Robert Shetterly on Inspiring and Empowering New Generations to Save the Planet

Robert Shetterly on Inspiring and Empowering New Generations to Save the Planet

Action in the name of life transforms. Because the relationship between oneself and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of illuminating or saving oneself first and then acting. As we work to heal the land, the land heals us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer

I was recently invited to speak with college students about environmental degradation and climate change, I arrived with a cast of supporting portraits – all from this book – to reinforce my positions using wisdom and l integrity of the portraits, their determined activism. Sitting in a circle, surrounded by the portraits, as if in orbit around ancient sages, I asked the students to tell me what they knew about the state of the environment.

Swift with authoritative facts, they listed: the relentless rise in parts per million of CO2, the danger of methane, acidification of the oceans, the creeping rise of the sea which intensifies the ferocity of storms, the loss of habitat , species extinction, melting glaciers, droughts, fires, floods, crop failures, plastic vortices, refugees, famine, migrations, diseases.

This handful of small-town Maine middle school kids recited, as calmly as reading a laundry list, as precisely as scientists, the range of urgent crises, as if describing the lit and hissing fuse of a bomb. They knew the inexorable logic of tipping points. I was impressed. Smart kids. Knowledge can give the impression of being above a problem. But then I asked them how they felt on this subject. One by one, around the circle, as if going around the globe, everyone said, “Terrified. The light of knowledge, but the darkness of fear.

Insistent activism by young people armed with the truth may be the thing that will save their future on this planet.

These facts are frightening. It is crucial that we name them, that we don’t try to deny them, and that we don’t try to shield our children from them. Protecting children from the truth is a betrayal of them; the insistent activism of young people armed with the truth may be the thing that will save their future on this planet. And these young people have another fact to face, a fact omitted from their list, as important as the ppm of CO2, which is that the adults, in positions of power – governmental, corporate, academic and media – who have known for many decades about the environmental facts that are accumulating, have done more to dismiss and obscure them than to improve them. This malignant negligence protected power and profit, not children.

Sit with this thought, that do! Sometimes, the most determining fact is not that revealed by a scientist, but that observed by a child: the insufficient response to the alert. For a sustainable community, the most important function of government is to secure the future by protecting the environment. As we attempt to assess the damage caused, the damage being fact, how do we frame it? A tragedy? A crime? Words fail; they cannot quantify the magnitude.

The circled students heard their collective fear, a fear intensified by their precise sense that irresponsible adults don’t deal with crises. But not all adults. I made them discover the portraits. I told them about Rachel Carson, the fish and wildlife scientist who began in the early 1960s to explain to the world that the insecticides and pesticides used on farms and in yards were persistent, did not die when their target insects died.

These chemicals continued to poison people, water, animals and ecosystems long after people thought they were gone. Carson’s position as a scientist has been loudly dismissed by misogynistic chemical companies. They vilified her because her revelations impacted their huge profits; but she did not back down. Pesticide regulation was instituted because of its scientific truth and the courage to back it up. A committed adult forced government regulators to act.

Then I told them about Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student who, in 2008, heard that fragile, pristine public land in southern Utah was about to be sold. auctioned off to fossil fuel companies for oil, gas and coal exploration. Only exploration, let alone development, could destroy these ecosystems. Tim, posing as an oil speculator, halted the auction, was arrested, eventually spent two years in jail for fraud, but saved the land and became a hero of the environmental and climate movements. He proved, once again, that nonviolent 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 doctrine of public trust, insisting that environmental and climate policy be aligned with the precepts of science, that science, not oil companies and politicians, determine how quickly we will end the use of fossil fuels. The lawsuit argues that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness mean little in a toxic environment. This case is still before the courts and will be extremely important if successful. In the meantime, the young plaintiffs have successfully used their case as a platform to inform the public about the urgency of eliminating CO2 emissions.

We marveled at Diane Wilson, the high school-educated shrimp captain from Seadrift, Texas, who worked for thirty years to expose the pollution that some of the world’s most powerful industries — Dow Chemical, Formosa Plastics, Alcoa Aluminum — were pouring out. illegally in the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning fish, making people sick, destroying the fishing industry. Despite corporate bullying, Diane never gave up. She found imaginative ways to expose and sue the companies and won huge reparations deals. She also pushed through a zero landfill law in Texas.

Children who have agency generate hope. The same way photosynthesis feeds a tree.

And we talked about Robin Wall Kimmerer whose work as an indigenous botanist and storyteller convinces many people to practice a non-exploitative life, in harmony with nature and based on gratitude and reciprocity. We considered the irony that the Europeans arrived here in search of religious freedom and wealth, had tried to eradicate the natives so they could have it all for themselves, and were now appealing to the wisdom of the natives to help them survive.

After examining these passionate defenders of earthly justice – a scientist/writer, a student/activist, a plaintiff in a lawsuit, a determined shrimp boat captain, an indigenous philosopher/botanist – I asked the middle school students how they felt. Still terrified? We walked around the circle. “Inspired!” said a girl. “Optimistic!” said another. ” Authorized ! they said together.

The precarious state of the world reminds me of James Baldwin saying, “People who turn a blind eye to reality simply invite their own destruction…” The first of all the tools needed to save us from our own destruction is to teach reality in our schools. Start with the reality of our place in nature, the need to live by the laws of nature. This relationship is the essential lesson taught on day one in every classroom on Earth.

And, second, while teaching the truth about our dire situation, show how young people can be empowered to effect change. Teaching the components of the crisis without teaching the solutions is cruel. So teach Powerful-who has it now and how to get it. Our children, for good reason, are anxious, depressed and close to despair, feeling helpless waiting for adults to act. Teaching empowerment is teaching hope. Children who have agency generate hope. The same way photosynthesis feeds a tree.

Study the portraits in this book, read their quotes, reflect on what these truth tellers have done. Promote it to children. Enroll them as teachers. Protect your watershed. Take plastic packaging out of your stores. Demand solar panels on the roof of your school. Stop the sale of toxic pesticides. Grow and eat organic food. Insist on electric public transport. Save endangered habitats. Protest against all policies favoring short-term profit over long-term living.

Work together.

Save the world.


Extract of Portraits of Earthly Justice: Americans Who Speak the Truth by Robert Shetterley. Copyright © 2022. Available from New Village Press, an imprint of NYU Press.

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