Friday, June 3, 2011

Is environmentalism dying?

Drastic cuts in school funding may seriously deter interest in bettering world

I’m thinking about beavers, as in Martinez, Calif., where John Muir ended up living, and where community activists have been fighting for these aquatic rodents and advocating for kids to learn about beavers’ positive impacts.

Muir, father of the park system, writer, environmentalist, Sierra Club founder, settled in Martinez, as did the Shell Oil Company – both have diametrically opposed roots here, about 30 miles northwest of San Francisco.

Once there were 90 million beavers on Turtle Island, before First Contact. Maybe there’s 10 percent of that total now.

Beavers are being run over, poisoned and trapped and killed. People don’t want car trips interrupted by beavers on their roadways. They want channeled rivers, streams and creeks to stay impounded. They want every square inch of property left for the domain of the Homo Sapiens’ grid logic.

What does all that history of killing, skinning, trapping give us? Screwed-up rivers, vanished wetlands, lack of groundwater, gutted diversity of fish, flora, insects, other animals.

Beavers are a bioweb, ecosystems, bionet wonder. They actually fix things.

So the beaver story has come and gone in DTE (see here) and in the Spokane Living Magazine (here.) My radio show, Tipping Points: Voices from the Edge, April 27, 2011, included a conversation with a child psychologist working on beavers and director of a program, Worth a Dam (see

I also got in a special hour before my regular Wed. 3-4 slot with Mike Lydon, activist, planner, bicycle advocate and the Next Generation innovator for the Congress of the New Urbanism and this thing called Tactical Urbanism. He was in Allentown, Penn., about to present some innovative bicycle corridor stuff focusing toward low-income folk. He’ll be featured in a DTE article or two coming up.

I’ve talked with so many great people over the past three years on KYRS, and 3.5 decades as a journalist and writer. I’ve had Tim Flannery, Winona LaDuke, James Howard Kunstler, and countless others in the small, cramped KYRS broadcast booth.

I’ve had Amy Goodman on the phone, and David Suzuki. Richard Heinberg was a fresh interview, not as wonky as I thought. Scientists working on ocean acidification let loose, even joked. Naomi Wolf tackled fascism’s rise in the U.S. in the 21st century. Reporters like Jeremy Scahill who broke into investigative journalism with his book on Blackwater predicted a lot of backsliding by a newly-elected Obama.

One of the coolest interviews was with John Francis, Planet Walker, who was in San Francisco Jan. 19, 1971, when the Standard Oil crude tankers collided near the Golden Gate Bridge.

He transformed himself almost instantly after witnessing that environmental crime, changing his operating system and spiritual core into the ultimate activist, educator, and deep ecologist: someone who took vows to understand this mess of humanity.

He was born in Philadelphia, the son of a West Indian immigrant, and as a young man moved to Marin County. Witnessing that oil spill, John stood up and proclaimed he would stop riding in motorized vehicles, a vow which lasted 22 years.

Then he went to work walking and educating himself. A bachelor’s degree from Southern Oregon University, then a master’s at the University of Montana, and a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin. He was studying when the Exxon Valdez spill occurred.

He got those degrees, and even taught as a teaching assistant, while not talking. He vowed to listen and stop arguing, taking a vow of silence from 1973 until 1990. That’s 17 years voiceless, and he taught, communicated, and lived with sign language and his banjo. Seventeen years listening, and earning a doctorate in land management.

While silent, he walked 26,000 miles across the United States and to South America.

I was thinking about Francis when I interviewed Heidi Perryman, child psychologist for 20 years, 10 years as a day care teacher, and five years as a beaver activist. She has spent her entire life in Martinez, dedicated to the environment and beavers, and helping communities and schools become part of that dynamic.

Unfortunately, while talking about education with Perryman, I referenced the lunacy of Washington’s Gov. Gregoire, Olympia politicians, tea baggers, Obama, the country as a whole. They are gutting education, gutting community colleges and universities, and K-12 institutions – and we’re not doing much about it.

The environmental movement has been mute about wages, health care, and education as it negotiates pollution allowances and witnesses the death of environmental protection measures.

I admit that I was multitasking while talking with Perryman. I was on the beaver website, on the Lands Council’s beaver page, and on my college’s Outlook mail account.

All three windows were open when I saw yet another attack on education.

We just received a letter from Spokane Falls Community College’s president, vis-à-vis the Chancellor containing an offer for tenured faculty with at least seven years teaching to voluntarily end teaching for a one-time $25,000 payout.

Even elementary school students would scoff at this offer. But this is the sort of absurd, ethically-challenged, and backward thinking from administrators we have allowed to run this country’s schools into the ground.

Where is the next generation of environmentalists going to be incubated when classrooms are swelling and sweltering with overcrowded class sizes? Schools with fewer offerings, now that’s a grand business model. Cutting innovative courses tied to sustainability and environmental and social justice, now that is a dunce’s move.

Humanities and liberal arts chopped in half or altogether in favor of some administrator’s/chancellor’s/governor’s myopic vision of our young people’s futures? All wrong-headed moves, and spineless.

While beavers symbolize interconnectedness, dedication and stick-to-it-ness, our leaders are myopic thinkers, the same sort of limited scope that would decimate buffalo, dodos, beaver, or bees in favor of maximizing profits and maximizing human carrying capacity.

Colony Collapse Disorder is the term for billions of bees dying off. With Bill Gates, Christine Gregoires, and education honchos running the show, we are now undergoing our own CCD – Community Collapse Disorder.

Without this attack on community, this environmental movement as we know it is dead.

Maybe the lesson for environmentalists comes from the beaver – mate for life, and learn each year to make better dams, spillways, and routes to the den. Beavers harmonize life, and as vegetarians, they unwittingly become the stewards of biodiversity — as fishes, insects, birds and other mammals come out of the wilderness and into the wonderful world of a beaver’s wetland.

(This is the first part of a series exploring some of the challenges facing the traditional environmental movement.)

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