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  January/February 2000 Features:
Getting it Right
The Future of Adventure
Goodbye to All That
Urban Legends
Thinking Big
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Sierra Magazine
Getting it Right


European and Euro-American societies have developed a series of institutions—nation-states, bureaucracies, universities, corporations, armies, citizen organizations—whose strength is their focus. No surprise, then, that these societies dominate the emerging global economy. The great virtue of their institutions is that they ignore all but a fraction of the consequences of their actions. This allows them to move quickly, decisively, and creatively. They can exploit “opportunities”—many of which, of course, turn out to be opportunities to take advantage of others: other competitors, other societies, other species, other generations.

The exploitative temperament may be deeply embedded in human DNA by evolution. But in individuals there are powerful countervailing forces—empathy, altruism, solidarity, love, spirituality, discipline—that enable each of us to grow, to be mindful rather than single-minded, and to behave sustainably and ecologically. Yet we lack any vision of how we can foster a countervailing “mindfulness” within modern institutions.

Anne and Paul Ehrlich: Anyone can help influence institutions, although what you can do will naturally depend on your personal preferences and who you are. One of us likes to work quietly to shape the policies of environmental organizations; the other prefers to cajole decision-makers publicly to mend their ways. Some of our friends and colleagues work within governments or corporations to effect change, lobby to convert the World Bank from a world-wrecking to a world-saving organization, write letters to public officials, or simply support good causes financially. There is no “right way” to work for a better future. As we wrote a decade ago in Healing the Planet, each action is a contribution to a growing global movement.

Professionals inside big institutions can be especially helpful. If you are a scientist, you might lobby your colleagues and the federal government for more support of the disciplines that deal most directly with environmental issues. If at all possible, address your own efforts toward those problems, even if your expertise is not in an area normally thought of as environmental. Earth’s problems are so broad and pervasive that almost any scientific discipline can be applied to them. Engineers, a group usually counted on to apply the advances of the scientific community for the good of society, could be at the cutting edge. Some already are, working on problems such as removing toxic substances from aquifers or designing solar-energy systems and better-constructed, more energy-efficient buildings, lighting systems, and appliances.

Attorneys can educate themselves on the issues and try to alter the legal system to help prevent environmental degradation on both public and private land. English teachers can assign readings by Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, E. O. Wilson, Wallace Stegner, Peter Steinhart, Terry Tempest Williams, and other environmental writers. Business executives can inform themselves (and their associates and employees) of the dimensions of the human predicament. They’ll be doing themselves and their firms a great service, as some corporate leaders are discovering.

It is the social scientists, though, whose efforts are going to be most essential. At center stage will be the economists, some of whom are beginning to grasp both the depth of the crisis facing humanity and the crucial role that their discipline must play in solving it. More of them need to go public on economic issues that politicians and the general public often ignore or fail to grasp. One example is the utter inadequacy of GNP as an indicator of the state of society; another is the failure of most economists to recognize the value of “natural capital,” including biodiversity, productive land, and fresh water.

These are obvious, but everyone can do something. Everyone should donate at least 10 percent of his or her time to learn about the world and act on that knowledge. To achieve a far-reaching transformation of our society, each of us must take responsibility ourselves.

Terry Tempest Williams: The environmental movement in its highest form is like water, in that it seeps into unexpected places, rises, and fills the basins of the human heart; that it is and will always be decentralized in its power, a power that is most appropriately found within our homes, neighborhoods, and local communities; that this naturally infiltrates to higher, more traditional places of power, our churches, our governments, our courts, and most slowly of all, our corporations. I use the word “our” because we are all complicit in this world we have created.

Federico GarcŪa Lorca writes, “Mi cuerpo entre los equilibrios contrarios” (“My body floats between contrary equilibriums”). Perhaps this is the stance we feel at the fold of this new millennium, this artifice of time we have created. When I hear all of the statistics, the losses we are incurring, the truth and weight of issues like genetically manipulated foods, a population of 6 billion and rising, the loss of diversity of species and land, the control wielded by global corporations, I become mute, my spirit crushed by information that becomes abstracted into despair. My human frame cannot accommodate it all. I become listless, apathetic, impotent, and turn inward, turn to pleasure, to distraction, to anything that will move me away from what I perceive to be the true state of the world.

What are we to do?

I turn to my own small perspective, a perspective that focuses on the place where I live and love, to the harvest moon casting blue light over the desert, where color still registers on the red cliff face of sandstone. I can’t sleep. On my back on our porch, I watch the moon with my binoculars for hours, and think about the miracle of life, simply that. Earth is our charismatic leader, the moon, the mountain lion who slips into the layers of sandstone like a passing shadow.

In these moments, I am flushed with hope and most importantly, faith. Faith in almost 100 people in the valley where we live showing up to a potluck to discuss the future of our town of 200 people. One hundred people talking about how they feel about development, what kind and how much, how we might designate an area in partnership with the Division of Wildlife Resources for the deer, recognizing where we live now is their winter range.

Neighbors. Shared concerns. A respect for our differences and strength in what we share. This is happening throughout America. I honestly believe this. I look to the people who are standing their ground in the Bolsa Chica and Ballona Wetlands in the Los Angeles Basin against tremendous opposition, billion-dollar developments, movie moguls like Steven Spielberg, oil interests, and freeways. Look to a small group of neighbors in Yaak, Montana, the North Woods in New England, restoration work in the prairies of the Midwest, urban gardens, the incredible work of local land trusts to preserve and protect what they see as critical habitat for wildlife and the human spirit—all these examples provide models of compassion and savvy, at once.

Faith and stamina.

I find it hopeful that religious institutions are aligning themselves with issues of sustainability (case in point: the Catholic Church taking a stand for salmon protection in the Pacific Northwest), providing new life to the word congregation. Congregations of faith.

And one of the most hopeful moments for me as a student of popular culture was hearing Marie Osmond, one of the hosts for the Miss America Pageant, ask Miss Texas, “If crowned Miss America, how would you translate what the value of open space and wildlands is to the American people?” Miss Texas looked stunned and was having a hard time adapting one of her canned answers to the question. Ms. Osmond reiterated, “The land, you come from a state with a lot of open land. Why is this important to us, what would you do to further this ethic?” Miss Texas’ answer was something about encouraging schools to teach children how to ride bicycles, but the point is “the land” has entered the popular vernacular. (I must tell you that I wrote Marie Osmond a fan letter!)

To become biologically literate, to engage with our neighbors and communities, to focus on small-scale agriculture and commerce and support them, to realize we are deeply aligned with the life around us—to recognize this movement of the heart and mind and soul as a movement of love that can never be corralled.

To make the abstract real, to be unafraid to speak of what we love in the language of story, to remember we are engaged in bloodwork, one day at a time. The presence of personal engagement, its own form of prayer.

Homero Aridjis: The last time humankind moved on to a new millennium (at least those who were counting by the Christian calendar), visions of the end were rife. This time, similar visions circle the globe. For those of us with grim thoughts about the future of Earth, there is a lingering fear that the predictions may become reality. Nature can survive without man—in fact, that may be its salvation—but man cannot survive without nature. How can we make human beings perceive losses in nature as their own personal losses?

The big problems are obvious, although we may disagree about the hierarchy: overpopulation, climate change, inequitable resource consumption and greed, vertiginous depletion of natural resources, immoral practices by multinational corporations. The juggernaut of globalization must be harnessed and tamed. Under pressure from environmental organizations, the free-traders now want to allow for a measure of environmental protection. Grotesquely, the developing countries are protesting, positing poverty as the main reason for environmental degradation. What about exploitation and corporate greed? And the desire for all the first-world perks? Can we really expect a subsistence-level farmer in Indonesia or a street vendor in Brazil to make sacrifices when they are bombarded with images of Americans in obscene SUVs burning some of the cheapest gas in the world at the rate of 13 miles a gallon, or of European Union citizens tucking into platters of meat? We need a return to local control, not more economic imperialism, and fair trade, not more free trade.

To achieve this, the developing countries must work together regionally. In July 1991, at the first Iberoamerican Summit, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and I proposed the creation of a Latin American Ecological Alliance. The proposal fell on deaf ears.

Mexico has just suffered the worst floods in its recorded history. Hundreds are dead, hundreds of thousands are homeless, and many have lost everything. No sandbagging here-in fact people downstream in the states of Veracruz and Tabasco were notified hours too late (or not at all) when dam floodgates were opened. How can we get people to understand that the torrential rains are almost certainly the consequence of the reckless use of fossil fuels? And that their own disaster was magnified by deforestation and excessive dam-building? What can you do in a country where the media is manipulated by the powers that be?


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