Monday, February 15, 2010

A Rant On Our Perceptions of Environmental Degradation

First, I think it's important to say that I am not a bleeding liberal and never will be. Nor am I really all that much of a republican. I pick and choose on each issue. Not that it matters. What matters is that we always tend to prescribe any conversation about important social issues to political idealogies and groups, when that does nothing but separate us first from each other, and then from the issue, making us stagnate. Which seems to be the perpetual state of Washington.

I often get myself into stupid and ultimately silly discussions (arguments) about our perception and actions toward the environment. No issue concerns me more than how humans live in the landscape. If this issue doesn't become politicized, it will often slide down to the next level, and become a religious issue--which I think can be a good thing, because so many people believe in some kind of diety, and because so many people feel something larger than themselves when they spend time in a natural setting (wild or created) and call this feeling god.

I get accused of being too emotional about environmental degradation. Yes, ok, fine. It's going to get worse as I get older. But isn't the core problem that we DON'T get emotional? People tell me all the time to not be emotional or irrational about the issue of global warming or pollution or mountain top mining, but shouldn't we be emotional about it? If someone came and blew up your family and home, would you be emotional? If your friends were floating dead on the ocean current because they've eaten nothing but plastic for months, would you be concerned?

The way I see it, we don't care. I'm not saying humans are self centered or egomaniacal, though we can be. I'm saying if it doesn't directly affect us now, it doesn't matter. This is obvious, I suppose. But we lack the metaphor that creates deeper meaning in our lives, that connects us more deeply to ourselves and our loved ones, and as a result, the world we really do depend on. That missing metaphor is, let's say, an endangered milkweed species in only one county of Illinois. How separate is its disappearance from our world than the right for women to have equal pay or for a person to be able to walk down a city street at night and not fear being mugged, raped, or murdered?

Here's author Lisa Knopp from her book The Nature of Home:

A metaphor is more than just a way to decorate a literal statement. Aristotle spoke of a metaphor’s ability to induce insight. That insight comes through a recognition of the similarities and the differences between the two things being compared…. If you doubt the power of a single metaphor, spend the rest of this day considering how different our treatment of each other, our philosophies, the health of our planet would be, if for the past millennia we had personified nature as a father instead of a mother.

Here's another quote I think extends the conversation, from poet Robert Bly:

All through Taoist thought, there is the idea that our disasters come from letting nothing live for itself, from the longing we have to pull everything, even friends, in to ourselves and let nothing alone. If we examine a pine carefully, we see how independent it is of us. When we first sense that a pine tree really doesn’t need us, that it has a physical life and a moral life and a spiritual life that is complete without us, we feel alienated and depressed. The second time we feel it, we feel joyful.

There is no doubt in my mind that we fear ourselves, and for good reason. We are afraid of what we will do when we are angered, stressed out, on the edge. There is the fear of loving something or someone totally and wholly and losing one's self. Maybe that is the greatest fear--losing one's self. It is hard for us to let go of the outline, the rules, social decorum, or to let go of indoctrinated reason.

Many religious thinkers from various religions say we must be made vulnerable in order to know god. The same idea of vulnerability goes for falling in love and being able to, let's say, create a workable healthcare system. There is always much at risk: my sense of myself that is barely pieced together as it is after only a few decades of being alive. And before I know it I'll be dead and gone anyway. I am afraid. We are terribly afraid.

It is not my direct fault that our national symbol, the bald eagle, is again being threatened. As they pick apart the leftover carcasses of a hunter's kill, eagles devour poisonous lead shot. I did not shoot that deer. I did not feed that eagle. I can't do anything about it. And the eagle doesn't affect me. These ideas are very true. But you can decide not to hit your child, not drive your car as much, hold a door for someone, or plant a tree. You can, as Benedictine monks do, find the smallest actions are the greatest praises toward a possible god, or at least realize that in the smallest actions, when we let go, we've overcome our fears and solitude even though we are, by design, alone and wary in our environments--just like every other creature.

Maybe the missing emotional metaphor in our lives is more anthropomorphism. It could be as simple as staring out the window on a windy afternoon, snow slipping from the branches of an elm, and seeing my grandmother taking off her plastic hair net before she came inside to make me potato soup.

* A lot of the above ideas come from my memoir, Morning Glory, as do the quotes.


Kyna said...

Good post. People should be more upset about environmental degradation. I don't know if I'm as enraged as you seem to get (other issues do that to me...I can argue all day about health care), but I'm definitely paying more attention these days to what type of effect I have on the environment around me.

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

I beg to differ, if only for the sake of stimulating discussion. Finding the right metaphors will not move us forward on any environmental issue, because metaphors don’t inspire politicians. The USA exists primarily because the signers of the declaration of independence needed a country free of interference so that they might conduct their business affairs in an unfettered manner.

Nothing of substance can be accomplished in America unless it results in prosperity for some, or several, corners of the country. That is not a bad thing. It would be a fiscal tragedy, if public funds were to be spent to correct an environmental problem without delivering a tangible benefit to those that contributed to the coffers of government. A tangible benefit is what motivates movers and shakers into action. Ideological driven legislation that does not translate into profits is dismissed before it can reach the floors of Congress or the Senate because, I suspect, altruism in its purest form is not the American way.

The challenge for those who want to prevent the degradation of our planet is to learn the language of business and politics. Show America that saving the environment also saves money or makes profit and politicos will perk up their ears and listen. Beat the drum about the woes of pollution or the disappearance of wildlife and only activists and tree huggers will take notice. Here is a portion of the population, that is, on one hand, too small and ineffective to make a difference. On the other hand, it speaks in a voice that does not command wide spread respect. Furthermore, environmentalists preaching to other environmentalists will never accomplish anything. They need to start over by finding a voice that will resonate with Those That Make Things Happen. To date, they have not been very successful.

James Golden said...

This is a downer. I tend to agree with the second commenter speaking strictly in practical terms, though my reality is closer to yours. You're offering a spiritual or philosophical way to move forward, but I believe we may already be in a hopeless situation. I think Yeats understood how the human race works. Speaking of the power of metaphor ("and what rough beast, it hour come round at last, slouches towards Bethlehem to be born"), the following line from The Second Coming seems to foretell our angry political battles and the stinging bitterness of many demagogic "leaders": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Who will win the battle to save the environment, when our few good leaders, discouraged by the inability of government to accomplish much of anything, are giving up the battle and going home? I hate to think of it.

Randy Emmitt said...


The world is full of sleepers and believers in everything they are told. Look at America we elected GW Bush twice!! As gardeners and farmers we have a choice on the products we buy and they too can impact the environment. Lets look at Monsanto the people that brought us Agent Orange and Roundup. Roundup used to be labeled as biodegradeable, now it is known that only 2% is biodegradable. Soybeans and cotton worldwide is mainly all sprayed heavily with roundup. Corporations like Monsanto own nearly all our elected officials and there is little we can do to fight them. We watched the movie " The World according to Monsanto" a few weeks ago. see

johanna_lea said...

practicality must be tempered with
dreams of a better world. without our ideals, hopes, and efforts toward environmental changes,
we'd still be living in
"Silent Spring" time.... environmental awareness
is fairly mainstream these days,
thanks to the voices of those
who will not cease crying out
to the world. each small effort informs the collective mind...
we are no longer hippies,
radical kooks and treehuggers;
we are the'bell-wethers'

"what is to give light must
endure burning"
viktor frankl

allanbecker-gardenguru said...

Johanna: Once more, I must beg to differ.
Just because a topic, like environmental awareness, appears in most media disseminations doesn’t make it mainstream. It makes it newsworthy. From the time Silent Spring was published, until laws were enacted to prevent the widespread use of DDT both at governmental and consumer levels, about twenty years had passed. Today we are able to spread information at a faster rate, but spreading information and acting upon it are very separate matters.

I return to my argument that there needs to be an incentive. Environmental damage, severe enough for national government to act upon, has not yet produced quantifiable losses for America. However, at the local level, in Colorado, some municipal governments are enacting laws restricting the use of water for landscaping due to drought problems. One might call that a grass roots solution, pardon the pun. That is an example of how to deal with an issue in a realistic way. Another example: environmental standards of the state of California are higher than in most parts of North America because Californians have identified a real threat to human survival there. Local initiative can be stimulated only when there is a serious threat to human survival. Local initiative is also much easier to generate because national initiative often falls victim to political philosophies. Some political parties do not like to see federal government undertake solutions to issues that might be better handled at a local level.

I also disagree with your statement that we are no longer hippies, radical kooks, and tree huggers. We may no longer dress or live like hippies but we still do think like them. Hippie values have become mainstream in many parcels of American society. Radical kooks are rampant all over the world. Look at the activists who appear at public functions to protest anything from a national health care system, to saving baby seals. The radical kooks will always be with us; that is the nature of a democratic society. As for tree huggers, their numbers are growing all the time. However, they are no longer referred to as such because they have taken on caches such as “organic buffs” or “advocates for going green”. The names will change but a noble, often unrealistic, passion for protecting the planet will remain.

Town Mouse said...

Benjamin, I think it's perfectly possible to be rational and feel passionately about something. The hard part, of course, is finding a solution to this conundrum. And as long as advertising defines each of us in terms of stuff, as long as greed and fear are our prime motivators, I see little hope for change. The worst aspect of this is probably that kids no longer play and explore in nature, but in organized sports or with video games.

Is change possible? I don't know...

our friend Ben said...

A lovely essay, Benjamin! But I think the solution is not to anthropomorphize all that is not human but to de-anthropomorphize ourselves, if I can put it that way, to stop holding ourselves apart and thinking of ourselves as so special. It seems to me that it's only when we place ourselves squarely as just another species that's been privileged to enjoy this beautiful Creation, rather than viewing ourselves as its masters, that there can be any hope of preservation...

debsgarden said...

No one has mentioned the greatest threat to our planet, the one thing that can truly destroy us all and the environment around us, and that is nuclear war. I don't know that man has the answer to this, looking at the way things are going. In fact, the Bible's Book of Revelations, chapter 11, verse 18, speaks of a time coming when God will "destroy those who destroy the earth." So my hope is there. Meanwhile, I do all I can within my small sphere of influence to protect the earth and to make my corner of the world a better place.

Muhammad khabbab said...

I think it is rational to get emotional on envoirn. degradation. There would be a time when it will be a mainstream problem, if not right now.

Susan Tomlinson said...

Hear, hear.

Unknown said...

Lots to chew on in this post...

re: Humans and their "not in my backyard" blindness, I have a few additional thoughts. There was a time when this was probably just fine. Man had a limited effect on his/her environment, and would visibly see the effects of what he/she had wrought. For example, you allow a fire to burn too high... you see the tree next to your campsite catch fire.

The big problem came when man started messing around with chemicals, and creating synthetic hormones, and mass-producing drugs. These things are too insidious... we don't see them leaching into our water supply, it's years before ozone layers start to deplete and more years after that before someone we know gets diagnosed with skin cancer, and so on.

We are complex, and yet so simple. We can theoretically understand that these things are happening all around us, but if we don't see the transformation... there's room for doubt. We've seen science and statistics manipulated for personal or corporate gains in the same way that religion is/has been... until we've lost faith in all of them.

And, most frustrating of all... people like us can see the problems. But we can't figure out the solutions--not any solutions that are workable within both the circle of environmental science AND what we know of human nature, anyway. (Argh.)

Pam said...

So much to say here.

I was funded by GE during my doctoral work - studying PCBs and their microbial degradation in the Hudson River. Then I was off to a postdoc with the US EPA - fresh off the Exxon Valdez spill, and I became enamored with oil and it's impacts on our environment. Now I work on coral reef ecosystems - predicted to be 60% gone by 2050 - oh, and respiratory disease in marine mammals, which are increasing in both frequency and severity. Sometimes I feel like I'm drowning in the impacts of man's influence on the environment.

So I guess by day I try to not be emotional, I try to see how my work can contribute within the political and fiscal structure that I'm in - so, as a previous commentor wrote, I play in the world of politics and business most days. The problem with science in this areas is that our influence is surprisingly limited - scientists are still often considered eccentrics, passionate eccentrics and sometimes smart eccentrics - but we're still considered to be on the fringe of mainstream (unless, of course, you come up with a new cancer treatment or an alternative to botox). Scientists are often given grief for not communicating their science to the public, but often I must defend scientists, because we as a group LOVE to talk about our science - but the truth is that we bore the shit out of most folks when we do. Someone has to want to hear it. Folks have to want to listen.

So - at the end of the day, I think it's our passion for the environment that will have to save it - not politics, not business. A quote by Sylvia Earle, the well-known oceanographer: "You must love it before you are moved to save it." Jane Goodall has said something similar - folks throughout the ages have said that this is the bottomline. And I agree. We have to step outside of our human-centric view of the world, and value the ecosystems that surround us. We need to get over ourselves...and do good things.

Benjamin Vogt said...

I've been enjoying reading everyone's comments as they trickle in over the weeks. I don't think there is an answer yet. It always feels like peaching to the choir--if that's a bad thing or not I don't know, many sinners even in the choir.

Maybe the trick is to get tohers to love a place, to connect to a place that is outside. I think about my students and one exercise that has often worked for them. We got out to a scultpure garden on campus and I have them personify a scultpure. What is always amazing is that, by the end of the writing, they aren't talking about human things--the art, the self--but the maples, birches, blue jays, squirrels. Then they come back and say how peaceful it was, it was the highlight of their week, month, semester because they just went and let go in a place and let themselves drop away.

That's starting to sound like a harping on "modernity" but it isn't. How can a person teach moments of connection? Set it up, hope for the best? Everyone is so excited about spring on campus, yet no one knows anything about it, they just pass through it on the way to somewhere. But the sun sure feels good. The warm air feels good. Glad I have clean drinking water. Someday we'll wake up without cardinals and bluejays. will we notice, or will the absence be like skipping lunch, missing class, looking at a photo and remembing uncle bob before he died.

Pam said...

When I was an undergraduate, I started out in horticulture. During my junior year I had to take a soil science class, it was mandatory. It was mandatory for almost all of the ag and natural science majors, even some of the engineers. It was a large class - maybe somewhere between 200 and 300 students - and up front was this elderly man, Web Kroontje (don't remember if I can still spell his name right). Anyway, during each class, he would stand in front of the room, going through what should have been horrifically boring material (a soil profile? huh?) and he more or less dared us to find it interesting. He would, on ocassion, stop - stand still for a bit, and just say something like 'do you understand how miraculous this? that we have soil on top of all of this bedrock, and that if we didn't have it, plants wouldn't grow and we wouldn't be here?'. He would have those moments - his own amazement front and center - and it was contagious. Two thirds of the way through the course I switched into agronomy/soil science as a major, and never regreted it. We need teachers to stare at a student, an individual student, to make eye contact and just say 'do you see how remarkable this is? that this exists at all?. Fascination can be contagious (or at least to the few that are receptive - but maybe one of the few will be another Jane Goodall or Carl Sagan or...).

Sunnyside Dru said...

We raise livestock and vegetables chemical free on our farm. We got passionate enough about our environment to change what we eat to a core level, and offer to like minded people. We plant natives in our buffer zone, keep brushy spots all over the farm, spots with water catchments..and see many native bugs, birds, reptiles and amphibians across our property. We do not own or use a tractor or a rototiller. We try and use as little fossil fuel in our food production as possible. Food Alliance Certification is ours, this 3rd party group looks at all aspects of farming in a sustainable manner, and we are proud to be the first poultry farm to receive this coveted certification on our farm.

Every little step you take can be changed or altered in a small way. What you eat, and how it is farmed, can make a huge impact on human impact on this land. Consider local, package free food as your first option..the least number of miles, picking up in your own, reusable container can make a wonderful impact on us all.