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The Nightmare of Sustainability

from a Chapel Talk given on Earth Day, 2009

This is one of those things that sounded like a better idea a few weeks ago than it did last night. Especially since Morillo already did the procrastination talk. Also, this is ultimately a talk about habitat and this is not my preferred habitat so there is a level of discomfort there too. Generally the only time I’m at this place is to give money to biology students at Awards Chapel. My plan has been to give one chapel talk every 30 years and so far I’m right on schedule.

I’m here to celebrate Earth Day. And to suggest that the environmental movement is in danger of losing its way. And to offer you the opportunity to do something about it.  Saturday we will dedicate the Bachner Nature Reserve on Sugar Creek. Mike Bachner, class of 1970, discovered Sugar Creek as a high school senior on a visit to the College and was hooked for life. For the next 40 years Sugar Creek was his preferred habitat, the place that sustained him. It’s that kind of connection to a place, to a habitat, that we’re in danger of losing.

Let me begin with a few words for the Students for Sustainability because I’m going to say some harsh things about sustainability. My title is not entirely ironic. But I want to say before the SFS guys get up and leave that I value highly what you do and why you do it. And that action for sustainability is in fact essential. I hope by the end you’ll see the title and my comments in the larger perspective I intend.

So, the nightmare of sustainability. We’ll begin with the trivial. It’s an ugly word. No poet was ever grateful for the word sustainability. If, instead of “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, Thoreau had written, “In sustainability is the preservation of the world”, we would not still be reading him today.

My real concern is what I’m seeing as the transformation of the environmental movement thanks to this word. So, what is this nightmare?

I’ll work my way toward that in the next few paragraphs the way I have myself over the last few weeks. This whole issue of sustainability was somewhere in the back of my mind. Actually more like a small stone in my shoe—nagging but only peripherally in my consciousness.

The spark for admitting the stone was there was a casual conversation with Steve Charles and a few email exchanges about dreams and the wilderness. I found myself thinking about dreaming and wilderness and the word “termitarium” kept popping into my head. This is not a word I use very often (almost never) and so it seemed odd. 

A termitarium is a termite nest. You’ve seen these things on TV—giant mounds in Africa or Australia, that house hundreds of thousands of termites. They’re usually shown with an Aborigine or an African standing next to them for scale.

But there was that word, burping into my consciousness at odd moments. Eventually it was annoying enough that I actually thought about it and finally connected the dots and found the source. It traced back to Wallace Stegner’s Wilderness Letter, written long ago in support of the Wilderness Act. This document was a key element in the history of the environmental movement. In it Stegner articulated, beautifully I think, his thoughts on the value of wilderness. Here’s the key passage. 

“Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence, so that never again will Americans be free in their own country from the noise, the exhausts, the stinks of human and automotive waste. And so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it. Without any remaining wilderness we are committed wholly, without chance for even momentary reflection and rest, to a headlong drive into our technological termite-life, the Brave New World of a completely man-controlled environment.”

So there it is. The termitarium and my nightmare.

Stegner gives us a dichotomy—wilderness and the brave new world of a completely human-controlled environment. Think about them as ends of a spectrum and let me talk about these two extremes.

A dangerous transformation is underway. If you read the “green literature” these days, sustainability is the holy grail. Sustainable energy. Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable ecotourism. Sustainable water use. Sustainable pest control.  And the way to achieve this is clear: it’s technology—wind farms, electric cars, CF lightbulbs, tertiary water treatment, desalinization, an endless list of technological solutions. But solutions to what? To the fact that there are too many of us. And there will soon be many, many more. Clearly we need to figure out how to sustain all these folks. The termitarium is the ultimate in sustainable living—homeostatic, fully recycling, self-contained—perfect. If you’re a termite. But essential to their approach is separation from the rest of the natural world—and thus you can see the outlines and shapes of my nightmare.

Of course, we need to adopt sustainable practices. To illustrate how and why, let me digress to a bit of history to make the point. Yesterday was Earth Day. The first, celebrated with much fanfare, occurred in 1970. Many things led to the concept and the dedication to the environment it was intended to highlight. But one event is illustrative. In June, 1969 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. The river was so polluted with organics that it actually caught fire. This is not a trivial problem when the fire boats pump river water to put out fires. Among the results of this event (plus a number of others) was the first Earth Day, The Clean Water Act, and the EPA. So, the gift of my generation to yours is urban rivers that are no longer flammable. You’re welcome. It was the least we could do. Really, it was the least we could do.

Talk about picking the low fruit.

In 1969 there were just about 4 billion people on earth. Today there are more than 6 billion. You will live in a world with 9 billion. In that context, sustainability seems pretty important and it is. But remember how we’re talking about this. Biofuels, a smart energy grid, hybrids, compressed natural gas, biochar, carbon credits, wind farms—the conversation is entirely technological. We’re designing a termitarium to house 9 billion people. And what is the implicit goal: to give up nothing.

What is the object of the verb sustain in this context? In the current conversation it is not the planet, not our spiritual health, but an economy and a lifestyle. The futurists and technologists tell us we can do this. We can feed, and house, and power a world of 9 billion and give up nothing. In this brave new sustainable world, environmentalism requires no more from us than adoption of the latest technical fix for the consequences of doing whatever the hell we feel like doing. We no longer have to have the grown-up conversations about difficult choices, values, and our proper relationship with the natural world. That things like a smart energy grid and conscientious recycling and high speed rail are the solution is the convenient lie that will lead us into the termitarium.

The great environmental failure of my generation is abandoning the issue of population. It’s a tough one. It’s a tough one because two things are true. One thing that’s true is that we hold reproductive rights to be among the most fundamental human rights. No one should dictate whether or not you should have children, or how many, or what sexes, or at what age. Another thing that’s true is that if we don’t limit the growth of the human population you will live with more than 9 billion other people. Think about a world of 9 billion people. Multiply every environmental problem you can think of by a factor of 1.5. My generation left this problem to you. You need to find a way to reconcile those two truths and you’d better do it soon. We’re adding 85 million people a year. That’s approximately a new United States about every four years. And you if you look at the numbers, you can’t just pass that off to China and India. In 2050 you will find a much more difficult world in which to live humanely unless you start judging thoughtfully and acting effectively very, very soon.

I think there is another issue that is part of this transformation of the environmental movement. Sustainability increasingly is coming to be about power. Not electrical power but power over nature. The Mississippi is in flood. Build more dams and higher levees. Phoenix has no water, re-route the Yukon River (this is not a joke it’s a serious proposal). I’ve written elsewhere about living with the Earth instead of against the Earth. That’s an idea that goes back to the very beginnings of the modern environmental movement—the sense that we are not in fact separate from the Earth but part of the larger ecosystem. This leads to the notion that what we do to the earth, we do to ourselves.  For everyone from Aldo Leopold to Terry Tempest Williams, the conversation has centered on seeing ourselves connected to each other and to the earth. But the essence of the termitarium is separation, and thus power and control. It is in this sense that sustainability is the height of arrogance and the epitome of selfishness, yet another dimension of the convenient lie.

Now, Stegner argues for a radically different alternative: the wilderness ideal. And it is time to be hard on that as well. The argument is that if we lose those wildest places “something will have gone out of us as a people”. Yes it will. But here’s the thing. The Wilderness Act protects remote scraps of rock and ice. Places of high scenic value and high adventure for those willing and able to partake in wilderness sport. Places most people never go.

Now, I should tell you all this has been personally important to me. Over the past 40 years I have spent on average 1 night in 10 in wilderness somewhere. The list is long—big mountains, remote rivers, high latitude, high altitude, desert, Alaska, Patagonia, Greenland, Antarctica, the Yukon, every major mountain range in North and South America. I’ve spent a lot of time above 15,000 feet. I’ve been out for weeks without seeing another person besides my wife. In fact, our honeymoon was a 300 mile canoe trip in northern Canada. There is an unfinished sea kayak in my barn for which I have big plans. I put a very high value on these wilderness experiences.

Now that my best climbs are behind me my perspective has changed some.

Yes, these places are still important and even though I’ll never climb Cerro Torre it’s important to know it’s there and it’s pristine. That is part of the wilderness ideal. But I also realize with age that those wilderness and mountain trips were in some sense a false ideal.  When I was young I was adamant that they were essential to a life well-lived—for the lessons I learned, for the peace that I found there, “the chance to see myself single, separate, vertical and individual in the world…and competent to belong in it”. Wilderness sustained me then, as it still does today. But I’m coming to imagine that in some way it is false sustenance. I would do any of it again tomorrow if I could but I think I’d think about it differently.

Let me tell two stories that will lead to my point.

When I was in college I did a couple of wilderness canoe trips with a friend, Jim Anderson. One summer we decided to drive to the end of the northern-most road in Ontario and take off by canoe to see how far we could get in three weeks. It was an epic trip. We had 30 mile days and spectacular camps. And some not so spectacular.

One night we ended up in a swamp at dark with no solid ground anywhere and so spent the night in the canoe. Most of our food was dried stuff, pretty boring so we decided to take one meal of canned stew as a luxury—to have on either the best or worst night of the trip. As we passed through the last town we blew through the grocery store, grabbing a few last minute items including two cans of stew. A couple of weeks into the trip we were camped on a beautiful little island with a sloping granite beach. The moon was rising and the loons were calling. We’d decided this was the day for our luxury meal. I was building a small cooking fire and Jim was sitting on a log. As he picked up one of the cans he said, “I’ve been looking forward to this all day”. Pause. “I wonder why they put a picture of a german shepherd on the can”. First ingredient: horse meat. We were ok with that. But the second ingredient was “horse trimmings”.

Jim quietly put the can down and picked up his fishing rod. “No rush on that fire”.

A second story.

Not too many years ago Sheryl and I were in Alaska to climb Mt Michelson. Michelson is a remote, beautiful, and technically interesting peak in the Brooks Range. It’s hard to get to—a couple of commercial flights, a long bush plane flight, then four days of hard hiking. So we carried minimal climbing gear, just ice axes, crampons, and a rope. None of the ice screws or other gear we eventually wished we had.

The first part of the climb is straightforward. But the summit ridge is a knife-edge that drops 1500 feet on both sides to the glacier. And the ridge itself is at about 50 degrees. Worse, it was boilerplate ice so you’d kick your crampons in as hard as you could and the points would go in about an 1/8 of an inch. If either of us fell, the other would never be able to hold the fall. If one of use went off one side, the only solution was for the other to jump off the other side. This would create a new problem but was better than the alternative.

But jumping off the other side is not exactly the intuitive move. We got to the summit and it was so narrow, we just turned around in our tracks and Sheryl led down. We got into the worst place and my crampon came loose from my boot. I’ve got my ice ax in one hand, I’m standing on one foot and trying to get my crampon back on with my free hand. Sheryl couldn’t even turn around to watch. This all seemed like an eternity. Finally, in a calm, loving voice she said, “Why don’t you get that fucking crampon back on your fucking boot?”  In a calm, loving voice I said, “Thanks, I hadn’t fucking thought of that”.

We obviously got down but when we did, that crampon was on so tightly I had to cut it off.

Two stories from many. But telling them here is self-indulgent and self-centered. And there is the point—wilderness experiences are ultimately selfish. These stories have humor and other values but like everything that’s ever been written about climbing and the wilderness, the subtext is: “Look what I did”. Wilderness is a respite from an environment going to hell but let’s not fool ourselves that standing on the summit of Mt McKinley is important to anyone other than the climber.

I can make all the arguments for taking care of wilderness—as a reflection of our attitude toward nature and for the genuine ecological value of those places.

And yes, we need to be vigilant. Every time gas goes up a nickel a gallon, someone starts yammering about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And too many people seem incapable of enjoying nature without the assistance of an internal combustion engine—and these folks persistently have designs on the Boundary Waters Canoe country, the Escalante Wilderness, and the High Sierra. But the other reason to move our attention from this end of the spectrum is that I think wilderness is going to be ok. Here I’m an optimist. Wilderness has powerful, affluent, politically savvy proponents. You’ll have sufficient wilderness for all the adventure you want.

I think we need to shift our focus from these far ends of the spectrum, that is, wilderness and sustainability, to think about here. As I said, the proportion of my life spent in wild places puts me pretty far out there on the bell curve, yet I’m here 90% of the time. And “here” is getting paved over. At the rate of 12 acres an hour in Indiana. 12 football fields every hour of every day, 365 days a year. We’re laying the asphalt and concrete foundation for the termitarium.

“Here” is the natural habitat where we really live. This is the habitat that actually sustains each of us--Pine Hills, Sugar Creek, Allee Woods, the Lye Creek Burn, Spinn Prairie, the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife area, the Bachner Nature Reserve. These are the places that sustain us in ways that neither a smart energy grid nor the Ansel Adams Wilderness ever can. Every acre that Niches land trust protects in Central Indiana does two things—it filters the water we eventually drink—a more efficient method of sustainability than any human technology—and it gives us one more place to feel the actual earth, what Aldo Leopold called, “the dark and bloody ground”, under our feet. Every protection the Friends of Sugar Creek promotes, does more to sustain the physical environment than any ethanol plant AND ensures that the creek will continues to do for all of us what it did for Mike Bachner.

So, this leads me to an infomercial. What are you doing Saturday? As you know by now, Saturday morning at 10AM  the Friends of Sugar Creek and Niches Land Trust will dedicate the Bachner Nature Reserve on Sugar Creek. And immediately after we will begin reforesting the land, re-creating the original habitat, by planting 5400 trees on the site. It’s truly a shovel-ready environmental project. We’ll plant all day Saturday and all day Sunday until they’re all in the ground. These are little trees—it takes about a minute to plant one. If it’s just Doug Calisch and me—well, you can do the math. But a community, especially one that includes a bunch of strong-backed 20-somethings, can put a lot of trees in the ground. Come and plant 5 or 10 or 50 or 100. Every tree one of you guys plants is 1mg less Ibuprofen I’ll have to take next week. And for those in our community who do not feel “shovel ready”, there are other parts of the process—trimming the roots for example, that don’t require you to break a sweat.

Sustainability and wilderness—each is necessary, neither is sufficient. Don’t be seduced by the false ideal of sustainability. Don’t confuse life and living. Sustainability is actually a grand idea but it’s becoming no more than a technical fix for problems with far deeper causes and consequences. The Students for Sustainability understand this and they’re doing something about it. Find that place that sustains you day in and day out, body and mind and spirit, your preferred habitat.  Protect it; restore it—and it will do the same for you.