Sometimes bumping into a single piece of information can wake a person up to the plight of our world. This awareness came to me a few months after my son Dylan was born. In the warm comfort of our living room on a New England winter evening, I sat reading statistics on the decline of the world’s coral reefs. Glancing over at the face of my infant son as he slept in his mother’s arms, I imagined the world that he is to inherit. Those dying reefs suddenly did not feel far away—or so far in the future.
I was stunned to learn that, while estimates differ, in a few decades—or maybe even fewer—the coral reefs could be virtually gone. Coral reefs are a life support system not only for themselves, but also for the three hundred million people whose sustenance depends on the seafood harvested in the waters they inhabit. We will not only have to cope with the loss of an entire habitat teeming with life—we will be staring right in the face of a global food-source collapse.
Events that many of us imagined would not threaten children until future generations are occurring even as we sit down to our dinner.
This recognition ushered in a series of sleepless nights. I lay awake as images crowded my mind: the seas filled with more specks of plastic than krill; axes and torches leaving stumps as they progressed through the Amazon rainforest, our “lungs of the earth”; and much closer to home, fewer and fewer songbirds on the branches of our own neighborhood trees. Grieving over all this loss, I wondered, If what is happening is so utterly different than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes, how do I live in the face of such loss?
My wakeful nights did not serve my family, or the world. My heart would pound so hard in my chest that my wife Liza would feel it through the mattress and then she, too would lay awake.
In the midst of this despair, a friend emailed me “The Peace of Wild Things” by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water,
and I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I took the poem’s advice to heart. When I found myself awake, I would walk to the end of our street and continue into the woods. Sometimes the trail would be lit only by starlight. Feeling my body surrounded by so much life calmed my galloping heart.
One morning, as dawn arrived, I strolled into a nearby meadow. With each step rose a blur of hundreds of Ruby Meadowhawk dragonflies, which settled back down only to rise again as I took another step. As I watched the alarmed flapping of one of these graceful creatures escaping my shoe, I realized that I was not big enough to hold these questions alone, that I needed the help of others.
So I asked people how they were coping with the ongoing flood of news from the receding edges of nature. The more people I asked, the more I realized that I was not alone in asking. During my travels to teach in different parts of the world, I increasingly heard similar questions. A woman in Helsinki phrased it this way:
If our world is really looking down the barrel of an environmental catastrophe, how do I live my life right now?
One woman responded to this question by fluttering her hands (a flutter that I now recognize goes with issues too big to imagine): “With so much stress in our everyday lives, how can we think about that?”
Some people were adept at changing the subject. Often they brought up another problem: “My husband never gets home when he says he will” . . . “The clutch on my Chevy keeps giving out” . . . “The IRS is auditing my taxes again.” They shifted the problem to a scale that was imaginable, one that they could wrap their heads around.
When people respond to these questions, I sometimes hear despair. More than once, I was told, “We are just rearranging the chairs on the Titanic.” The desire for practical suggestions is strong for many people; they want to know what they can do. Others express a longing for a spiritual perspective.
My inquiries made me realize the urgent need for thoughtful people to provide reflection, inspiration, and direction. So I sent the question of the Finnish woman to environmentalists, artists, CEO’s, grassroots organizers, religious and indigenous leaders, scientists, and folks who simply are concerned, to hear how they would respond.
The first wave of replies came from people who feel resigned to imminent disaster. One wrote of friends who are stocking caves in the Sierra; of another who grows potatoes on his rooftop as emergency food. One person likened the inflation of our planet’s population to a stock market bubble, due for a big “correction”—and soon. Several of these responses came with the addendum, “Hug your loved ones while you still have the chance.”
And then responses trickled in from people taking time in their lives to seek remedies. Some were gathering with their neighbors to build sustainability groups; others had started grass roots organizations; still others were negotiating a closer marriage between science and public policy. Friends told friends about my query, and soon a flood of people who had meditated on these questions were offering to contribute to this anthology.
I began to sleep better, knowing that so many people care and are taking a stand in their communities for what they feel and know in their hearts. These individuals helped me discover that a major antidote for despair is engagement and participation. Their responses to the question How do I live my life right now? have been compiled into the anthology you now hold in your hands: Hope Beneath Our Feet.
We Have a Choice
Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, demonstrated how the misconceptions and misdeeds of our civilization have put us in a dire predicament. This film clearly shows us that we each have a choice: either we find effective ways to contribute to making changes now, or we will have to sacrifice—with unbearable losses—later.
My family watched the film together. A few days later, Liza and I asked our two teenagers for their reaction. There was a long silence, and then William summed up the movie: “So basically, we’re fucked, right?”
After seeing the film, many people commented that they now needed tools, both practical and spiritual, to handle this new awareness. They wanted more. I could tell that William and his brother Wyatt had been jarred, but they never brought the movie up again. Even so, things started to change in our home. The boys remembered to turn off the lights in rooms that weren’t occupied. They griped less about taking out the compost and separating the recycling. And they became interested in the efforts that Liza and I had been making for three years to lower our carbon footprint.
Walking into the kitchen, I would find them with their friends, assembled around the refrigerator, munching on an after-school snack and peering at the sheet we’d put up to show how actions such as installing energy-efficient appliances, taking shorter showers, and buying a hybrid car had considerably reduced our resource consumption. Water and heating oil: down by thirty-five percent. Gasoline: cut by eighty percent. My airplane business travel: down fifty percent. What surprised our boys was that while they miss the minivan, how little noticeable sacrifice had to be made to produce these savings.
However, when we suggested that they join a sustainability group at school, Wyatt dismissed the idea: “Nope, only the hippies do that.” But when our family bought a share in a local CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm and began to receive a box each week that spilled over with organic produce, the boys held their noses and tried some vegetables they had never set eyes on before. Some lived up to their expectations and others they found surprisingly tasty, especially when cooked in the solar oven.
No one really knows whether this one teenager’s comment after watching An Inconvenient Truth is accurate. The truth is, we might have arrived at the tipping point. What the contributors in this book reveal, however, is that if enough of us lean together in the right direction, our trajectory can change; we do have the ability to alter the course of events. We have to make this effort—because the alternative is unthinkable.
The only way we are going to make it is if everyone contributes to the many remedies needed. And the good news is: The world has never given us such a vital opportunity to both find our contribution and to offer it.
We only need to turn on the evening news to hear the litany of what is wrong around us. In these essays and meditations, you will not find a catalog of despair. This book is an invitation to move beyond merely coping into actively engaging.
When I sent out the initial requests for writings, I did not know what form the book would take. I didn’t know that it would become an invitation, a challenge, a spur, for each reader—for you—to find your particular ways to contribute. The authors describe myriad approaches to finding the drive and passion and will to stand up for our world. Through their eyes, we discover that our solutions are as multifaceted as our problems, making room for each of us to weigh in with our own style. Your approach may be through science, advocating for legislation, chaining yourself to a tree, or simply starting conversations. You might have a skill that can support the good work of others. Most likely, your part will include simply lowering your own consumption of our Earth’s resources.
Hopefully you will hear more than a few voices within these pages that speak directly to you. I invite you to seek them out.
Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen show simple ways to make a difference, literally in your own back yard. Jeneane Prevatt and Ann Rozencrantz connect us to an indigenous wisdom with our feet in the natural world. Several authors, including Barbara Kingsolver, demonstrate that what we eat is a form of activism. Frances Moore Lappé, John Horgan, and Margaret Trost demonstrate that your actions indeed send out ripples that have influence. John Connley shows us how an intimate connection with the Santium River can shape a life. And Derrick Jenson lets us know in no uncertain terms why there is no time to wait.
Not everybody here agrees with each other, nor should they. But their generosity is born of a passion to see all of us meet the challenge—together. Some have been laboring for decades, trying to wake people up to the reality of what we are doing to our world and ourselves. They grasp the shocking details of our situation—yet for the most part these people are filled with joy, if not hope, for the ingenuity and initiative that people are capable of. These individuals are not living in isolation; they’ve learned to balance struggle with celebration.
It’s worth saying again: They have found the antidote for despair in participation.
The authors’ work “on the ground” gives testimony that responsible engagement reconnects us to the world of which we are a part. In this book, you will also encounter a Malaysian Hairy Rhino, an assortment of sea slugs, and the Great Barrier Reef. We can thrive on the body of this earth only when we stop seeing the earth and its inhabitants as separate from ourselves and our survival. Every living being is part of the remedy.
None of us knows for sure which side of the tipping point we are on. But I imagine that you share with me the desire to look back at the end of our lives and feel that we have lived each moment fully engaged, knowing that we’ve each contributed our small share. To do this, we need the humility to recognize that we are not going to figure this out by ourselves. So much of what we face is unfathomable. We need to develop the capacity to reach out to one another, and to call on something intangible beyond ourselves.
I invite you to read on—and to create your own project of hope. In ways you cannot even imagine, what you do matters and makes a difference for us all.