Today is Earth Day. I spent the better parts of yesterday trying to crawl out of my urban life. It’s been a strange, sad, hard week in Boston. Anyone with a radio, internet access, television, or chatty strangers probably knows this. The other night all I wanted to do was run to a wild place and be still amongst the trees and the stars and the unquiet tranquility of a New England forest in spring. My nearest woods, now that I’m urban, close at dusk. So I contented myself with finding Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things” through the Poetry Foundation’s excellent website. I read the words over and over on my blinky computer screen as night came on in the city.
The poem has been working its way deeper into my mind ever since. The words are almost filling an ache for being at once at peace and wild…almost.
But yesterday, instead of going quickly to the woods at dawn and lying still on the ground until the world seemed fine and graceful again, I read Nicholas Lemann’s essay “When the Earth Moved” from the April 15th The New Yorker. Lemann details multiple failures of the Environmental movement from the first 1970 Earth Day Teach-In to the current, sorry, state of green affairs. Earth Day started as a grassroots day of learning. There were no corporate partners, no oil industry players participated in the day as part of a sneaky, sideline campaign designed to “green” their dirty image. And yet, from what I’ve read (and I do have a graduate degree in this stuff) and what I’ve heard from my elders who were there, by God, Earth Day was—briefly—effective in altering behavior and public policy. People got together, and shit. got. done. EPA! Clean Air Act! Clean Water Act! Super Fund! Endangered Species Act! Well done, and thank you.
Something terrible seems to have happened since then. I’ve personally attended a staff retreat of a large environmental non-profit—the Appalachian Mountain Club—and listened to a PowerPoint presentation about how to use Twitter as a tool for conservation. Tweeting had been used as a lobbying tool on air quality legislation, and despite all the Tweets, the measure failed (i.e. air stayed polluted), and we were discussing this as a successful campaign because of the number of Tweets. I readily agree with the adage that any tool is a weapon if you hold it right, but that meeting felt a thousand miles from where the Environmental movement should be.
The failure may be that we’ve tried to join the increasing corporatization of this country. In that light, it doesn’t surprise me that environmentalism is lagging, that our successes have been so relatively few and we’re willing to accept such anemic compromises as success in the first place.
Because, at heart, this has never been a corporate/government/business entity. These are matters, deeply, of the heart. And this is where our efforts and resistance must come from if we are to be successful, if we are to save, protect, preserve, salvage anything good on this little spinning orb of sea, earth, blood and fire.
One thing that we are missing is rage. The things I love, the ways I want the world and its people to be towards each other, all of this is under constant threat. I’m furious about this, that things I love are not safe. The peace of wild things can only quell this fury for small spells, thankfully.
People say that rage is bad, that anger will not help the situation. I’m not advocating for violent actions to be taken out of this rage—I’m unlikely to kick oil executives or dirty-monied members of Congress in their teeth (teeth don’t heal)—but I do think that the motivation of rage, the fury that what I love is being robbed of me by a corrupt system while I stand idly by, this feels like a clean, good burning fuel. The struggle is to make the anger useful and non-violent, just as it is to make the love active.
A motivating rage extends farther than blogging alone at midnight about the state of the world or clicking “Like” or tweeting “#Happy Earth Day!” or emailing elected officials to stop a criminally stupid pipeline. While I’ll keep doing all of those things (minus the tweeting), they increasingly feel like not enough to quiet the raging beast, to bring peace to the wild things.
And here is where I think of the angriest person I’ve ever met. She was five years old, and had the communication abilities of a feral dog. She was born deaf, and when I met her, she was just beginning to learn sign language. Her parents had not been able to admit she was deaf, and so, for five years she had no way to effectively communicate with the world. All that a person can see and experience and question and long to express in those first five years of life was bottled up in this child. She broke my heart, and lately, a decade or more after I knew her, I’ve been thinking about her more, as my own rage grows.
The rage, the frustration, the defeat, despair, apathy, back-broken hope, and all the other current road blocks to a vibrant, effective Environmental movement stem, in part, from something similar. The current structures of the world cannot hear what we’re saying, or perhaps they willfully do not listen to the truth. Either way, it amounts to the same. So we need to change how we communicate, within ourselves as much as with the powers that be.
Here is my thought. It comes, in part, from counseling a co-worker at my café who is going through a very bad break-up. We, the green folks, almost had kind of a good thing with U.S. Policy makers, about 40 years ago. Since then, it’s become clear that they’re just not that into us. And we’ve been hanging on, making ourselves more like them to get them to like us more. Fuck that. It’s time for the post-break up makeover. We’ve got to make our way of doing things, of living, of being, so beautiful and enticing and incredible that the power comes crawling back. Anyway, by quitting that fight, we regain our own power. Right makes Right, as T.H. White says in The Once and Future King--Might (or money, now) does not make Right. Also, I'm pretty certain that the smaller, tighter, more effective lives of people actively living in the ways that make them happy—truly happy, in the ways that buying more and bigger and “better” stuff never will—is the best answer to how to live in the first place. Living like this is likely to make us all happier than trying to be something we’re not, than speaking a language that does not express the realities of our beliefs.
And, better than waiting for the pathetic loser of (most) U.S. Environmental Policy to crawl back, we can use our way to life to shape better policies. The United States remains steadfast in our mythology that we are governed by and for the people. We may have made corporations into people, but that’s idiotic. Corporations cannot march, cannot protest, cannot get into the actual heart of people. Turning this myth of what we say we are into who we actually are is going to be hard, but I think it can be done. Living in Boston, I find myself literally stumbling across pieces of the Revolutionary War. It happened once here, it could happen again. It should happen again, people rising up to remake their world better…heck, it might even be fun.
Trouble is, I feel a little like the deaf girl here myself—I want to speak these things, I want to do these things, but I do not have the right tools to even know where to begin. I suspect that a lot of people are in this same boat. Living simply and happily I’m working on—although it’s worth noting that I wrote most of this on paper napkins at work last night, in between waiting tables. Mostly, though, it’s the communal uprising I’m looking for. Anyone else? We should talk.
Happy Earth Day! Go fight the good fight, in whatever eco-battlefield or wild place makes you happy. I wish you the peace and ferocity of wild things.