Like many, I was paying attention when news of global climate change first broke, when the science of air, water, and food pollution was young and appalling even then, when the income gap between workers and management began to grow at an alarming rate. I trusted that because the information was out there, everyone else would also pay attention and solve the problems and change the world as I was trying to do.
I worked in the field of environmental education for years, and did my best to awaken the minds of an ignorant public about many of these issues, along with the slaughter and imminent extinction of large mammals like elephants and rhinos for their horns, the magnificent great apes for bush meat, and illegal trade in endangered birds and reptiles. I also tried to teach people awareness about concepts as simple as not dropping their cigarette butts in the arid desert or dry forests, where pollution at best and catastrophic fires at worst could result. I became disillusioned and depressed over time, finding that people, at least the people I was directly trying to reach, were not responding. Was my approach flawed? Or was it just supreme stupidity and hubris in our species? Or something in between, simple laziness and self-absorption?
I moved to this valley twenty-two years ago to work a volunteer job as an intern at the High Country News for three months, and like a handful of interns over the years, chose to stay here rather than pursue the next item on my agenda, which happened to be graduate school. Instead I turned my focus toward building my own home and learning to grow my own food. I took the first steps in a continuing journey to cultivate peace of mind and equanimity, to live with compassion in an increasingly hostile world.
I admit it. I became a misanthrope, a hermit, and eventually a Buddhist. Yes, I know, the misanthrope isn’t compatible with Buddhism, but living mindfully is a struggle and my hateful feelings about the human species are diminishing with constant practice in compassion. And for a Buddhist to start every paragraph with the word I is indeed ironic. But now I am merely discouraged, disgusted, and disillusioned with myself. The me that turned away from education and activism, trusting that younger, stronger voices would carry on the work, that the tide would change with our accumulated efforts, that slaughter of rhinos would stop, that demolition of rain forests would slow, that the extractive industries on which our greed-based economy that fuels pollution, inequality and war would die out in favor of alternative energy sources, that climate change, which is a fact and our fault as a species, would be gotten under control. Because the news was out! The information was there, here, and now that people knew we would surely change.
My initial crisis of despair came when it became crystal clear to me that none of this mattered to most humans. That we simply didn’t care, and it wasn’t going to change, and we as a species, and the planet as a result, were doomed.
Then I took some comfort in geological time, in the idea that we may die out as a species, but that the planet over enough time, eras and ages, would heal, new species would arise, life would go on on this elegant blue marble spinning through the galaxy, with us or without us. Twenty, thirty years later, much to my dismay, it seems we are capable even of endangering that, with radioactive disasters and chemical aberrations and toxic spills; we are capable even of destroying life on this planet. Who can say that Mars didn’t once support life which got too stupid for its own good?
Many of my friends are a generation older than I am. One of them told me once, talking about this subtle World War III in which we are engaged, that she couldn’t help but feel it might have been averted if she had done more herself. Really? I thought. You couldn’t have changed it by yourself. But now I look at people who are still trying, after all these years, still fighting the good fight, like Bill McKibben, Amy Goodman, and countless others, and I understand what she was saying. Maybe if I hadn’t stilled my voice twenty years ago, turned to a life of silent reflection, seeking only inner peace and equanimity, I could have made a bigger difference. Maybe her and my voices together, along with all these others, might have tipped the scale.
Another friend has worked his entire life in the field of conservation. At seventy-seven, he has just learned that his latest endeavor has caught the eye of a billionaire. His dream may soon come into a huge amount of money to make it a reality. I told him it makes me ashamed that I gave up on the movement all those years ago out of pure despair.
I quietly built a house of non-toxic ingredients and powered it with the sun. I gave up my all-wheel drive vehicle in favor of a little Honda civic that got, at the time, the best gas mileage available outside of a hybrid which cost too much. I live a low-impact life with a small ecological footprint. I’ve put 155 acres of land including old-growth piñon juniper forest and a half-mile of wild canyon into a conservation easement, which theoretically will be protected in perpetuity. At least for as long as people are able to keep alive the legal entity that protects it.
But what does the future hold for this one piece of land? For this planet? Why won’t our species accept the hard truths and make the difficult, in some cases selfless changes that are required to save it from certain doom? Despite the hard work and eloquent voices of activists in the conservation, equality, and anti-war movements across the planet, the extinction of elephants, rhinos, and tigers is near certain and countless other less charismatic species have already vanished in this sixth great extinction, caused solely by a complex of human behaviors; income inequality has soared to a truly staggering gap and bigotry continues across the spectrum of human differences; and the war that began with 9/11 spreads and festers insidiously, province by country, across the world, spawning atrocities against untold millions, even billions, of human lives, from murderous drones and gassings to the abolition of privacy.
Why do greed and intolerance continue to cause such misery for our own species and so many others across the globe? Why, in the face of science and realization do we not make the necessary changes in our behavior? What kind of monsters are we?