There were two reasons, many years ago, why I ended up choosing literature as my field of study rather than environmental studies or law.
I was turned off from environmental studies, my initial choice for an undergraduate major, by a scary required statistics class and no options for getting remedial help to bring my weak math skills up to speed. I ended up with a B.A. in English and Journalism.
I briefly flirted with the idea of law school after college, but could not fathom spending the rest of my life reading and writing legalese.
So I gravitated towards literature, comparative literature, literature of the world, and my dissertation focused on testimonials and political personal narratives of the Americas. I knew early on that what interested me most about literature was opportunity it presents for passionate narratives about the intersections of the personal and the political.
That has remained my interest all these years later. But it has finally become clear to me, over the longer arc of my life, that my early, instinctive connection to the natural world, my recognition of the importance of law, and my duck-in-water ease with the discourses of both journalism and personal narrative, are all finally coming together in what I see as the imperative task to which I must dedicate the last third of my life: awakening my fellow and sister human beings to the urgency of heading off climate catastrophe.
If this sounds like a moral crusade, well, so be it.
I was not raised in any religion, nor do I follow any religious practices now. I don’t believe in God as a benevolent white man in the sky, nor do I believe that one needs to sit in a particular building, listening to a particular preacher, to reach out to the divine.
But I have always felt a deep spiritual connection to the natural world. When I was 8 or 9, I used to go out into the woods and sit alone in my “spot,” which was a circle of mossy stones at the top of a big stone ridge, ringed by maples and centered around a grassy glade. It was a small circle, no bigger than 10 feet in diameter. I would just sit there and look and listen to the birds in the trees above me, the small insects on patrol in the grass, feeling the wind ruffling against my face and a kind of inner exultation and delight that I can only describe as religious ecstasy.
No one taught me to do this, and it wasn’t until much later, reading personal narratives by indigenous elders, that I was able to put this early spiritual connection with nature into a broader polytheistic cultural framework.
I believe that everything in our world is tinged with spiritual significance. And I believe that human beings, because we are unique among animals in being able to see the effects of our actions on the larger landscape of the planet, and to both predict and alter the future, have a special moral imperative to do what we can to be the responsible stewards of the natural world of which we are a part.
I have never said that out loud.
But thanks to environmental activist educator Eban Goodstein, I now recognize that this is exactly what I should be doing, whenever I can, as urgently and passionately as possible.
Goodstein, who founded the national organization Focus the Nation and now heads up the Center for Environmental Policy at Bard College, writes in his 2007 book Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction that it is crucial that people who understand the seriousness of the pivotal moment at which we stand begin to speak up—not in legalese or scientific jargon, but in the clear, ringing tones of moral conviction.
“The real problem that nontheistic environmentaists face is not a depth of passion, but a failure of moral language with which to cultivate and nuture that passion,” Goodstein says. “Unless passion about life on Earth is nurtured, and mass extinction is understood clearly in terms of good and evil, then political opposition to the great extinction wave of our generation will be weak and it will sweep across the next century unabated.”
Goodstein recommends that each of us “develop a thirty-second ‘elevator speech’ that is a response to the question: ‘Why do you care about global heating?’” What you say won’t be convincing or memorable to people unless you can quickly tell them why this issue is deeply important to you, and why they should also care.
It can’t be a laundry list of words that have been so often used they’ve become clichés: sustainability, clean energy, even droughts or wildfires. Goodstein suggests that when it comes right down to it, we should care about global heating because it is “just plain MORALLY WRONG” to ignore the prospect of the sixth great extinction of life on Earth, when we not only know it’s coming, but have a pretty good idea of how to head it off.
Given my non-religious upbringing, I’m not that comfortable with the language of good and evil or moral righteousness. And yet it is no accident that all human religions do codify a moral code that seems to be hardwired into our species.
Goodstein refers to Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson’s 1984 book Biophilia, which set the stage for evolutionary psychology in arguing that human beings have evolved to love life and work to extend life by interacting positively with our environment.
Whether we come at the issue of climate change from a religious perspective (God made us the stewards of life on Earth, we have a moral injunction to protect all God’s creatures) or a nontheistic but nevertheless spiritual reverence for the natural world, or even a simple scientific recognition that the current fabric of our ecosystem will live or die depending on human choices now, there is no doubt at all that each of us needs to get our elevator speech nailed down and go out to become evangelists for the natural world.
I don’t use the term evangelist lightly. Christian evangelists have a reputation for single-mindedness bordering on fanaticism. They believe deeply, and they are willing to take the risk of expressing their beliefs out loud, and actively trying to convert others.
I am someone who has been known to hide in my own house when the Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked at the door. I have never followed any preacher or religious dictate, nor have I ever considered trying to persuade others to any given point of view.
But the situation we face now is unprecedented in my lifetime, or human history as a whole. It demands an unprecedented degree of commitment. It demands taking the risk of climbing up on a soapbox and speaking out loudly and passionately enough to draw a crowd.
Those of us who are awake to the gravity of the coming environmental catastrophe need to be getting out there trying to instigate change through every possible channel: electoral politics, grassroots activism, legal challenges, moral persuasion, standing on our heads–whatever it takes to wake people up and get them moving.
So what’s your elevator speech about? Mine, I think, is about love.
Whether we call it love for God’s green earth, or the love for the natural world, what we mean is the same: love for our children and future generations, who should not be denied the pleasure of listening to birdsong in the trees on a peaceful spring morning, knowing that their world is stable and secure.