Thursday, April 22, 2010

Earth Day

Light-hearted but deadly serious about the need to preserve nature:
Werner Conradie from South Africa, Martin Hussein from Tanzania, Dr. Julian Bayliss from Wales, Dr. Bill Branch from Port Elizabeth South Africa (with the rubber band), Hassan Patel from Malawi, Colin Congdon from Tanzania, and Steve Collins from the African Butterfly Research Institute. They are deep in the forests of Mt Mabu, working to study and preserve this untouched paradise. They are some of my environmental heroes, and long may they and those like them struggle to help save our wild places.

Thank goodness for Google. Without the search engine as my start-up page, Earth Day may have indeed passed me by here on southern tip of Africa. That usually shouldn't matter, because to me, every day is Earth Day. But nevertheless, I am glad to be reminded, because its a great day to give thanks to all those folks who have really made a difference.

Sometimes it is hard working on the front lines of the battle for our trees, our air, and our planet's diversity to realize that we stand as conservationists on the shoulders of giants. So many battles are lost. So many fish are gone. So clear after I traveled up through the Atlantic three years ago on a sailing boat with two friends. Our seas are polluted, our beaches soiled, our migrating birds exist in piles of West African rubbish, our island biodiversity is wiped out. Now I work in forests, and they too are being hammered out of existence. A year ago I worked very hard for a few months trying to save a forest in Malawi. It's gone now too, like so much else. That particular loss rankles because it was so personal. It was the forest behind my spiritual home. If I can't save that, what can I save? But today is a day to sit back, and also see what we have accomplished.

It is important to remember that every single protected area that we have in the world today was a battle to save. Someone wanted to destroy it, so someone had to protect it, and some had to be protected by the president himself. When Teddy Roosevelt as president camped out high in the Sierra with the famous conservationist John Muir for a few nights with just the two of them alone camping under the stars, something changed. Their meeting spawned the first National Park in the whole world, and led to the great system of parks that exist in every country today. But it wasn't easy. Every park was a battle, and for the people who struggled to protect these last outposts of nature, it was often a losing battle. Even Muir failed to save his beloved Hetch-Hetchee valley, but he did save so much else.

I am reading John Muir's book Nature Writings, compiled by The Library of America. It is a timeless snapshot given to me by my father. Written in amazingly modern language and full of feeling and love of his subject, Muir communicates beautifully the answer to the question, why should we save it?

The issues he is discussing, on how growth should happen, whether forests and wild places are intrinsically valuable to our human spirit, the inner workings of the human mind's need to dominate and destroy in the name of growth -these are current issues relating directly to conservation today. It was his impassioned articles in the early 1900s that woke America up to the grand heritage of nature that she was losing in her dash for development. There have been so many like Muir who have dedicated their lives to helping change our behaviour towards our Earth, and it is because of them that we have anything left to save today.

So if, like me, you sometimes despair that all is already lost. That the only nature left in the future will be weeds and weedy species like cockroaches and crows, get a grip. So much has been acheived and there is of course so much more to do, but today there is finally a real groundswell of public interest from around the world. The days of the big oil companies and mining conglomerates deciding environmental policy in the White House are over. Today environmentalism is a unifying factor across the world, with broad based support from conservative Christians to long haired, tree-climbing activists. Our political leaders better take careful stock of that when facing issues like Global Climate Change and the advancement of renewable energy. The battle, in some ways has just really begun, for once the armies are more evenly matched, and despite right-wing howls to the contrary, being green is now not just good for the planet and your conscience, but vital to our national security.

Perspective is sometimes lost, especially for soldiers on the front lines of a battle. The best perspective I have gotten recently was another gift from my Dad, a series called The National Parks, America's Best Idea. Award winning film maker Ken Burns follows the battles around the creation of our National Parks system. It is jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the message is clear. We have this system because dedicated people fought for it, tooth and nail, and sometimes died for it. Each park is a monument to a local success, as is almost every park in the whole world. These protected lands, often saved in the face of overwhelming opposition, are symbols of what we can do when even a few dedicated individulas care. Make this DVD an Earth Day present to yourself and your family, and get inspired by the giants upon who's shoulders we stand.

Today, give thanks to these environmental pioneers and saviours, both past and present. Right now, there are people around the world, making a difference, fighting for every green tree, every coral reef, and their legions are growing. The best way to thank them is to get involved and become the change you want to see.

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