Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Perspectives on Green-isms

I recently answered these questions for an interview. I'm republishing them here.

1. What is the state of the modern day environmental movement?

The environmental movement today is moving past its former emphasis on a strict black and white dichotomy of nature and culture towards a multi-centered vision with a global focus on climate change. There has been an explosion of local environmental groups and there are as many different varieties of environmentalists today as there are distinct personalities, value systems, and environments in the world. Despite differences, people everywhere are coming to the realization that in the recent past a great deal of resources and energy has been squandered and somebody must pay the price. We must all work together to make sure we have a stable and lush garden to offer the next generation.

2. What is your favorite book or article that you have read about the environment? What take-away message did it give you?

Although familiar with great books like Walden and My First Summer in the Sierra, I will introduce the Japanese author Yanagita Kunio (1875-1962) and his work, The Legends of Tôno. Yanagita worked directly at odds with the strong centralizing powers of global capitalism to celebrate the unique ways and knowledge of local people as a part of local ecology. The Legends of Tôno are a collection of tales that illustrate the wisdom in the old stories, songs, rivers, and mountains. In one story, a man descends into the dark depths of the river to encounter a dead girl who shares with him a secret to personal wealth. The lesson: one's true wealth is one’s sense of self-awareness and place, and this comes from one’s knowledge of folkways and landscape.

3. The U.S. accounts for 4.6% of the global population, almost 25% of global CO2 emissions. Who/what is to blame?

Everywhere in the world, people live full lives of happiness and suffering; the US is no exception, yet the system by which Americans live requires huge expenditures of energy from fossil fuels, releasing dangerous CO2. Fossil fuel, thousands of years of sunlight compressed into a powerful source of energy, is an extremely valuable and non-renewable resource that probably could have been safely used for thousands of generations. Unfortunately, well-meaning people believed human-kind could engineer a solution to any shortage. The result was the design of our current system of highways, commutes, SUV's, industrial agriculture, and the list goes on. Today, most Americans can barely scrape together a normal family life without squandering fossil fuel. We must come together and redesign our entire system to tackle this sad situation.

4. Do you consider yourself a radical? Why or why not?

I definitely consider myself a radical. One definition of "radical" is "of or going to the root or origin; fundamental" (Random House 2009), and in terms of chemistry, a "free radical" is a molecule or atom with an unpaired electron that is extremely reactive and which may serve in an enzyme or catalyst. I see myself in this catalyzing role. Dealing with the fundamentals of an issue, I don't seek to change the situation in my image, but to provide antagonistic parties a chance to interact and trade perspectives. During this catalyzing process, more balance can be brought to a potentially explosive situation.

5. David Brower, Chair of Earth Island Institute and often considered the "grandfather of the environmental movement" once stated: "We should never compromise. That's what we pay politicians for." Do you agree with Brower?

With so many environmental woes and so little time to address them we no longer can afford to be stubborn. I believe sincerely in the rights of humans, animals, plants, land, and atmosphere, but it is because of the interconnectedness of all creatures and places that everyone must compromise to ensure our basic rights. In today's environmental movement, every person must be an environmentalist; we cannot afford to alienate anyone. If a fisherman were to follow Brower's advice and continuously over-harvest fish because he is unwilling to compromise, then neither fish nor sustainable fishing would benefit in the long run.

6. Write a Letter to the Editor about an environmental issue you are passionate about.

Dear Editor,

Standing by the Columbia River, I dip a kupins digging spade into the native root field, or xnitpama, and lift out a full piyaxi plant (Lewisia rediviva or "Bitterroot"), one of the sacred foods of native plateau people. As with all of the sacred foods, the roots and their habitat must be carefully tended. Unfortunately, many root fields are converted to wheat farming; forever destroying native plant communities and eroding huge quantities of soil into streams each year, raising temperatures and impeding the life cycle of returning salmon, another sacred food. Because the wheat farmer rarely turns a profit or tastes his wheat, this change leaves little lasting benefit to local people, ecosystems, or economies. The next time you buy bread in the supermarket, consider the distinct flavors you might have tasted from the root fields now plowed under.


Alan Waxman