Category Archives: Connecting to Community
In the aftermath of the arrests of Ammon Bundy and others a sort of denouement has overcome me. It is cathartic to see the militants arrested and to see the fiasco in Oregon slowly dissipate. It is tragic that someone died. But in the aftermath of this event one can’t help but see that there were real victims of the stunt pulled by the Bundy brothers, and they are the people of Harney County.
This morning I was going through photos of my oldest son for his school yearbook and the warm memories they conjured mixed with thoughts of residents in Harney County. They are people just like me, with children of their own, trying to make it in life. I can’t seem to stop thinking about them and some of things I have read.
One article that struck me in particular was in The Nation. It took note of the fact that many in Harney County are poor and feel disenfranchised and while none to my knowledge publicly supported the occupation of the refuge, the people were divided and getting torn apart by it.
They didn’t buy the Bundys’ claimed reasons for being there, they didn’t agree with their interpretation of the constitution, but they did understand some of the anger and did worry about the impact the occupation would have on their town and businesses from tourists watching from the outside.
The article ended by saying that after the news worthy events end, no one will pay attention to the poor people left in its wake.
It is a sad state of affairs that the poor have no voice in this country and that it takes poisonous drinking water or the actions of distorted militants to get some attention. Unfortunately, the author of the article is probably right; now that this is winding down, people will move on to other “hot” events and forget about Harney County – and that is tragic.
Over the last couple of weeks I have wondered if there is a way beyond breaking the law to draw attention to problems and I haven’t come up with much. There are the normal routes such as talking to local politicians, but for poor people, there seems to be little else they can do and there seems to be even fewer who care or are willing to go the distance to help. This is perhaps what makes civil disobedience so powerful and alluring.
The beauty of civil disobedience, (not to be confused with the armed resistance manifested by the Bundys) the act of breaking the law and accepting the penalty, is that recognition of the rule of law enables people to see the humanity of the plight of the person/people breaking it.
Most mainstream people cannot relate to breaking the law and so cannot relate to people who do it, and probably will never relate if the person breaking the law does not acquiesce to the punishment; but they can relate to a person or people who articulate problems and why they resorted to breaking the law to bring those issues to light.
While I am not a huge fan of cattle on public lands I am even less a fan of gentrification or disenfranchisement of poor rural people. My fear about our public lands is that they will become pristine playgrounds for the wealthy (take Vale, CO for example) if we are not careful.
Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful and pristine place with clean air, water, and abundant outdoor opportunities? What rural towns and ranchers have provided, I think, is a buffer between development and our public lands and may even provide environmental services that I am unaware of. Furthermore, as far as I know, no ranchers actively seek to keep people out of those public places.
Typically, when ranches go, development moves in. There are many cases of wealthy home owners moving in, jacking up the costs of living, and then restricting access.
There have got to be real solutions for rural people to thrive and continue. Their economies need to be diversified and they need to be able to continue in a sustainable way. A huge part of the future of rural communities is going to be tourism and recreation as more and more people want to enjoy public lands and as a result, they should be given financial help to develop that sector of their economy.
Not too long ago I had a discussion with Justin Fischer, the economic developer in Garfield County, Utah, where we were discussing these very issues. Garfield County is probably somewhat similar to Harney County in that a large portion of the county (94%) is federal land.
We went the rounds about the federal government, environmentalists, the economy, tourism and recreation, grazing, timber, and mining and at the end of it all what Fischer told me was that it is hard for a poor county to compete and to build a sustainable economy without help.
He said, “What can we, a very poor county, offer in terms of incentive that bigger counties cannot? We would love to diversify our economy, but that is a tremendous, costly challenge as we are competing against thousands of other communities nationwide, and we lack some of their assets.”
He went on to say, “A great deal of our means is spent in trying to prevent economic loss. The solution isn’t more tourism. We need a wide diversity of employment, and we need help to get there. Thinking we can bootstrap our way out of this is just as wrong as saying that a poor person should pull him/herself up by their bootstraps without a helping hand.”
I started brainstorming and asked him if it would help local communities to get a stimulus package when monuments get designated and if it would help to have a local hiring authority for federal jobs. He said that those things would help immensely; that is, those things would help in providing amenities for tourism and recreation and paychecks for people trying to raise their families and to stay in the county.
While it is easy to pick on the federal government, the states and Congress members are not blameless. Congress determines the budgets of land management agencies which puts limits on how many people they can hire, how many environmental impact statements can get done and how fast, and hinders people from being able to do their jobs such as road grading, prescribed burns, etc.
States often broker land swaps with the federal government and could broker deals that help rural communities. Furthermore, states and local counties have control over growth, growth incentives or requirements, and can establish regulations on builders and developers to buffer local people against rising living costs from wealthy new incomers.
Furthermore, what often happens at the local level is that farmers and ranchers are pressured by local officials to sell their property for development. This is happening in Washington County as grow, grow, grow seems to be the only value.
I believe that real solutions can be found and that people need to be willing to listen to concerns by people who have voices that are often ignored or overlooked. It shouldn’t take wealth, celebrity, or crime to be heard.
I am very interested in talking with people from Harney County. Please contact me if you are willing to talk about the local issues affecting you.
More on the political ecology (the associated connections between politics, economics, and the environment) of rural western towns to come.
Zoe Carpenter, The Nation. Inside the Bundy Brothers’ armed occupation: http://www.thenation.com/article/inside-the-malheur-wildlife-refuge-occupation/
Whether we like it or not, what we wear says something about us and reveals insight into our personality, our taste, and possibly our attitudes. Just think baggy jeans with underwear sticking out, skinny jeans, a business suit, a low cut, slinky dress, wranglers, or a ball cap worn sideways, to name just a few. As you think about them, images come to mind with conjoined judgment.
Over the years fashions have changed only to come back around decades later. Clothing trends popular one year die and give way to new trends the next, but some items remain classic. There is an enduring quality to them that makes them adaptable to the progression of time and loved by one generation to the next. One of those items is the flannel shirt, and whether you agree with me or not, I think a flannel says, “Cool, laid back, unpretentious.”
When I see someone in a flannel, any number of things may come to mind depending on how they wear it, but overall I usually think, “My people.” The greatest thing I have seen recently in regard to flannel is that it seems to transcend not just time, but class as well. Gone are the days when only lumberjacks, miners, or fishermen wore flannels – everyone is, from doctors to surfers, hunters to pop stars, from hipsters and gangsters, to metrosexuals. It’s not just for grunge music, nor just for men. These time tested shirts are everywhere and on everyone and are made by companies from Carhartt to Victoria’s Secret.
So what is the allure to these time tested shirts? I think it is what they represent. They represent the humble, the hardworking, the hard scrabble, the rebel rousers, the adventurous, and more generally, ‘the common man.’ They are practical and simple, and I think it is the simplicity that draws people and social groups to them decade after decade.
They also tend to generally be worn by those in the outdoors community, whether ranchers or climbers, and no wonder, they got their beginning by the Welsh who needed clothing that would keep them warm from the elements – something that is always necessary for those who spend a lot of time outside. And let’s not forget plaid, the synonymous pattern associated with flannel shirts, which got its start in, where else but Scotland. As for America, we all know the legendary Paul Bunyan and his black and red flannel which may have contributed to the myth and lore surrounding the shirt, but they were largely popularized by Hamilton Carhatt who made clothing specifically for the blue collar working class, including flannels, in the late 1880s.
So whatever your take on flannels, they’ve been around a long damn time, and for good reason. They are warm, casual, colorful, and are typically reasonably priced. I like getting mine from local thrift stores and often find real gems with brand names like Pendleton, Woolworth, and Patagonia, for a few bucks at the most. They are kind of like an aged wine, the older they get, the better they look – and feel.
So in homage to the flannel, we have our annual non-Christmas, Christmas flannel party every December. Everyone is required to wear a flannel and must bring food and drink to attend. In other words, it’s the antithesis to a serious religious ceremony to mark the birth of Christ or a rated G family holiday party. I guess in retrospect, it’s kind of a Krampus party in that it’s more in the spirit old Saint Nick’s holiday devil sidekick than the jolly old man himself.
I’d be willing to bet the German originated Alpine Christmas devil wore flannel – or perhaps didn’t play tricks on those who did. Either way, between today ringing in the first day of winter, Christmas around the corner, and the cold weather to boot, flannel is king this time of year – though as stated already, it has a steady showing all year long.
Let me say outright that I am not interested in this post in trying to prove climate change to anyone. I frankly find such debates exhausting. If you want to know what I think of climate change, you can find some of my posts here and here. And if you want to read a more serious and academic version of these arguments, you can read an essay I published in Interdisciplinary Studies of Literature and the Environment. More importantly, if you want a primer on the science from a reputable resource, take twenty minutes and watch this excellent video from the National Academy of Sciences.
What I am interested in, however, is the reasoning, particularly the theological reasoning, I often hear used to support climate change denial. I have heard over the years various arguments made by deniers that appeal to an idea of the universe in which human-caused climate change just can’t exist. The theology goes something like this:
God alone controls the natural world. To imagine that human beings are capable of damaging the environment on a planetary scale is absurd. Sure, we can ruin a stream, pollute the air, and we might even endanger a species now and then, but the very idea that we have the power to influence something as complex and global as the climate and perhaps even endanger all of life as we know it and especially our own livelihoods flies in the face of everything we know about God and his plans for us and this planet. Least of all if what causes this damage are emissions and not sins! Why should we imagine that fossil fuels, which have enabled so much good for so long for so many, are now a scourge? There is nothing quite like climate change in the Bible, for example. In the Bible we see God punishing the wicked by cursing the earth under their feet. Similarly he blesses it for the sake of the righteous. And we might imagine that natural cycles too were part of history. But it is never human action that directly creates environmental problems. Environmental problems are secondary symptoms of such sins as immorality, worship of false gods, and the like, or they might be the natural outgrowth of natural processes, but we never read of instances of human behavior directly compromising the health of the environment. And to imagine that this could happen on a global scale, where millions of people collectively influence and damage a climate and harm millions of others would make individual accountability simply too difficult to trace, so there must be some other explanation for problems we see. Perhaps God is punishing us. Perhaps nature is just being nature, and we just have to accept it. Perhaps it isn’t happening at all. But it simply cannot be something we are directly causing.
If you want to read one version of this theology, you can find an argument here in an Op-Ed in my local paper. What is striking about the author’s argument is that there simply are only two explanations for natural events: they are either caused by God or by natural law. They are never, in other words, unnaturally caused by human interference in ecosystems. And this is despite the fact that she lives in a valley choked by so much pollution that it has caused a dramatic uptick in rates of asthma and heart and lung disease. This is a scientific fact. One of the world’s leaders in understanding the link between pollution and public health is Arden Pope, a professor at BYU, who was able to establish this science because Utah Valley provides an ideal scenario to study the effects of spikes in pollution on an otherwise quite healthy and largely non-smoking population. The elderly, the young, and the pregnant, it turns out, are the primary victims of this pollution. Are we to believe these effects have no human causes or that we bear no responsibility? Maybe pollution is God’s curse for our sinfulness but it isn’t as if he had to create a big brown cloud of bad air and hurl it down upon us. Like all forms of environmental change we have instigated, we brought it on ourselves, and as a result, the innocent and vulnerable are suffering. The fact is, environmental problems have huge collateral damage. If you and I won’t take responsibility for this, who will?
But this is just a small sample. To believe that only God or nature can cause environmental change, we would have to ignore virtually all of human history which is rife with stories of environmental excess. We have plenty of evidence to suggest that human-caused environmental degradation explains societal collapse. Environmental degradation is surely a symptom of sin. When people consume more than they need, when they are indifferent to the plight of the poor and the most vulnerable, when they are indifferent to their fellow humans and to God’s creations and greedily pursue more and more, the environment loses capacity to support all life.
But for some reason denial simply cannot accommodate such logical and theological possibilities. Now, granted, deniers claim the science is totally bogus, but you won’t hear them citing scientific evidence to establish their claim and that’s because such evidence doesn’t exist. That’s right. There isn’t a single scientific society that purports to have sufficient evidence to overturn climate science. Questions and doubts about the research and aspersions about the integrity and honesty of researchers certainly exist, but they do not constitute evidence. They simply create doubts about findings. And once you become convinced that the very process of research is corrupt, then you don’t have to listen to the science at all. That’s very convenient except for the fact that it is also hypocritical. I don’t see the same level of distrust for, say, good old American government sponsored cancer research or space research. Or, for that matter, what about healthy distrust of the petroleum industry that funds much of these efforts at denial? So what gives?
It’s theology and bad theology at that. It might be hard to accept, but the fact is that there are many phenomena today for which we have no biblical precedent. I am thinking of human trafficking, acid rain, or environmentally caused cancers, depletion of the ozone layer, contamination of ground water, to name just a few examples. Heck, the list is pretty long. That is not to say that the Bible isn’t relevant. It is highly relevant, precisely because of the principles of respect, integrity, equity, honesty, judgment, and justice that the Bible espouses and that would go a long way in redressing such problems. But it also seems that at least for one segment of our society, climate change offends their very idea of God. I guess I have a hard time believing in the same Bible they do. What I read teaches over and over again that the earth’s capacity to support life is directly connected to human agency. Why else are we commanded to respect the Creation and to be good stewards over it? Why should we be given dominion and responsibility for the whole of the earth if it is true that we are not capable of harming it? Why would God care what we did to the environment if we can never influence it? Why so much attention in the Bible to how we eat, how we dress, how we labor, and how we treat the poor, if it simply doesn’t matter how or when or why we use natural resources?
Let’s just take the Sabbath Day as one example. Honoring the Sabbath Day was instituted as a way of recognizing the creation and the need to give the land a rest from our interference, and to honor and thank and respect the bounty we receive from it. When we observe the Sabbath, we recognize that its bounty are not things we earn but are gifts of God, evidence of his grace. And it seems to have environmental benefits to follow this spirit of humility in the commandment. For Mormons, this should be even more obvious because Section 59 of the Doctrine and Covenants makes it plainly clear that we are promised the bounty of the earth as a gift for which we must show proper gratitude by careful observance of the Sabbath and of fasting. And it warns explicitly about using natural resources “with judgment, not to excess, neither by extortion.”
Granted, these verses don’t prove that climate change is real and human-caused. That’s not my point. But they do demonstrate the Lord’s profound concern for our proper treatment of the earth. It is a moral issue for him and if so, it’s apparently because we are capable of messing it up. I hear deniers admit that they at least believe in stewardship, but then it astounds me how quickly and flippantly they dismiss science or claim their own science. We can’t make up facts and we can’t cherry pick evidence. If we are serious about stewardship, we should be serious about knowing science. To do otherwise is irresponsible. You can’t claim you are a good steward of your own body if you don’t know the first thing about how it works, what it needs, what harms or what helps it. I am not surprised to hear deniers spout theories that don’t reflect even the most superficial understandings of climate science. When Sean Hannity makes fun of a snowstorm in Houston, you can be pretty sure you are listening to ideology, not science. When people claim history is full of climate change so therefore what we are seeing now cannot be human-caused, they aren’t even using good logic, let alone science.
There has never been a generation in the history of the world that has had a better opportunity to understand the causes and depth of our impact on the world. What a crying shame it is to see such knowledge mocked and disparaged, even though our science is also what we rely on everyday to enjoy our American standard of living. To enjoy the fruits of our economy while we disparage the science that built it is unconscionable. Why did Brigham Young teach that scientific discoveries are part of the ongoing restoration of all truth if we are to ignore such findings? Surely we can’t ignore science and then claim, when we do our damage, that we didn’t know any better. Maybe we didn’t want to know, but we certainly had a chance.
The Word of Wisdom warns about “conspiring men” in the last days who will presumably wish to distort facts about our health and the health of the earth so lovingly described in the revelation. It has been well documented that the same folks who worked hard to deny links between smoking and cancer have also worked hard to deny climate change. The Word of Wisdom teaches to eat meat sparingly and to remember that the earth is intended to feed all of life, including domestic and wild animals. Does it not interest us to know that such industries as the cattle industry and the petroleum industry are deeply involved in climate change denial and are also responsible for enormous levels of environmental degradation? What does our society tell us? It says:
Eat lots of meat. Eat whatever you want, whenever you want, as fast as you want it, at whatever cost, from whatever distance. Drive lots of cars. Build more roads. Buy things. Buy more than you need. Whatever technology allows us to do, you should do. It’s all good for the economy and, in the long run, for the poor, so you can consume with categorical impunity.
According to this accepted logic, there is never anything wrong with being a consumer in the global economy; it’s a virtue to consume more than the next guy. That is what every industry wants you to believe. And these would be interesting ideas to consider as a Christian, except for the inconvenient fact that they have never been supported by biblical ethics, not to mention that we now know these are the very things that are causing us to emit so much carbon into our atmosphere. A Christian economy is a moral economy and it matters what we eat, how we eat, what and how much we consume, and why. And our obligation is to the foreigner, the stranger, the poor and the vulnerable, and to God himself. And to imagine that we can watch while biodiversity collapses on this planet and the earth’s capacity to regulate the climate is compromised to such a degree that millions of the poor are threatened and somehow convince ourselves that these things are not happening, or that they are the will of God, or that they are merely natural and have no relationship whatsoever to our own agency, well, I don’t know how we can call such an attitude even remotely Christian. A denial I could respect would at least be based in a commitment to living up to the highest standards of material modesty, concern for the poor, and respect for all of life that I find everywhere expressed in Christianity. However, if such were the truly cherished values of conservatism, then Christian conservatives couldn’t help but be the most ardent conservationists. Some Christian conservatives get it. But unfortunately they aren’t the ones getting elected or hired or heeded.
Religion is the greatest hope we have in solving environmental problems. This might sound extreme or wrong and you might want to argue the point with me, but let me explain. If you look at the heart of environmentalism, it is a moral issue; a moral imperative that calls into question the way we live and how our economy drives it and bucks the new American Dream. Not the American Dream where we can all rise as high as we are willing to work, but the American Dream of consumerism and consumption.
What environmentalism calls into question is the new global economy and no one wants to hear that because the economy is king. But if we were to be honest, we would acknowledge that environmentalism is the most urgent and persistent ethical dilemma of this century precisely become of our economic values. To paraphrase the purpose behind the National Environmental Policy Act explained in the 96th Congressional notes of record, we can no longer ignore the science, the effects of our actions, and the subsequent consequences for humanity (1). The National Environmental Policy Act was meant to protect humanity from itself. Religion does the same thing. It has guidelines for how to protect you from yourself, from others, and others from you. It is a moral code. Environmentalism just requires one to expand that moral code to encompass more, to connect dots that we previously hadn’t.
While there are many who want to leave religion out of environmentalism and just look at the facts, which is noble if you are swayed that way, the fact of the matter is, science does not answer the moral question. While it provides information and knowledge about cause and effect, it does not answer why we should do something or behave a certain way. Religion does. Religion has the most potential to change attitudes and minds about environmentalism and climate change because it is the source for moral and ethical behavior for millions of people. It already addresses caring for the poor, living selfless lives, and not worshiping money – all of which are also at the heart of environmentalism. Because of this, religion is also the antithesis to the New American Dream. It is so closely aligned with environmentalism that if the two combined it could be the ultimate game changer, the unstoppable movement that turns the tides on how we live in the world and how we define living a moral or good life.
George Handley is a very good friend of mine. He is a humanities professor at Brigham Young University, an environmentalist, and yes, a devout Mormon. He is also a Democrat. In other words, he is a bit of an anomaly in these parts. While George is a religious person, and I am not so much, we have more in common than one might believe, and I believe this is true of most of us – despite our differences. George and I do not share the same beliefs on all things, but we share a lot of common ground. George is an outstanding, conscientious, and genuinely good man. I have been blessed to know and call him a friend. We have had great conversations, all of which have been enlightening for me. I hope this blog post that I am about to share will be as enlightening to you as it was to me and if you feel so inclined, compels you to write, share, or engage in. He articulates and explains so well the moral blind spot so evident from the religious community when it comes to climate change – and the schism between religion and ideology and why it should be different. Enjoy.
“There has never been a generation in the history of the world that has had a better opportunity to understand the causes and depth of our impact on the world. What a crying shame it is to see such knowledge mocked and disparaged, even though our science is also what we rely on everyday to enjoy our American standard of living. To enjoy the fruits of our economy while we disparage the science that built it is unconscionable… Surely we can’t ignore science and then claim, when we do our damage, that we didn’t know any better. Maybe we didn’t want to know, but we certainly had a chance.” ~ George Handley
“Today we have the option of channeling some of our wealth into the protection of our future. If we fail to do this in an adequate and timely manner, we may find ourselves confronted, even in this generation, with an environmental catastrophe that could render our wealth meaningless and which no amount of money could ever cure.” ~91st Congress, NEPA
(1) 91st Senate Report No. 91-296 The National Environmental Policy Act: http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=3&ved=0CCsQFjAC&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.fta.dot.gov%2Fdocuments%2FUnit1_04SenateReport91-2961.doc&ei=YRoGVJfkGYGkyATy8oHIDw&usg=AFQjCNH0USSo6ghEJI7yThoAB7Xl3735jg&sig2=LKCc70_ibQaZPpyrQP4qYA
The Story of a Flower: From community member, to endangered species, to public enemy – Is it time for a new narrative?
Every spring, as the days begin to grow longer and the weather consistently warms, my eyes start scanning the horizon for very specific plants, vegetative cues that mark the passage of time from one season to another. One of those plants is the Globe Mallow. Their presence marks the transition from spring to summer. Bright orange bushes burst into flame along highways, freeways, and across the desert floor. They are flowers that you must see up close to truly appreciate. The small petals form little bowls, globes, or women’s skirts, that when filled with light, glow softly. Delicate like tissue paper, they are enchantingly beautiful. When they bloom I make a yearly pilgrimage with my boys to explore the changed landscape for the short period that they are blossoming. Though I don’t know much about the niche the Globe Mallow fills, or about the other species connected to or relying on them, they provide aesthetic pleasure, joy, and wellbeing to my life. I enjoy them. They are a part of the community in which I belong. They are a part of my story. If they suddenly disappeared, I would miss them, wonder about them, and seek to discover what had happened to them. They do not provide food or shelter and I’m not sure of their economic value, but they hold value to me. They ground me in time and place.
If the Globe Mallow was facing extinction I would feel an urgency to protect it. I would feel its loss before it was gone and would work to avoid that reality. If, however, a barrier was put around the flower that kept me away in order for the government to protect it, I would feel helpless. It would no longer be a part of the same world as the one I am in; it would be separate, sanctioned off. I would hope that the government would be able to ensure its existence, but I would no longer feel a part of its presence or protection. I could only hope. My interaction with it would be similar to looking at it through protective glass.
Though not all species provide this sort of personal connection to me, all it would take to change that would be intimate knowledge. Kind of the same way a person changes from a stranger to a friend. For example, I know that if I rub creosote leaves between my fingers, it smells like rain. I know that sage provides a pungent fragrance that seems to permeate and rise up out of the earth. I know that right before autumn and a chill can be felt in the air, tarantulas come out. Knowing ones community happens subconsciously and almost intuitively, but turning that knowledge into love usually takes an act of conscious and willful acknowledgment and recognition. Often this is brought about through someone else’s actions, like the demolition of a hill. Sometimes is comes through absence, like when we move away. But without knowing a place, we cannot love it, and if we don’t love it, we won’t protect it, and if we don’t protect it, it will disappear.
“Life is a miracle,” said Wendell Berry, “One kind of evil certainly is the willingness to destroy what we cannot make – life, for instance.” Life, including ours, plants, and animals, but also, the elements that sustain life such as water, soil, nutrients, and sunlight; in other words, the cycle of life and all of its interconnected parts and dependencies, is a miracle. Utter extinction, pollution to the point of poisoning life, annihilation of life giving properties, is unacceptable to us and virtually unfathomable, but it is happening. These changes are on a large and slow enough scale that if we choose not to see it, we won’t. But when we narrow the scope, bring it down to our own backyard, we can’t help but see it and be impacted by it. We need to take our backyard and apply it on a global scale to take what matters to us and expand it to the world; amplify it across borders and landscape to people and communities not so different from ours, and interestingly, not so far removed from ours either.
Robert McKee said, “On one side is the world as we believe it to be, on the other is reality as it actually is. In between is the nexus of story.” This is the story of a flower, a close relative to the Globe Mallow, and some of the people living and working in proximity to it. Living in remote and small sections of the Mojave Desert in Utah and Arizona is the Gierisch Mallow, a rare and largely unknown flower found nowhere else on earth. It grows in a crusted, gypsum soil suitable only for unique species that holds nitrogen, moisture, and stays erosion. The flower is believed to be pollinated by the same bees that pollinate the Desert Globe Mallow, a flower found in much larger numbers throughout the southwest. The bees nest in the ground, within range of the flowers. A combination of evolutionary adaptations have produced a habitat suitable for the flowers to grow and survive in. Without the ability to travel the way we do, we might never have known of their existence.
Last year the Gierisch Mallow was listed as an Endangered Species. Prior to the listing I attended a meeting held by the BLM for stakeholders who would be impacted by the designation. I attended to hear what the local ranchers and miners had to say. Knowing the general disdain for anything environmental in Utah and that the local ranchers and miners held strong beliefs about mankind’s role in it, I wanted to hear how they would articulate it and work within the confines of a government setting. As I watched the two groups, two distinct narratives formed in my mind: one was scientific, the other religious. The ranchers did not want the plant listed, and though the BLM employees were following a process, I presumed they supported the designation. Though the process is meant to be objective, deeply held narratives were driving it. One narrative is the desire to protect life through public policy based on scientific analysis and evidence, the other is the desire to maintain a way of life based on a belief that God gave us dominion over the earth. Though none of this was spoken, it was there under the surface.
While the life of the flower was never directly discussed, and was actually never in question, how to go about protecting it was. The local miners and ranchers did most of the talking. They not only felt betrayed, they were worried about what the listing would mean for their way of life and bottom line. Realizing that the ranchers had been collecting seeds from the Gierisch Mallow and had been providing them to the BLM in an effort to work proactively, their anger and disappointment at an outside group requesting the designation and undermining their efforts was understandable. Though they never spoke of the fragility, beauty, or right of the flower to exist, it was clear that everyone recognized this by their preemptive actions in trying to protect the flower before the listing. At the heart of this meeting was a deep suspicion, based on collective experience, that one, the locals would carelessly trample the flower into extinction, and two, the government would come in and determine that the flower held more weight than the people living there. The locals were certain they could protect the flower that lived among them and pleaded their case. What they got was a bureaucratic answer that they could make comments during the scoping process and possibly sway the decision and course of action. Once the plant was submitted as a candidate, the land management agency was required by law to follow regulations to determine its status.
The Endangered Species Act maintains that our natural heritage, plants and animals, have aesthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value for this country and the people. Those are the values that get analyzed and discussed through the process of a listing. While the language appears to be inclusive, the Act ignores the relationship between people and the species and subsequently, the land. This exclusion of the relationship and personal narratives behind it makes the process sterile and impersonal. It isolates the species from the people, the place, and the ecological community they all belong to and makes it “other.” To compartmentalize the humans, from the species, from the land, is to keep all of the parts of a specific environment separate, and thus work against the end goal of maintaining the ecological health and integrity of the whole. Rather than using the local population to maintain and protect the plant, they are excluded. This segregation reinforces deeply held narratives that people hold to non-human life and to the earth.
The narratives that shape people’s perceptions and attitudes are as varied as the people, but there are extreme ends in the environmental debate. Though there are many shades of grey in beliefs toward the earth, it is the stereotypical types on both ends that get all the attention. The extreme narrative of the bible-based religious demographic is that God gave humans dominance over the earth, that we were made in God’s image and that ultimately, humans take priority over all living and non-living life on earth. The extreme environmental narrative is that all living and non-living, non-human life has intrinsic worth and is equal in value to humans and therefore, should be given equal standing when it comes to decisions affecting it. When a species gets protected and it inhibits human behavior, industry, and livelihood, the two clash and depending on how the decision unfolds, ill feelings and antagonism result. This end result is bad for both sides because instead of finding sensible solutions in the future, the people will simply oppose each other over any policy decision. If these policies keep ignoring the narratives of the local populations affected by them, the deeply held beliefs will be reinforced and progress will face stiffer and stiffer polarization and legal battles.
But when our decisions affect life, even if that life doesn’t seem significant, we need compassionate narratives that work creatively and ethically to protect the web of life, both human and non-human. It is easier to take an issue that obviously needs addressing, such as clean water, and have consensus, but protecting an unknown species can leave much open for debate. This is where policy fails us and story can help. As Robert McKee stated, “Values, the positive and negative charges of life, are at the soul of the art of storytelling. They can shape a perception of what’s worth living for, what’s worth dying for, what’s foolish to pursue, and the meaning of justice and truth.” It is not the worth of the flower or its existence that is at stake; it is the worth of the ones valuing that is at stake. At the core of environmental conflict is the messy relationship between people. Relating and finding common ground is easier done through narrative than policy because narrative allows empathy to surface. The gift of learning someone’s story is that it provides the opportunity to live lives beyond our own, to desire and struggle in a myriad of worlds and times, at all the various depths of our being (McKee, pg. 142). When we do that, we empathize and through empathy, link ourselves to another human being, testing and stretching our own humanity (McKee, 142).
As I sat as an observer at the BLM office listening to the local field office employees and the local people, I wondered about the missing group, the one that had proposed the listing. While I was certain they had good intentions and their mission probably states a desire to protect all species, I couldn’t help wondering: Have they been out here? Have they even seen the flower? How different would it be if they had talked to the people impacted by the designation and had learned their story? I wanted to know if the flower was in danger of extinction due to human impact, or if it was just a rare species with a small population. As I let my imagination go, I imagined the people who live and work out in the Mojave Desert and what their life was like. I am certain they not only have stories, but history there, that is personal and intimate in a way that we can only relate to by comparing it to our own place. I was certain, that like me and the Desert Globe Mallow, the men in the room also know the seasonal cues, love the landscape, and are aware of the nuances of life found there. The plants and species are not just names in a database; In other words, the people living in these remote places are familiar with the species and landscape in a way that only a local could be. While they might shape their narrative along familial and traditional stories, and may even accept and include the growing scientific evidence as guidelines for their behavior, it is their personal story being threatened.
The story of the Gierisch Mallow is not just of the flower and its beauty; it is about the beauty of the flower in context. The story includes the land, the inter-relationships of other species, and of the people who live and work in proximity to it. Depending on the narrative you subscribe to, the listing of the Gierisch Mallow is either beautiful or tragic, or perhaps it is both. In the reality of environmentalism, we are burdened by our heritage, but the story can be changed and rewritten to produce renewal and cleansing through humble, respectful, and well-told stories.
The Gierisch Mallow is just one species of many that have been entered into the narrative of species protection and extinction and the people involved. How will it unfold? Will the locals harbor good or ill will toward it? Will they resent those designating it, despite their good intentions? Will their story be a happy ending or a tragedy? It will be determined through their narrative filter. The story is ultimately one of life and how we value it, both human and non-human.
A flower offers a simple yet powerful metaphor for life. From time immemorial, flowers have been recognized for their beauty in scent, color, and form. In the short timeframe of their life cycle we see the duality of beauty and tragedy, life and death. They remind us of the passage of time. The word beauty originates from the Greek word hora, meaning ‘hour.’ It is associated with “being in one’s hour.” When a flower is in bloom, it is in its hour. The flower’s beauty, delicacy, and moment in bloom elicit an emotional stirring in us because the pinnacle of its beauty is fleeting. Because of the fleeting nature of life and the passing beauty in it, we often try to capture and prolong the essence of it through artistic reproduction, but art only makes static what is transitory.
Like a stunning sunset whose beauty lies in its temporal nature, we relish it because it won’t last, but even if we could stop time, we would not want to live in perpetual dusk. It is the moment between birth and death, the passage of time that captures our imagination. Nothing we can do will prolong the scent of a lilac or the form of a rose indefinitely, but we know the cycle of the plants, we know that after death comes rebirth, and new blooms in time. Life on earth is, if nothing else, time. It is what we do with our time that will impact those after us. Like the flower, we have our hour, our time of beauty and then we too will pass. The question is: what high beauty, laughter and joy, or tragedy will come with our passing through? Will the audience in the future experience catharsis and pleasure when our act is done?
In the drama of life we, humanity, are both the protagonist and the antagonist. We are perpetually in conflict, but history gives us perspective and clarity and helps us see and learn from the past. Through hind-sight we are able to see the comedic and tragic stories of people making decisions in time. We see their hour in history, and through theirs, we try to make sense of our own. Like a perennial flower, humanity continues generation after generation. We will bloom again as time marches on. Therefore, we should weigh our decisions with good humor, knowing that with each solved problem comes a new one, but with it, a new generation for that hour. We must recognize that while we have great technology and minds to innovate, we are not Gods, we are temporary and can only use the tools and information available to us. Perpetually fixing problems that we create is not wise, but operating with humility and wisdom on the front end and using foresight will help us in our struggles to live ethical and responsible lives. Protecting life might be a good place to start; connecting to people and places through story might be another. Whether trying to save the planet or save souls, it is the intricacy of life, the good and the bad, that we are working out.
When it comes to the environmental narrative, the conflict is largely man against man. Our needs and wants conflict with our morals and duty to the greater community in which we belong. An inner story is played out in the heart and mind which shapes worldviews and determines actions. If we do not check our inner story against the larger story of life and look for the humorous, recognizing that true humor is laughter at oneself and true humanity is knowledge of oneself, we will lean toward the tragic and the vicious cycle will begin again. The virtue of humor is that it strikes at self-righteousness and produces humility that opens us up to more faith, and deeper belief and understanding. Humor is a sort of redemption in that we recognize that finality is the only real tragedy, but often what appears to be gone is just transformed into something new. The death of a flower is only a tragedy if it is never reborn, if it is gone forever. But there is a sort of joy that comes with the seasonal death of the flower because it invokes a longing in us as we recall it and know it will return. This awareness of nature results in renewal, restoration, and a sense of being grounded to something real and solid. The same is true of lost technology for new technology, lost employment for new opportunities and the discovery of new ways of life. The transition is often painful, but worth it in the long run. There is a certain hope that comes with the transitory because it alone holds the promise of change, growth, or improvement. The hope comes from knowing that we do not live in a static and unchangeable world. Though we may not think this deeply of the life and death of the flower, we sense it, feel it, and if we do think about it, we see the passing of time and our own life in it. As William Blake might surmise, we experience heaven, or a lifetime, in a flower.
If we can find joy in the death and rebirth of a flower, then we can certainly see the tragedy in the flowers total extinction. While we cling to our own mortality and work it out through our own inner narratives, we must be aware that life continues after us and like ripples in water, our short existence plays out long after we are gone. Like the flower, we too need sunlight, water, nutrients, and the right environment to thrive, but unlike the flower, we are not benign, we have choice and the ability to change and impact our environment. We have changed and manipulated the most intricate details of living things, including flowers, all the way to landscapes and oceans. Our fingerprints are on everything, whether intentional or unintentional. We have been able to breed, cross breed, and graft plants in order to make them common and available, to patent for profit, and to manipulate and change for enhanced genetic traits, but the original is worth much more than any reproduction. We have learned that our tampering has far reaching consequences. Land change brings with it invasive plants that choke out native plants; removing forests changes the microclimate, impacts the animals, the soil, and the air. Through landscape or ecological restoration people are now trying to get back to the original, to the landscape before humans altered it. Brownfields, urban or industrial centers, are being restored to greenfields in an attempt to restore the land. While there is some question as to which point in time to restore a landscape due to the difficulty and uncertainty in identifying the original state, it is an attempt to get back to the original. But for the most part, once an original is gone, it’s gone. Though we are trying to fix what we ruined or changed, there is no creating a species out of thin air. We cannot make a flower ex nihilo, we can only take what already exists and create with it. As manipulators, tinkerers, movers, shapers, destroyers, and storytellers, we have a moral obligation to consider our actions with what we are unable to make: the original.
If science is knowing, and art is doing, as Wendell Berry states, then certainly the process of environmental stewardship done well is the art of science in practice. Weaving many stories into the environmental narrative holds the most promise in ensuring that science is not void of compassion and values, and that people are not void of the knowledge that science provides. Otherwise, the single, narrow story will continue to be held, ensuring that an incomplete view and narrative is maintained. The narratives are what must be examined because they act as a the filter through which we view the world, make decisions, pass judgment, and ultimately, interact with each other. But they also hold possibilities to see new stories and expand our narrative paradigm. We are all human after all. We can relate to others through story, experiences, and values, but not facts. The narratives can act as the bridge between the process of decision making and the reality of those living with the decision.
Though the process of science is supposed to be objective, often the people impacted by it are not and the subjective interpretation is what determines the discourse, compromise, and/or gridlock over such cases. The narratives and philosophies behind the people meeting to shape such environmental decisions lie beneath the surface. The objective analysis the stakeholders are meant to examine and engage in is limiting and will either reinforce or reshape already held narratives through the process. When the process cuts values out of the equation, it removes compassion for the particular creatures, people, and place in question. Without this compassion, the species at hand gets pitted against the people impacted. Because the beliefs, values, and morals are determined by many factors not easily defined or standardized by the government, the decision must be based on evidence and sound arguments that can be applied equitably and broadly. This makes sense from a policy perspective, but not an empathetic or understanding one. Life is complicated and messy, decisions are not easily made, but that is where there needs to be room for the non-scientific, non-economic, or non-concrete. The inherent value of the plant and the inherent value of tradition and way of life, while not openly discussed, are there. Those values should be included in the narrative of environmental stewardship because they are the threads that hold the community together in the first place.
Perhaps we need to get to know our own place and community and weave our own story into it so that we can empathize with other places and people. I know that not everyone loves the desert the way that I do, but I am certain they love some geographical location somewhere in the world to the same degree. Stories of people and place fill volumes of literature that inspire and leave lasting imprints in the minds of people in all walks of life and from all corners of the world. It is time for story, normally relegated to classrooms, bookshelves, and coffee shops, used for study or leisure, to fill in the gaps between science and humanity, policy and citizens, and from person to person.