Robert Shetterly on Inspiring and Empowering New Generations To Save the Planet ‹ Literary Hub

Action on behalf of life transforms. Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.
Robin Wall Kimmerer
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I was invited recently to talk with middle school students about environmental degradation and climate change, I arrived with a supportive cast of portraits—all from this book—to bolster my positions using the portraits’ wisdom and integrity, their determined activism. Sitting in a circle, surrounded by the portraits, as though orbited by wise elders, I asked the students to tell me what they knew about the environment’s condition.

Quick with authoritative facts, they listed: the relentless uptick in parts per million of CO2, the danger of methane, acidification of the oceans, the sea’s creeping rise which intensifies the ferocity of storms, habitat loss, species extinctions, melting glaciers, droughts, fires, floods, crop failures, plastic vortexes, refugees, starvation, migrations, diseases.

This handful of kids from one middle school in a small town in Maine recited, as calmly as reading a laundry list, as accurately as scientists, the range of exigent crises, as though describing the lit and hissing fuse of a bomb. They knew the inexorable logic of tipping points. I was impressed. Smart kids. Knowledge can make one feel on top of an issue. But then I asked them how they were felt about it. One by one, around the circle, like circling the globe, each said, “Terrified.” The light of knowledge, yet the darkness of fear.

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

These facts are frightening. It’s crucial we name them, that we don’t try to deny them and don’t try to shield our children from them. Shielding children from the truth is a betrayal of them; persistent activism by young people armed with the truth may be the thing that saves their future on this planet. And these young people have another fact to contend with, a fact left off their list, as significant as the ppm of CO2, which is that adults, in positions of power—governmental, corporate, academic and media-based—who have known for many decades the accumulating environmental facts, have done more to dismiss and obscure them than ameliorate them. That malignant neglect has protected power and profit, not children.

Sit with that thought, that fact! Sometimes the most determinative fact is not one revealed by a scientist, but one observed by a child: the insufficient response to warning. For a sustainable community, the most important function of government is to secure the future by protecting the environment. Nor do we attempt to weigh the damage done, the damage being done, 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 accurate sense that irresponsible adults are not grappling with the crises. But not all adults. I introduced them to the portraits. I told them about Rachel Carson, the Fish and Wildlife scientist, who began in the early 1960s explaining to the world that the insecticides and pesticides employed on farms and in yards were persistent, did not die when their target insects died.

These chemicals continued poisoning people, water, animals and ecosystems long after people thought they had disappeared. Carson’s standing as a scientist was loudly dismissed by misogynistic chemical companies. They vilified her because her revelations impacted their enormous profits; but she didn’t back down. Pesticide regulations were instituted because of her scientific truth and her courage to stand behind it. One committed adult forced the government’s regulatory agencies into action.

Then I told them about Tim DeChristopher, the University of Utah student 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. Just the exploration, much less the development, could destroy these ecosystems. Tim, posing as an oil speculator, interrupted the auction, was arrested, eventually spent two years in jail for fraud, but saved the lands and became a hero of the environmental and climate movements. He proved, once again, that non-violent civil disobedience is one of the most important tools of any social justice movement.

We talked about Kelsey Juliana, who, in 2015, with twenty young people all under twenty years old, sued the US government under the public trust doctrine, insisting environmental and climate policy be aligned with the dictates of science, that science, not oil companies and politicians, determine how quickly we end the use of fossil fuels. The lawsuit contends that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness mean little in a toxic environment. This case is still in the courts and will be hugely important if successful. In the meantime, the young plaintiffs have succeeded in using their case as a platform for informing the public about the urgency of eliminating CO2 emissions.

We marveled at Diane Wilson, the high school-educated shrimp boat captain from Seadrift, Texas, who has worked for thirty years to expose pollution that some of the most powerful industries in the world—Dow Chemical, Formosa Plastics, Alcoa Aluminum—were dumping illegally into the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning fish, sickening people, destroying the fishing industry. Despite the intimidation by the corporations, Diane never gave up. She came up with imaginative ways to expose and sue the companies and won huge remedial settlements. She also got a zero discharge law passed in Texas.

Kids with agency generate hope. The same way photosynthesis feeds a tree.

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

After we examined these passionate advocates for Earth 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 schoolers how they felt. Still terrified? We went back around the circle. “Inspired!” said one girl. “Hopeful!” said another. “Empowered!” they said together.

The world’s precarious situation reminds me of James Baldwin saying, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction…” First among all the tools needed to save us from our own destruction is to teach reality in our schools. Begin with the reality of our place in nature, the necessity to live by nature’s laws. That relationship is the essential lesson taught on the first day in every classroom on Earth.

And, second, while teaching the truth of our dire situation, show how young people can acquire the power to effect change. Teaching the components of the crisis without teaching solutions is cruel. So, teach power—who has it now and how to get it. Our children, for good reason, are anxious, depressed, and close to despair, feeling powerless as they wait for adults to act. Teaching access to power is the same thing as teaching hope. Kids with agency generate hope. The same way photosynthesis feeds a tree.

Study the portraits in this book, read their quotes, consider what these truth-tellers have done. Promote them to children. Enlist them even your teachers. Protect your watershed. Get plastic packaging out of your stores. Demand solar panels on your school’s roof. Stop the sale of toxic pesticides. Grow and eat organic food. Insist on electric mass transit. Save endangered habitats. Protest against all policies favoring short-term profit over long-term life.

Work together.

Save the world.

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Excerpted from Portraits of Earth Justice: Americans Who Tell the Truth by Robert Shetterly. Copyright © 2022. Available from New Village Press, an imprint of NYU Press.