Happy Earth Day!
Rebooting Environmentalism for the 21st Century
by Ross Robertson
by Ross Robertson
I have always been a somewhat reluctant environmentalist. I was practically weaned on John Muir’s Yosemite, and as a kid growing up in the suburbs of California in the last decades of the twentieth century, I fell fast in love with the depth and space and beauty of the mountains. They were everything my world of clay lots and cement and computer technology was not - cool, silent, elemental, rich with unquestionable mystery. They were every bit as spiritual as church, minus the dogmatism and the bake sales. The forest wilderness of the Sierra high country made a green romantic out of me, and when I got to college in Atlanta, I became concerned enough about the fate of nature to do something about it. I organized river cleanups and letter-writing campaigns, studied the classics of American nature writing, and sat on the environmental committee of the university senate. I lobbied on Capitol Hill in Washington and protested chip mills and nuclear reactors in Tennessee. I even intercepted a Brazilian merchant ship on its way into Savannah harbor and blocked it from unloading its illegal cargo of Amazon mahogany, which was still wet with the blood of indigenous tribes.
I’ll always remember the incredible sense of purpose I felt that day as our small skiff shot over the waves at sunrise, the righteous, lawbreaking freedom of putting my future on the line for what I believed in. Even more than that, however, I’ll never forget the confusion and the strange unease that came over me when the action was done and we headed for home through the twilit forests of coastal Georgia. It had been the ultimate statement of “us versus them,” but somehow it left me feeling at odds with myself. Less than a week from my twenty-first birthday, I was frightened to realize how far I’d already come from love and idealism and the will to change things to anger, frustration, and a cynicism that increasingly bordered on desperation. I saw this in my friends, also. It cut us off from one another, and when the urgency of our common mission brought us together, it set us in opposition to the rest of the world.
I knew my days as an eco-extremist were done. What I didn’t know then was that I was coming up against a shadow so basic to the character of modern environmentalism, it would take me more than a decade to find my way out from under it. That everywhere my path would take me as a young activist in the coming years - from a lonely bio-dynamic cooperative in the farmlands of rural Missouri to the networked high-rises of the San Francisco nonprofit world - I was walking down a well-worn track toward a dead end. It was only one day last spring, in fact, that I finally figured out what was wrong and what to do about it. That was the day a book called "Worldchanging" came across my desk and made me proud to call myself an environmentalist again.
If you bleed green like I do, you may also be under the wings of a shadow so close to you, it’s difficult to see. This blind spot has less to do with the environment and more to do with how we perceive it - and how we perceive ourselves. To me, the most pivotal environmental issue we’re faced with is not climate change or hunger or biodiversity or deforestation or genetic engineering or any of those things. It is an issue that is going to determine what we do about it all: our deeply felt ambivalence toward the human race and our presence here on planet Earth.
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About the author:
Ross Robertson, Senior Editor, joined EnlightenNext's editorial staff in 2003. With a BA in Creative Writing and Ecology from Emory University and an MFA in Creative Writing from Naropa University, he brings with him a studied dedication to the art of the written word. But perhaps more significantly, he adds the perspective of an observant and insightful Gen-Xer to the editorial team.
Before joining EnlightenNext Magazine, Robertson worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in San Francisco, applying his study of conservation biology to various environmental projects. As part of his tenure there, he helped produce the proposals for the Giant Sequoia National Monument proclaimed by President Clinton in 2000, preserving 328,000 acres for these three-thousand-year-old trees and other wildlife.
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