Work on behalf of life turns. Because the relationship between self and the world is a reciprocal one, it is not a question of enlightenment or salvation first and then action. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.
–Robin Wall Kemerer
I was recently invited to speak with middle school students about environmental degradation and climate change, and I arrived with a batch of supporting images—all from this book—to reinforce my positions using the wisdom and integrity of the images, and their assertive activism. Sitting in a circle, surrounded by pictures, as if wise old men were circling around, I asked the students to tell me what they knew about the state of the environment.
Fast forward with the reliable facts, they report: persistent rise in parts per million of carbon dioxide, methane hazard, ocean acidification, creeping sea rise making storms more fierce, habitat loss, species extinction, melting glaciers, droughts, fires, floods, failure Crops, plastic swirls, refugees, hunger, migrations, diseases.
A handful of kids from one middle school in a small town in Maine recited, quietly, like reading a laundry list, meticulously like scientists, an urgent crisis group, as if describing a burning fuse and a little bomb. They knew the deterministic logic of turning points. I was amazed. Smart kids. Knowledge can make one feel on top of the problem. But then I asked them how they do it Poetry around it. One by one, round the circle, like round the globe, they each said, “terrified.” The light of knowledge is the darkness of fear.
The determined activism of young people armed with truth may be the thing that will save their future on this planet.
These facts are scary. It is important to call them, not to try to deprive them and not to try to protect our children from them. Protecting children from the truth betrays them. The determined activism of young people armed with truth may be the thing that will save their future on this planet. And these young people have another fact to deal with, a fact that has left their list, as important as ppm of carbon dioxide, which is that adults, in positions of power – government, corporations, academia, and the media – who have known for decades the cumulative environmental realities, have done much to reject and obfuscate them rather than improve them. This malicious neglect has protected power and profit, not children.
Sit with this thought, that Reality! Sometimes the most defining fact is not the one revealed by a scientist, but the one observed by the child: the inadequate response to the warning. For a sustainable society, the most important function of government is to secure the future by protecting the environment. While we’re trying to assess the damage that’s been done, the damage Universe Done, how do we frame it? Tragedy? a crime? words fail; They cannot determine the size.
The trapped students listened to their collective fear, a fear heightened by their subtle sense that irresponsible adults do not grapple with crises. But not all adults. I recognized them in the pictures. I told them about Rachel Carson, a fish and wildlife scientist, who in the early 1960s began explaining to the world that the pesticides and insecticides used on farms and yards were persistent, and did not die when the target insects died.
These chemicals continued to poison people, water, animals, and ecosystems long after people thought they were gone. Carson’s status as a scientist was loudly dismissed by misogynistic chemical companies. They defamed her because her verses affected their massive earnings. But she did not back down. Pesticide regulations were created because of their scientific truth and the courage to stand behind them. A committed adult forced government regulators to take action.
Then I told them about Tim D. Christopher, a student at the University of Utah, who in 2008 heard that fragile and pristine public lands in southern Utah were about to be auctioned off to fossil fuel companies for oil, gas and coal exploration. Mere exploration, not to mention development, can destroy these ecosystems. Tim, pretending to be an oil speculator, cut the auction, was arrested, and eventually spent two years in prison for fraud, but he saved land and became a hero in the environmental and climate movements. He proved, once again, that peaceful civil disobedience is one of the most important tools of any social justice movement.
We talked about Kelsey Juliana, who in 2015, along with twenty young people under the age of twenty, sued the US government under the principle of public trust, insisting that environmental and climate policy conform to the dictates of science, and that science, not oil companies and politicians, determine how quickly End the use of fossil fuels. The lawsuit asserts that life, freedom, and the pursuit of happiness mean little in a toxic environment. This case is still in the courts and will be very important if successful. Meanwhile, the young plaintiffs have successfully used their case as a platform to inform the public of the urgent need to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions.
We were amazed by Diane Wilson, a high school educated shrimp boat captain from Seadrift, Texas, who worked for thirty years to expose pollution that some of the world’s most powerful industries – Dow Chemical, Formosa Plastics and Alcoa Alcoa illegally caused in the Gulf of Mexico , poisoning fish, upsetting people, and destroying the fishing industry. Despite intimidation by companies, Diane never gave up. It has come up with innovative ways to expose and sue companies and won huge remedial settlements. I also got a no-lay off law passed in Texas.
Children with agency are born hope. In the same way that photosynthesis nourishes a tree.
We talked about Robin Wall Kemerer, who worked as a botanist and Aboriginal storyteller to persuade many people to lead a non-exploitative life, in harmony with nature and based on gratitude and reciprocity. We have considered the irony that Europeans came here in search of religious freedom and wealth, tried to wipe out the natives so that they could get everything for themselves, and now we are appealing to the wisdom of the natives to help them survive.
After we examined these passionate advocates of justice on Earth—scientist/writer, student/activist, plaintiff in a lawsuit, designer shrimp boat captain, Aboriginal philosopher/botanist—I asked middle school students how they felt. Are you still terrified? We went back around the circle. “Probably!” One girl said. “hopefull!” Another said. “Enable!” They said together.
The precarious state of the world reminds me of James Baldwin: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction…” First of all the tools needed to save us from our own destruction is reality education in our schools. Start with the reality of our place in nature, and the necessity to live according to the laws of nature. This relationship is the primary lesson taught on the first day of every classroom on Earth.
And second, while teaching the reality of our dire situation, show how young people can gain the strength to make change. Teaching the components of a crisis without educational solutions is harsh. So, know Energy– Who has it now and how to get it. Our children, for good reason, are anxious, depressed, close to hopeless, and feel helpless as they wait for adults to act. Teaching access to power is the same as teaching hope. Children with agency are born hope. In the same way that photosynthesis nourishes a tree.
Study the pictures in this book, read their quotes, and think about what these truth-tellers have done. Promote it for the kids. Recruit them as your teachers. Protect your watershed. Get plastic containers from your stores. Order solar panels on the roof of your school. Stop selling toxic pesticides. Grow and eat organic. Insist on electric mass transit. Conservation of endangered habitats. Protest against all policies that favor short term profit over long term.
Save the world.
Adapted from Earth Justice Pictures: Americans Who Tell the Truth by Robert Sherley. Copyright © 2022. Available from New Village Press, an imprint of New York University Press.