Some Reflections on Earth Day

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These are belated Earth Day reflections, as I’ve been on a writing retreat. Also, I’m a slow thinker.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the classic book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, first published in 1973. I was a teenager when it first came out. Schumacher’s book was re-issued in 1989 with a new preface and introduction. A quarter of a century ago, his ideas were described as “radical”, “leftist”, and “anarchist”. Now I would call them “prescient”.

The root word of economics is oikos, Greek for “home”. Literally, economics means the management of home. We have come to think of it as the exchange of goods and services that are produced and consumed. And lately, “the economy” is seen as having huge influence on financial well-being (or lack of it) of individuals and nations. “The economy” has gone global and gotten very complicated.

Schumacher was a Rhodes scholar in economics, an economic advisor to Burma, and for twenty years an economist with the British National Coal Board. Although not an entirely original thinker, he had a gift for synthesizing ideas and a way with words. He places economics in a social context, and he reminds the reader that it is not a hard science although it would like to be. It is a derived body of thought, an abstract framework that disconnects itself from both humans and nature. It is based on assumptions that differ from the laws of the universe (such as what goes up must come down). Schumacher foresaw that this disconnection would lead to social and environmental disaster.

“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence.”

“Every increase in needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existential fear.”

In the 1970s, Schumacher was speaking out against confusing capital with income. Natural capital is what humans have found, and not created. It is irreplaceable and without it we can do nothing. Air. Water. Soil. Minerals. We continue to spend it as if it will never run out, and go to increasingly convoluted lengths to obtain it. Hydraulic fracking, anyone?

According to Schumacher, the three principles that should guide economic choices are: health (of humans and the environment), beauty, and permanence (these days called sustainability). He warns against confusing material wealth with spiritual well-being, insisting that all people need both. Those of us who consume the most resources are not assured of having the most satisfaction.

As far as the question of scale, he suggest we consider what we are trying to do. Humans need both freedom and order. Freedom in our activities as individuals, order in the world of ideas and guiding principles. Therefore, we need a variety of structures to encourage both freedom and order. Large centralized systems destroy freedoms because they concentrate power in the hands of few, and they are vulnerable to chaos. The best we can hope for is some sort of flexible structure that can cope with a multitude of small-scale units. On a small scale, there is more latitude for experimentation and local problem-solving. If something small doesn’t work, the consequences don’t bring down the whole system. Therefore, small is beautiful.

While on retreat I skimmed the book and made notes, then wrote the essay. I walked and reflected, unhappy with my conclusions. It’s an old book. A lot of water has gone down the river, flowed into the ocean, condensed as clouds and fallen as rain over the mountains and gone down the river again. If Schumacher was still alive, he’d be able to shake his head and say “Told you so. Too big to fail? Ha!” I felt sad. In the 70s, it seemed like there was still a chance to turn things around. Now it feels too late.

I’m reading a new book now: Apocalyptic Planet by Craig Childs. It’s the perfect antidote to my Small Is Beautiful blues. Childs runs with the idea of cataclysmic destruction, traveling around the world to witness desertification, melting glaciers, colliding continents, rising sea levels, etc. Bottom line: Earth is a violent place and has reshaped itself many times. Five times in the planet’s history most of life has been wiped out. It is generally agreed that we are in the sixth mass extinction right now. Our lovely interglacial Holocene epoch is morphing onto the next thing. The planet is changing, aided by anthropogenic factors (human population growth, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere). Spin the wheel, round it goes, where it stops nobody knows.

What I like about Childs’ writing is that he engages fully with the process of observing. His sense of wonder is unflappable. It might be the end of the world as we know it, but aren’t icebergs amazing? And deserts? He interviews scientists, quotes data, and it is scary stuff. The world is always ending. And beginning. Humanity is just a little piece of it, not the central character in the story. We have been inconvenienced by the unruly planet numerous times in the past, having to migrate to safer ground. Any sense of control we have now is pretty much an illusion and always has been.

How to live then, staring into the mirror at apocalypse? Step one is to manage that existential fear by not needing much. Rachel Carson equated man’s war against nature as a war against himself. So step two is to make peace. Step three is to feel at home no matter what. I’m sure there are more steps, but three is as far as I’ve gotten.

Economics shares the root oikos with ecology, the study of home. When I think of Earth, I think of home. A whirling blue ball twirling around a yellow star in the vastness of space. Home sweet home. Small is beautiful.

Home Sweet Home

Earth Day.

How could a person of my generation not be influenced by this movement? Living on the West coast, I could watch the Apollo missions take off on television before getting on the school bus. It was the Space Age, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. History was being made. The mission to land on the moon in 1969 captured my imagination and I followed it as closely as a nine year old could. I had a book full of stickers, a model of the lunar lander, and I could tell you the names of all the astronauts (still can!). I sat in front of the television, transfixed by the voices coming from orbit, and I loved the image of our planet. There it was, the whole thing. Home.

Always curious about the world, I was drawn to the living things around me. My family had animals and what these days would be considered a small homestead. We lived on the cut-over margins of industrial forest land, within sight of three Cascade volcanoes. The turbulence of the 60s–Viet Nam, civil rights, counterculture, and revolution–barely penetrated the rainy low valleys of coastal rivers. We watched it on television and went on with our lives. When I think of childhood, there are memories of thrashing through brush, playing in creeks, family gatherings, books, art stuff, learning from grown-ups.

I can’t remember when I first heard the word “ecology”, but it was sometime around 1970. That image of the earth seared my childish heart, and I knew home was to be treasured and protected. I became a pre-teen activist. I took on a project of writing to major corporations to ask them what they were doing to protect the earth for kids like me. There were ads in National Geographic, and they had mailing addresses in tiny print at the bottom. It was my idea, although Mom must have helped me. Weeks later, manila envelopes appeared in our rural mailbox, full of glossy pamphlets from Caterpillar and Weyerhaeuser. I was thrilled to get replies to my inquiries, but they didn’t answer questions in the detail that I wanted. Years later, I found this stuff in a box of papers and recognized it for the generic propaganda that it was.

I’m not sure, but that seeing that little planet aglow in dark space must have set me on my path. There were other factors too, and for awhile I wanted to be a scientist. Surely the connection I felt with nature would shape my life. And it has. I had my first conservation job at the age of 15, and have spent every summer since 1980 somewhere in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. There’s a lot of rainwater and mosquito spit in my blood, a lot of sweat mixed with rock dust and hemlock needles. My convictions have never wavered–this planet is worth taking care of. Words like “steward” (entrusted to manage affairs not one’s own) and “tend” (watch over, look after) mean something to me. To participate in such tasks are the only way I know to give back to the world which has given me life and the opportunity to wonder and wander and know joy.

The Space Age has passed, and we find ourselves adrift in some other kind of age. Gloom and doom lurks in every sound bite, on every website. Human overpopulation, climate change, extinction of species, scary diseases, scary poisons, scary weapons, genetic tinkering, bizarre techno-fixes, arguing about what is and isn’t true…it’s enough to make a reasonable person pull the covers over her head and stay inside. Yeah, sometimes I feel pretty discouraged.

Inside of me there is still a nine year old who sneaks outside to look up at the night sky to see if Apollo 11 is visible to her eyes. She accompanies me when I squat down to look closely at a bud emerging from trout lilies, when I stick my nose into sun-warmed ponderosa pine bark, when a winter wren erupts into song, when a beetle crawls out from under a dead leaf, when snow falls, when the toe of my boot burrows into mud. As long as there is wonder, there is hope. As long as I have a voice, and hands to write and draw, there is hope. As long as I continue to find kindred spirits to join in voice and journey, there is hope.

Pay attention. Live like life matters. Stay a kid. Go outside every day. Cherish home–it’s such a beautiful blue world.