An Unlikely Environmental Evangelist

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.

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10 Comments

  1. Thank you, Jennifer, for expressing your convictions so courageously. I share them.

    In trying to instigate change – trying to narrate our vision into reality – it seems there is great potential in success stories and hope instead of doom and gloom. As you rightly put it, the focus should be on love. Though longer than 30 seconds, this video “Love. Not loss.” might be helpful the next time you find yourself in an elevator:

    Reply
    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  February 12, 2012

      Terrific video, Dominic, thanks for sharing it! I will pass it along as I continue to work on the communications and ed education piece of the struggle….

      Reply
  2. YES!!! You GO girl (as they say in the classics….).
    The beautiful thing about taking action is that while we agitate for leadership at all levels of government, we must simultaneously adopt a do less harm lifestyle, and the research is finding this is actually making us happy! We’ve been brainwashed into believing that reducing consumption and putting planetary and human well-being ahead of current consumerism entails great and difficult personal sacrifice. But it’s fantastic! And simple! And authentic! I like myself, for the first time in so long, even though my undyed hair shows grey and my clothing isn’t this season’s, nor last’s, and my cutlery doesn’t match etc.

    I would so love to see you explore and promote a Transition Initiative in NYC; good people trying to figure out how best to “walk the talk” and build community resilience in a huge city environment. Grassroots change can be a powerful catalyst for the policy-makers, and your writing, Jennifer could help it gather momentum. We need people gifted in persuasive writing to expand the audience beyond “greenies”. The challenge is huge and will take the best of human ingenuity and determination. Maybe the Golden Age of co-operation really could avert catastrophy. We have to at least try.

    This looks hopeful:
    http://smartercities.nrdc.org/articles/all-together-now-transition-towns-rise-us

    New York city is yet to formalise a Transition group. Here is something similar. http://www.justfood.org/

    (Gosh I’m pushy! But I care, and as you say, we need to get active. And if it seems i rush to post early comments, it’s cos here in Melbourne it’s usually morning when I read your blog. So I’m off to put in the broccoli and cauli seedlings, while you, I hope are having restful dreams.)

    Reply
  3. Paul Klinkman

     /  February 12, 2012

    I speak as an engineer and as an inventor. I’m a software engineer by training but I cross over into mechanical engineering as needed.

    I have been inventing almost every day for years, and usually in climate change fields. I can tell you that there are hundreds of useful solar innovations that each help to make the fossil fuel industry obsolete worldwide and forevermore, other innovations that cool down the earth with low environmental impact, and innovations that make the mass sequestration of carbon cheaper and more effective.

    There’s a huge roadblock between having an idea (or hundreds) and seeing it implemented. It’s called the “valley of death” in business.

    Climate change will be inhibited, and then reversed, when a few non-engineer sociologists, organizers and businesspeople look at the “valley of death” problem and declare it to be a morally intolerable impediment to climate change product development.

    I just gave you an affirmative WILL be inhibited, WILL be reversed.

    They say that God doesn’t give people impossible tasks. However, sometimes people don’t do the needed tasks because they are too much hard work. You can always ask, “Can you give me some easier way to succeed?”, but if you really believe that climate change is a morally important issue to solve, you may wind up shouldering the hard, needed work. A straight road to victory beats a crooked road.

    Reply
  4. leavergirl

     /  February 13, 2012

    Paul, I am curious — what do you suppose are currently the best ways to do carbon sequestration? I heard that restoring pastures and grazing lands would do it. Would love your view on that, and any other pointers you may have.

    Reply
  5. Peter Moon

     /  February 13, 2012

    As ever is the case with your wonderful articles, Jennifer, i truly loved this one. Recognizing our Oneness with Mother Earth, and indeed all the cosmos, is intrinsic to understanding our relationship with what most people still call God. Thanks so much for your piece. There is one small comment i have in response to your statement that human beings are unique among animals in being able to see the effects of our actions on the larger landscape of our planet. In fact, this is not so. Our cousin animals are much more intelligent than we usually give them credit for. In fact, they are always teaching us the most important things, and have a direct extra-sensory channel to the multidimensional world. When they see you, they know your past and your future. And they live the truth in all moments that we are all connected, All is One. They know we are all co-creators of everything in the Universe, that instant forgiveness and unconditional love is the answer to all things…Living through the heart instead of the mind. As we now enter the Aquarian Age, the Age of the Woman, in fact the Age of the Holy spirit, what is truly occurring is the Light of God is pouring into the world, and little by little we’re all realizing that we are all connected to God, a part of God…This the animals have always known, and are awaiting our awakening with great Joy. Indeed, God is not a white man up in the clouds with a long white beard, judging us. God permeates all substance in the Living universe, whether it be a rock, a tree, a mosquito, or man. God is Light and God is Love. And it is humanity that has taken a long detour into the Mind to investigate this truth. Science has finally come to quantum realm, and ever so slowly is proving what the great Indigenous peoples and esoterics and animals have known all along…The spark of the divine is within everyone and everything…Now is the time for planetary healing, and humans from our culture will continue to learn a lot from our dearest animal cousins. Blessings.

    Reply
  6. Peter,
    you are one brave man. I suppose when your faith is so well consolidated, you don’t mind that the scared people will throw scorn at you?
    I’m with you on the under- appreciation of animal intelligence.We anecdotally note with awe the premonitions of animals that vacate in advance, or if fenced, vocalise warnings, when an area is to be rent by an earthquake, or deluged by tsunami and so on. But we fail as a society to recognise their value. I suppose we can’t collectively acknowledge our comparative paucity of cosmic understanding when most people want to continue to maltreat and eat our animal cousins. More fool us, with our profound anthropocentric arrogance!
    There is a delightful TED talk illustrating adaptive crow behaviour. They drop nuts on city roads to be cracked by cars, and then wait and cross with the pedestrian lights to retrieve them! I keep chickens. They are clever little things indeed, and by God they love their babies.

    Reply
    • Peter Moon

       /  February 13, 2012

      Lady Angie,

      I just watched the TED talk you mention and it was really quite cool. Amongst the birds, all of whom are very intelligent, the crow has been known to be especially so. When i was a kid, at one point we shared our lives with a bird who talked, talked, talked. A friend’s dog named Digby came to stay with us for awhile, and one day was causing trouble in the kitchen, so for a few hours he was relegated the basement–a nice area: carpeted, heated, recreation room style. Antoinette, the bird, was also there. For an hour or so, no one was around the kitchen area, and somehow Digby found a way to open the door and cause a mess in the kitchen. He would only respond to his master’s voice, a wonderful woman, and from hearing it only once, Antoinette parroted it perfectly, and said numerous times, “Digby downstairs!!” and he responded, coming back down and staying near Antoinette. Lesson learned. By the way, I love what you wrote in your initial reply about our culture’s belief that reducing consumption and putting planetary and human well-being ahead of consumerism entailing great sacrifice. Of course, the opposite is true—all our precious possessions possess us!! And when we give them up, or live absolutely communally, Boom! suddenly we see clearly, each through our own authentic eyes, how happy and serene we truly are without all the extra stuff! It could well be, at least in the United States, that we are going to have to lose everything in order for us to actually get with it and build something new, something viable, something truly loving and giving for all. On the other hand, my friends in Australia, where you are, are telling me how good things are there these days–the economy ( i think China’s buying up all your coal), the happiness quotient, the simple, real-life stuff. Though we came from the same stock of cattle-rustlers and thieves fleeing-from-England, Aussies seem to have for the most part retained the Joy, while many of us Yanks have lost it along the way of thinking we’re exceptional. Cheers, Angie.

      Reply
  7. Paul Klinkman

     /  February 14, 2012

    Leavergirl,

    My system is based on my lowering the cost of growing algae in evaporation-proof bioreactors in the desert. That’s a whole other topic, and some of the details are in need of patents.

    I draw a careful line between giving all of my inventions away and saving the profits. I’ve learned to live poor all of my life, and I can’t use any money after death someday, but if I have access to some money I can bring more inventions to light, and I anticipate being part of a community that can use money, jobs and expansion. So, I don’t publish some of the patentable material. The value of unlimited cheap biodiesel is, hmmm, enough….

    If we are (or a marketplace of farmers are) producing vast amounts of algae biodiesel in the Nevada desert, then we have vast amounts of (cellulose) algae cell husks. If the government doesn’t care, we could turn them into ethanol for a minor profit, but if the government has come around, we can bury the algae cell husks by the gigatons in big lignite mountains in the desert. It’s important to have a stable form of carbon to bury. Some people have suggested solar heating the algae cell husks to create charcoal which is even more stable. Then we would cap the mountains with a clay layer to keep water out and the carbon would sit there. My target is 2500 years of just sitting there, which is about what nature needs to sequester the carbon naturally.

    Reply
  8. leavergirl

     /  February 15, 2012

    Paul, thank you for all the info. Nature does sequester carbon in depositories on the land, such as coal… I wonder if we know enough how to do it? But it does make sense.

    The blogger at Do the Math has just published his evaluation of all the various ways to provide energy… here is his take on biofuels. And my specific question concerns where you will find the water necessary for such a huge grow operation in the desert, even with evap-inhibiting design?

    The blogger writes: “Biofuels from Algae: I was somewhat surprised to see this entry rank as highly as it did in my admittedly unsophisticated scoring scheme. Because it captures solar energy—even at < 5% efficiency—the potential scale is automatically enormous. But it’s not easy, at present. Dealing with slime will bring challenges of keeping the plumbing clean, possible infection in a genetic arms race with evolving viruses, contamination by other species, etc. At present, we don’t have that magic algal sample that secretes the fuels we want. Heady talk of genetic engineering pledges to solve these problems, but we’re simply not there yet and cannot say for sure that we will get there. Otherwise, the ability to provide transportation fuel is the big draw. Heat may also be efficiently produced, though electricity would represent a misallocation of liquid fuel. Can it be done in the backyard? I could imagine a slime pond in the yard, but care and feeding and refining the product may be prohibitively difficult."

    Reply

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