What the World Needs Now …
This week, while President Obama and the G-8 were trying to get serious out the climate crisis, I was sitting on a very hot beach that could soon be under water, reading John Hay’s neglected classic, In Defense of Nature.
The book comes out of Hay’s rich experiences wandering the northeastern coasts of North America. I took In Defense of Nature with me because this is its 40th anniversary, because Hay was a great writer, and because he was writing–40 years ago–with the same urgency we must now bring to the issue of “defending nature.” I put the idea in scare quotes because it has become increasingly problematic. It still suggests some kind of dualism wherein nature is a helpless, silent thing out there that needs us to save it from ourselves. And while that is partly true, it must also be said that we need saving from ourselves, and we must stop thinking about ourselves as standing above and apart from the natural world.
Now our most urgent business is to recognize that we exist within larger ecosystems that sustain us, or do not, depending on how we understand our relation to them, and that the ultimate ecosystem is the planet, whose atmosphere we are altering. (A new survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press shows a familiar and disturbing disconnect between the scientific community and the American public on global warming; but climate change call be boiled down to this–the molecular structure of carbon-dioxide traps heat, and that can be proven in any high school chemistry class.)
Hay asked the fundamental question four decades ago: “Why this scarring business of playing God? Is this not our last chance to play at being man?” To see the scarring business of extracting coal, the leading cause of climate change, check out this video:
Nobody plays God like the strip miners, believe me, and it is vastly encouraging to see that one of the country’s most respected climate scientists, James Hansen, is now making a direct link between the climate crisis and mountaintop removal strip mining. And Hansen is right now, as sadly Hay was in 1969, that we are running out of time. It is a frustratingly American phenomenon that, as Hay wrote, “Crisis and disaster may be our only educators.” But that’s where we find ourselves now–at our last chance of being men and women, members of a larger land community.
We are the clever animal; there’s no doubt. We did, after all, invent language–words with which to construct a beautiful book like In Defense of Nature, and words with which to deny things like torture and climate change. George Orwell pointed out in his essay, “Politics and the English Language,” that political thinking suffers when language suffers. When language becomes too abstract, it becomes a “defense of the indefensible,” a rhetoric calculated to “make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” I don’t think any evidence need be marshaled here to show how right Orwell was.
But language can also move in the other direction, toward the concrete. This, said John Hay, would mean a move in the direction of conservation and responsibility. “To conserve and have it stick,” he wrote, “needs more education in particularity and in close attention to the precious elements of life than we have yet had.” We need more public education in the particular, such as Alice Waters’ Edible Schoolyard movement, whereby children grow, learn about and eat food from their own particular schoolyard.
The attention we pay to the natural world need not come at the beach or in the Adirondacks. In fact, it must be nurtured in cities. The particular stories we tell ourselves must include many more like Elizabeth Royte’s profile in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine of urban farmer Will Allen, whose Growing Power farm in downtown Milwaukee feeds 10,000 city dwellers. There, truly, resides a partial solution to the problems of climate change (the food is grown and consumed without petroleum fertilizers or transportation), health care (no diabetes here), and education (Allen is a 6-foot-7 ex-pro basketball player; children listen to him).
Allen and Alice Waters are showing us how to turn away from our scarring attitude toward the natural world, back toward one that will make us more fully human and more wholly accountable. It is at once a great step forward and a necessary return to what John Hay called first principles.
“Perhaps,” he wrote, “if it takes ruin to right us, we are closer than ever to first principles.”