Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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When a friend called with the news, I assumed he was putting me on. A deer, he said, had crashed through the plate-glass window of a pottery store in downtown Chapel Hill. It was exactly one month after the 9/11 attacks, and I wasn’t in the mood for a joke.
I drove into New Orleans’ Ninth Ward a year and a half after Hurricane Katrina had left it in ruins. Friends who had been there had told me the devastation was “unbelievable.” I wondered what that meant — unbelievable.
There was a point, during the disaster, when everybody thought that the hurricane had passed and the worst was over. Then the levees broke — not from storm surge, engineers now think, but because the soil beneath the concrete walls was too weak. Nobody was there to help when the water started rising — a foot a minute in some places, I’ve been told.
The real struggle is to get past the notion of growth as our reason for being, which has dominated our culture since World War II. It’s the organizing principle for government policy and most other institutions in our society, including higher education. This is not a tenable model anymore. When you consider global warming, peak oil, and the diverging fortunes of rich and poor nations, it gets harder and harder to maintain this fervent, Alan Greenspan belief that if we continue to increase the size of the system, all will be well.
I think that civilization and real wilderness can coexist in North America and elsewhere, but we’ve got to allow room for wilderness and wild creatures. A favorite word of mine is wildeor, which goes back to the time of Beowulf and the origins of the English language. It means the “self-willed beast.” From the very beginning, civilization has tried to domesticate the beasts, and if we can’t domesticate them, then we destroy them. We’ve got to allow land to be wilderness, which means, in Old English, “self-willed land.” Letting some things have a will of their own, not trying to control everything — that is the challenge.
Over the last fifteen years, environmental foundations and organizations have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in combating global warming. We have strikingly little to show for it.
My feelings change like the changing seasons. The trees will be bare soon and the darkness will call to me again. Miklós Radnóti: “Sometimes a year looks back and howls, / then drops to its knees. / Autumn is too much for me.”
How can I be a responsible citizen while participating in an international market? Even if my intent is to do good, I can have only the slightest knowledge of the impacts of my consumption. I can’t know what injustice or ecological destruction the manufacture and purchase of my computer, for example, has wreaked. I’ve had no contact with the women in Thailand who will get cancer from putting hard drives together. It is impossible to understand all the social and environmental impacts of a computer made in a dozen different countries.