Rockies lost their endangered species protected status for the second time that year. The factors cited: farmers want to protect their livestock, hunters want to be able to shoot wolves; people are scared of wolves and other large predators; and contractors want to be able to build in the northern Rockies.  It was – and remains – all about the humans, and has nothing to do with healthy ecosystems.

I’m including the link from the Los Angeles Times, but this section makes the point.

When we exterminated wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s, we de-watered the land. That’s right; no wolves eventually meant fewer streams, creeks, marshes and springs across western landscapes like Yellowstone where wolves had once thrived.

The chain of effects went roughly like this: No wolves meant that many more elk crowded onto inviting river and stream banks. A growing population of fat elk, in no danger of being turned into prey, gnawed down willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. As the willows declined, so did beavers, which used the trees for food and building material. white cloud . When beavers build dams and make ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless bugs, amphibians, fish, birds and plants, as well as slowing the flow of water and distributing it over broad areas. The consequences of their decline rippled across the land.

Meanwhile, as the land dried up, Yellowstone’s overgrazed riverbanks eroded. Spawning beds for fish silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade. Yellowstone’s web of life was fraying.

The problem is, environmentalism exists at the whim of humans. In other words, environmentalism, strictly speaking, is anthropocentric. I am not saying that environmentalism has no value; it does. But environmental commitment tends to have value only until the environmental action in question collides with human self-interest.

For Reflection

I am interested in hearing from you as to the ways in which our political battles – over protected lands and species, over Environmental Protection regulations, over environmental law, to name just a few – parallel the self-interests of the decision makers. How is it that our politics, particularly in the U.S., have lost their connection to what I want to call good earth citizenry. Are there times in our history that the call and commitment to responsible citizenry overrode what we see today as destructive and unmanageable polarity; are there moments that we actually considered the health of planet’s ecosystem as the tapestry against which human self-interest might be evaluated?

This is the making of a history lesson as it shapes the intersection of politics and ecology.

Beginnings

Troubled Waters and Waters in Trouble

My newest book, featured on this website (link), began with a simple observation leading to an obvious question. We have all the science we need to provide in exquisite detail, not only the damage we have inflicted upon the ecosystem(s) of the planet, but also the consequences. My question, then, with all this information, why are we not changing our behavior?

I could have chosen most anything for a URL; I chose the theme of water for its universality, its accessibility, and the fact that all life forms are interconnected through water. In the words and music of Tom Wisner, we are made of water. I chose it as well because our waters are deeply troubled, and I am speaking first, metaphorically. The collective human psyche and soul are showing clear signs of damage; we are a lost and broken people; we ourselves are the deeply troubled waters. As consequence – now I am speaking literally – through the evidence of scientific and personal observation, we know that the waters of the earth are themselves in deep trouble. This is more than a question of semantics or word play; the waters are one and the same. domain list . We are the waters. What we do to our oceans, lakes, and rivers, we do to ourselves.

In a 2010 interview with NPR’s Tom Ashbrook, the Vermont ecologist Bill McKibben reflected on the global outpouring of anger which followed the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. With his next breath, and without diminishing the egregiousness of this particular disaster, he wondered where was the outrage in the face of the increasingly acidic content of our oceans – consequence of our carbon footprint – which has done what could be irreversible harm to the oceans’ coral reefs and countless species of marine organisms, ecosystems which provide much of the earth’s breathable air.

This is my first blog entry on this website, and the first three paragraphs have taken me already in a dozen different directions. I think I’d like to begin with the most basic. We are all connected. All life forms – human and non-human – all galaxies, planets, and stars are not only interconnected, we are made of the same organic and inorganic material. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson can describe the process whereby the chemical elements that we recognize today were forged in the centers of high mass stars which, having become unstable, exploded, scattering such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen throughout the universe, elements which formed gas clouds, then stars with planets, and ultimately, life.

Tyson reminds us that all life forms are of star dust. “We are in the universe,” he says, “but even more important, the universe is in us. I don’t know any deeper spiritual feeling.

For Reflection

For you who are able to stargaze where city lights don’t obstruct the magnificence of a starlit night, go out one night, under the stars. Go with friends, family, or a dog or two. Walk along a beach, or through a field. If you can, lie down and look nowhere but up. Stay there until you are able to understand that you are made of the same material as those stars. Others who are urban-bound might make a trip to a planetarium, even a library.

Would it make a difference, do you think, if you understood yourselves to be of the universe, of one tapestry, inextricably woven together with each life form? Would it make a difference, do you think, if you could come to understand yourselves as an integral part of a narrative which is fourteen billion years in the making? Would you behave differently, as you begin to see things from a different perspective? Teach differently? Preach differently? How might such a shift in perspective impact your poetry, your music, your dance?