“Education, I fear, is learning to see one thing by going blind to another.”
~Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
It’s hard to be an optimist when you work with environmental issues. That’s the story line that I hear anyway. It became the basis of such a common question in my environmental science courses – ‘how can you teach this course and not be completely depressed?’ students would ask – that I began to interject empowerment clauses throughout the semester to stop students from becoming despondent. My final lecture is now a discourse on optimism and possibility and is probably the antithesis of anything you might expect by way of concluding a semester spent groveling in the wastewater of civilization.
The more we learn, the more we fear we have lost our innocence. That’s the way it seems with environmental issues. Rather than feeling empowered by our new perspective and understanding, the inclination is to throw up our hands. We are outside of the proverbial cave, but dammit, it was better in there. Not that our innocence ever gave us much advantage, but the more we know, the more we are burdened with responsibility, which is I think the crux of the pessimistic attitude toward the environment.
I had the idea recently that I would Google good news about the environment. As it turns out, unlike most things you can search for on the web, especially puppies, there are not many things that come up if you search for uplifting envirnonmental news. Most of what is shared in the media is negative, which is off-putting to the general population. Of course it’s going to make people antagonistic to the environmental cause. Don’t environmentalists ever have anything good to say? A good source of positive news could work wonders. But it so happens that much of what is newsworthy is not good news at all.
It then occurred to me that needing to hear something good because we are exhausted by the constant bad news is a really arrogant and self-righteous approach to take. The fact of the matter is that the good news is all around us. I mean, it’s the environment. It’s only the thing that keeps us alive, gives us air to breathe and water to drink and food to nourish our self-centered souls, right?
Is the bigger problem not that we have lost an appreciation and a sense of wonder with what is around us? What’s the good news? The good news hits you in the face when you wake up in the morning, and when you step outside and when you gaze up to the stars at night. Sure it would be nice to hear things like, ‘everyone is adopting renewable energy and the water is cleaner than ever before,’ but the reality is that we have to talk about the war on coal, and Flint. Be careful about holding environmentalists accountable for the bad news. Look to your politicians and corporate leaders for that.
In the meantime, breathe deep, step outside, take in the view. It’s a wonderfully gorgeous and delicious world out there.
Extinction is negative – one of our worst impacts, for the most part an irretrievable loss. But shouldn’t it make us rejoice in our good fortune to still live on a planet populated by thousands of diverse species, and maybe suggest some audacious notion that we could stop the onslaught of extirpation?
Should we think it’s all bad news that chlorpyrifos is now unregulated? Or should we rejoice that the planet has the resilience to have withstood the chemical assault of the past 70 years and tell ourselves that there is still time and there is another way? The news, bad though it may be, might just be one the most incredibly empowering prospects when coupled with environmental literacy and a deep appreciation for our biosphere. And so, I humbly submit my positive news about the environment. It mostly comes by way of outlining itineraries that will get my students to the most incredible places I have been and highlighting wonderful places to encounter nature, unfettered, and unencumbered. Go to those place, and as with Muir, have your spirit rejuvenated.