History teacher Ed Rafferty addresses the CA community during an assembly entitled “100 Years of Environmentalism.” His remarks are reproduced in full below.
Tales Along a Crooked Road: Place, Home, and Humility in Environmental History
Thank you for the chance to speak today—just before the CA Centennial and just before the 52nd celebration of Earth Day. Earth Day and the environment is the topic that brings me here today. My plan is to spend the next 50 minutes retelling the story of every major environmental event since 1922. It all starts with the Radium Girls of the Northeast who died as a result of using radium-based products to paint watch faces … . No, actually, I’m not going to go over a comprehensive timeline. Instead, I want to offer some thoughts—and also offer some hope—for the problems that we are presented within environmental change, environmental politics, environmental movements, and the writing of environmental history for about 30 minutes and then take questions.
I have called this talk “Tales Along a Crooked Road: Place, Home, and Humility in Environmental History,” taking my title from a poem by the contemporary Pawnee poet Roger Echo-Hawk, who wrote in “Summer Solstice” that, “In our retellings we don’t much bother / Keeping straight the bent details … / … Those changing details that give rise to the world / In our retellings of the tale along a crooked road.” What I mean by this use is that I am not going to provide a straight narrative but instead offer a compendium of discursive thoughts oriented around the struggles of understanding and telling our environmental past. Each of my themes—place, home, humility—represent what I think has been the best of the movement over the last century, and the best of the writing about the movement, its politics, its promise, and its perils. I also think that these themes offer a way to see future politics—a national and global politics rather than an individual politics alone—to repair, fix, and energize environmentalism today.
One of the biggest struggles that I have had in writing this talk—and in thinking through the issues of environmental history and environmental change—is that the task can be profoundly, depressingly unsettling. It can seem, in fact, that anyone teaching or writing about the environment simply serves to their students and their audience a declensionist jeremiad of doom. The account goes something like this: The world is crashing. It is not as bad as you can imagine—it is actually far worse. The problems of climate change are large, immediate, and devastating. It is no longer the case, as it seemed to be even just a few years ago, that climate change is something in the future—something that we might/should/must work on for future generations, future selves. Humans have never been particularly good at that kind of work—as anyone who has binge-watched a show when they have another task that should be done well knows. My procrastination in binge-watching anything on my phone actually does not affect me. I have all the time in the world. Instead, it affects my future self—we will let them deal with it; the late paper, late assignment, late tax return (taxes were due yesterday in Massachusetts if you did not file) is their problem. If you want more evidence, look no further than this: At a clean energy summit in 2006–07, the attendants touted the fact that there was no need to worry about clean energy from either a national security or personal use point of view. The U.S., they noted, could double its use of coal for energy production immediately and still had more than a century of available coal in the ground to secure our energy needs. Future selves, I guess, could simply deal with the problem then.
But climate change, our account will note, is not the future. It is now—it is present. It has happened and is happening. We have already caused damage that is not reversible. We are the future self that our past selves already, well, to put it simply, harmed. They have already created a problem we have to solve—there is no putting off any longer. What is gone, is gone. And we do have to reckon with the fact that we see things that others in the future will only be able to imagine as some distant, unknowable past. Our past selves have made us the last of the dodo birds or passenger pigeons or the California brown bear—all extinct. Ours is the age of an Anthropocene extinction—we have done this; dozens of species go extinct every day.
We face, it may seem, the four horseman in our Anthropocene age: pestilence—COVID and other zoonotic diseases connect to human systems and human-induced changes in the environment; war—the current conflicts in Ukraine, Yemen, and elsewhere are as much hydrocarbon wars as they are parts of the political landscapes of postcolonial change (and colonialism itself has its environmental linkages); death—little needs explanation here; and famine—the war in Ukraine, for example, indicates some of the environmental problems associated with globalization and industrialization of the food system. Ukraine is the breadbasket of Europe and the Middle East (many countries in the Middle East are nearly wholly dependent upon grain production in Ukraine—and right now in planting season that grain is not being sown, and it is not clear when or if it will be; our 3,000-, 5,000-, and 10,000-mile sandwiches, salads, and meals will not be easy to come by in a few months’ time. This will affect food prices and food availability—remember that the Arab Spring in 2011, a wave of democracy protests and anti-government activities against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, was the product of (at least in part) food and grain prices and availability.
Moreover, the environmental problem we confront are also ones in which we are implicated; the deepening depressing reality is that we cannot exempt ourselves from both causes and effects. It is not just a far-away past self alone that caused these environmental problems. It is us. A meeting of critics of America’s mass incarceration system can convene as accusers wanting to change a system that has harmed thousands. A meeting of antiwar activists can convene as protestors against systemic warfare, massive weapons expenditures, and global violence. But we cannot do this with environmental change, environmental history, and environmental politics. As Wendell Berry wrote on the eve of the first Earth Day in 1970, in an essay called “Think Little,” “… the environmental crisis rises [to us] close to home. Every time we draw a breath, every time we drink a glass of water, we are suffering from it …every time we indulge in, or depend on, the wastefulness of our economy—and our economy’s first principle is waste—we are causing this crisis. Nearly every one of us, every day of [our] life, is contributing directly to the ruin of this planet.” Therefore, we should understand that, “A protest meeting on the issue of environmental abuse is not a convocation of accusers, it is a convocation of the guilty ….” That, as Berry told the nation in 1970, should check any self-righteousness and indicate the depth of the work that needs to be done.
I could leave my crooked tale there. And just leave us to sit with this reality. Sometimes it feels like that is what I do in my classes—to just sit with the depressing reality of massive environmental damage brought on by the forces of industrialization, consumption, greed, hubris, and power. But I am not going to leave the tale there. Although the task before us is large, it is not without hope; we are not without a power to change our narratives, our experience, or our environment. As dire as it might seem, the future is actually not inevitable. I would stop the tale if it was. The future road is also crooked—it is not a straight line to our doom. But we do have to act; we do have to think; we do have to do work; we must understand that we are not limitless; and, there is no mistaking the fact that we do have to change, we have to change politics and political systems; we will have to give things up that we might regard in this moment as we sit in this room as impossible to give up. But I am absolutely certain and sanguine about our ability to do so.
Given my start—and the sense that the world really is on fire—why might there be hope? Especially since anyone who knows me would say that I am at best a cynic. At worst I believe that the glass is neither half full nor half empty. It has been smashed by a sledge hammer. Why invite me to speak on hope for environment?
Well the event that brings me here to speak is one reason. Before I get to my themes (place, home, humility) let me talk a bit about Earth Day itself. It is appropriate that we are having this moment just before another Earth Day celebration and our own CA centennial. Earth Day was one of the most astonishing events in the history of social justice movements—still, to this day, it is the largest single protest in US history (around 20-30 million people participated). The movement has, as historian Adam Rome indicated, a “genius” to it because of its decentralized nature, and organizational structure that encouraged a variety of local systems to engage with problems on the ground; it was a movement of young people who ran it, spoke for it, and led older generations in engaging in environmental work. The movement, in fact, launched an eco-generation that did set up laws, systems of accountability, and regulations that did have a direct effect on the betterment of environmental conditions in North America. Earth Day took place in thousands of locales—and it was not, actually, even a day. It was more than a week of activity dedicated to improving the conditions of living across racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines.
The day also crossed political boundaries that might be challenging to imagine in our current political discourse. Leading advocates for Earth Day could be easily found across the political spectrum; multiple political organizations engaged in Earth Day activity. There was, in fact, a long tradition of “green Republicanism” within the Republican Party that came to fruition in the 1960s and 1970s. In Oakland the Black Panthers organized garbage clean up; in Harlem, the Young Lords organized a clean streets initiative as well. It is difficult to believe given the fractiousness of our politics today but the major bills that were initiated in the wake of the first Earth Day—the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act—were bipartisan initiatives. I don’t mean to suggest that all was glitter and gold (Nixon had opposed and vetoed the Clean Water Act; it was passed over his veto). But there was a broad consensus that environmentalism meant something for how we were to live, what the essence of the good meant in a liveable sustainable world.
CA played its part in this as well. First, we have a serendipitous connection to the very first Earth Day. The first Earth Day was not, in fact, Earth Day but the Teach-in on the Environment. It first took place at the University of Michigan in mid-March 1970 and was so successful that Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (a speaker at the event at Michigan) believed that it should be repeated as a national undertaking. The organization of a national association to establish a teach-in on the environment began just after the successful work at Michigan but many of the young organizers—veterans of anti-war protests, civil rights protests, and other social movements—felt that the teach-in model was too university/college oriented and had become somewhat stale. Instead, they wanted a much larger civic participation, and they wanted a much broader participation beyond the burgeoning numbers of young people in colleges and universities (still, though growing, a rarefied group). So they sought to both create local leadership across the nation—something that was quite successful—and they sought to re-name and restructure the purpose of the event. They sought out a well known advertising executive in New York City to help them rename the event—and one of the ideas (thinking of the idea of a birthday) was simply, Earth Day. The adexec that they sought out was a man named Julien Koenig, whose birthday was April 22 and who was also the father of CA graduate Sarah Koenig ’86—of Serial podcast fame.
In addition to our connection through the naming of the event, I have read through all of the student newspaper articles from town and school from the mid-1960s through the 1970s and there was a persistent interest and concern with environmental issues and environmental engagement. On Earth Day itself, CA combined with CCHS to clean the riverway, the area around the Old North Bridge, and other spaces across town. Moreover, the school engaged in regular events on conservation, pollution, environmental politics, and environmental engagement throughout the period. Our current days of service and sustainability are a form of connection to the past work in which CA engaged.
Let me now turn to the three major themes that add even more hope to a story that can seem grim or dire: place, home, and humility.
Place – that is the idea that we are people who despite the many worlds in which we live and move and the forces of globalization that seem to distance us from particular locales – is the essence of some of the best environmental action and environmental writing that has been done in the last century; we are place-based people ultimately – seeking ties, seeking meaning, and seeking experience within particular places. The history of place – and its related but more intimate connection, home, as historian Joseph Amato has noted in his book Rethinking Home, provide us with the ability to know ourselves and to give meaning to our lives — both of which, I think, we intensely need. The historian sees narratives and stories of meaning when they look at a particular place and examine the nature we find in these places; the close reading we make of the landscapes and built structures and neighborhoods and the nature of our local environment allows us,
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour…”
(That is the poet William Blake, of course, and not me).
I am reminded here of something that Claudia Rankine said when she spoke on our campus just a few years ago. When asked about doing close reading of texts, she argued that she doesn’t do close readings. She does social justice work. That, to me, is the essence of doing a close reading of place as part of environmental history and environmental politics – it is social justice work.
The specialness of any place might not initially stand out to the visitor, or even to the writer or historian. But I think that these elements of the immediate world we inhabit reflect who we think we are; we shape our lived places as reflections of what we value, and they, in turn, shape us. One of my favorite writers on the history and meaning of place is the Chinese-American geographer Yi-Fu Tuan who has written about the importance that local place and space – in particular local places in the globalizing modern world – has on the residents: “Many places, profoundly significant to particular individuals and groups, have little visual prominence,” Tuan has written. “They are known viscerally, as it were, and not through the discerning eye or mind. [But] a function of literary art is to give visibility to intimate experiences, including those of place….Literary art draws attention to areas of experience that we may otherwise fail to notice.” Environmental history has this power to teach us about place, to help us to closely read it, and try to fashion what it means – how it shapes us, how we shape places. In a beautiful essay on the mistral – the powerful wind that has long affected Provence – the historian Catherine Dunlop recounts the ways that French residents have commented upon, written about, painted by ( Van Gogh in particular), and understood the experiences of this weather phenomenon. And she notes that it is changing with climate change – what, she wonders, will that mean for place-based identity in the region? How might we save this identity as the wind changes? Multiple studies have indicated that people react to climate change and seek policies to address it based upon when they see the effect it has on their places – when the places where they make memories, refine personal meaning, supported and shaped their identity start to forever be altered and might be never more. Place-based politics, place-based writing, place-based thinking helps us to understand the losses that an abstracted description of the sweeping nature of climate change might not. It helps us as well to see that the binary – nature versus culture – is a false one. Dunlop’s history of the mistral wind shows how a natural event – a wind – is shaped by how a culture places meaning upon it; and that wind, in turn, shapes how the culture understands itself in a feedback loop. And it is this closer reading and relationship takes on greater meaning when we realize that the wind might be, someday, gone.
If place has provided meaning for how environmental historians have written about it, what might it mean for our environmental politics and political change? There are some clues in indigenous organizations for how place provides meaning and a spur to action. For example, the Ancestral Lands program is a coalition organization of conservation land organizations dedicated to indigenous land stewardship and restoration. In one project, they have restored traditional Acoma Pueblo crops and heirloom seeds to fight against industrialized food production. It is farming based on place knowledge and place understanding that has restored not just food practices but restored water systems, traditional crops, and is organized against monoculture farming practices – it is, in this sense, the restoration of lost cultures and lost meaning; it is also an improvement upon environmental damage. Other kindred organizations have undertaken similar work – the Northeast Farmers of Color Land Trust, for example, is a coalition of BIPOC farmers established to acquire thousands of acres of land for new farmers to enter into better relationship with the earth, restore “land tenure…and land stewards who will use the land in a sacred manner…for sustainable farming, human habitat, ceremony, native ecosystem restoration, and cultural preservation.” These are place based practices that should give us renewed hope that there are systems capable of combating industrialized food.
If knowledge of place and the political action to fix the environment in a place matter for both historical understanding and for a new kind of politics, home provides an even more intimate expression of our environmental identity. Spaces such as the small towns, institutions, and neighborhoods of our immediate lives might seem rather pedestrian when compared to places of grand national or cultural significance; they may seem unworthy of our deep attention. But we can, and we should, speak and write of them as places of meaning for those who live, work, and make homes in them. “Faithfulness to [the history of] of home,” historian Joe Amato has argued, “ is a compass in a great and shifting sea.”
Sometimes environmental writing and environmental politics have erred in not seeing home as essential to our understanding of nature, environmental change, and environmental politics. If the environment or nature is seen only as a place away from where we are in our everyday lives, we might miss its significance in our home. The tree outside of this window, the river that we can see just behind me, is as “wild” or “natural” as a tree in Sequoia National Forest, or rapids in a rushing river in a national park. Both are certainly as deserving of life and protection as those in a protected national space such as a national park. When we see home as including all the natural spaces around it – the trees, the animals, the waters, the plants – as part of a connected community of life and meaning that we have a sacred responsibility to protect and a human scale on which to act; in this sense domesticity and wildness are mutually connected and mutually interdependent. In a moving memoir, Janissa Ray wrote in Ecology of a Cracker Childhood about her upbringing among the longleaf pines of southern Georgia. “Homeland built us…” she writes, “…culture springs from the actions of people in a landscape.” The ecosystems in which our homes are made and lived, she argues, produce us, shelter us, make us. Without those closely connected systems we have no identity. Connecting the broad themes of environmental change with local homes and local place has given the movement newfound activism, newfound beauty, and newfound hope. And, as Rankine reminds us, this is the work of social justice too.
Since we know that we act locally when we see a threat as affecting our home, this theme has provided the basis for a better environmental politics that is less exclusionary. Lois Gibbs – the “mother of the Superfund” – organized against toxic waste because of what it did to her home, her neighborhood, the place where she engaged her identity and meaning. Her story is brilliantly told in the book Paradise Falls by Keith O’Brien who will be speaking at the Concord Public Library this weekend. Linda Garcia organized against the largest oil export port in Port Vancouver, Washington for a similar reason – because this affected, damaged, and destroyed home and community in marginalized low-income areas. Home – as I hope you can see – is an opportunity for groundwork and environmental work on a human scale when the problems seem so large.
My last theme is humility – something that the environmental movement, environmental policy, and environmental science sometimes has lacked. We might know this as simply following the precautionary principle – that is the idea that we should do no harm, and should assume guilt on the part of any intervention until the innocence of the intervention is proven. That we should listen rather than just insist on some action. Humility has not often been the watchword of environmentalism until it was forced upon it by actors often left out – such as BIPOC communities; working class communities wondering why saving wilderness was more important than better neighborhoods. Environmental justice movements since the 1980s have certainly improved this. Nonetheless, we still have a kind of “ignorant arrogance” about the ways that we might use science, markets, growth, and consumption to solve the problems of environmental change and damage done by science, markets, growth, and consumption; we seek solutions from the very systems that have created the problems. And this, as Wendell Berry again reminds us, resembles the idea of a six-year old driving a car. It kinda works, I guess. The car will move. But do you really want to be the passenger? Or do you want to be another driver on the same road? Large countries, for example, might very well be able to successfully navigate such a shift in the world of climate change. But what of the rest of the world?
Environmental histories have abounded with the problems of when humility is not the followed policy and is replaced by hubris. The hubris of knowing better than local people what might be needed for a good and a healthy and a sustainable life without actually speaking with them. One innovative study of environmental history shows how hubris overtook humility. In the 1930s, the federal government demanded that the Diné (Navajo) stop grazing sheep and goats on their rangelands because of damage and overgrazing. The federal scientists dismissed Diné concerns about the cultural heritage of herding, dismissed the role that Diné women played in the grazing culture, and inaugurated a program to cull and reduce the herds resulting in a destruction of Diné economies, impoverishment, and no discernable improvement to grasslands on the range. But the Diné were wrong as well – grazing was not a long cultural heritage, the grasslands were degraded, the current practice was not sustainable. But the hubris of scientists in the federal government forestalled a cross-cultural conversation that might have led to a better understanding of the problem, engaged Diné community members who recognized the concerns over sustainability, and created meaningful cross-cultural dialogue and solutions.
Justice (and a better environmental politics) requires a sincere commitment and engagement with conversation – it was not followed here in the Diné example; justice requires a humility that checks the tendency to see expertise as above all. Humility must be followed in our communities and our future political movements. More than any other theme this is the one that sees history repeat itself over and over across the last century.
Justice too should recognize that climate change denial is not an identity – it is just as much a hubris of ideological positioning and a rejection of an earlier and more consistent political heritage. This does not mean that there are not compromises to be made in engagement with competing points of view; but the grandstanding against climate science has little effective place. One of our most conservative institutions – one not usually prone to humility – has noted the tremendous work needed to ensure the protection of a good life. Take this statement: “Climate change is reshaping the geostrategic, operational, and tactical environments with significant implications for U.S. national security and defense. Increasing temperatures; changing precipitation patterns; and more frequent, intense, and unpredictable extreme weather conditions caused by climate change are exacerbating existing risks and creating new security challenges for U.S. interests. The risks of climate change to…strategies, plans, capabilities, missions, and equipment…are growing. Global efforts to address climate change – including actions to address the causes as well as the effects – will influence…strategic interests, relationships, competition, and priorities. To train, fight, and win in this increasingly complex environment, [we] will consider the effects of climate change at every level…” This is a statement of the Department of Defense about climate change – and this has been the consistent statement of the institution since the late 1990s regardless of party. Recognizing our fragility and the interconnectedness of democracy and environment is and will be the future. Writer and activist Naomi Klein noted recently that it “changes everything” and demands not ignorance or evasion but engagement with our limits and our capabilities.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak about some of these issues. I appreciated your indulgence in listening, and I am happy to answer any questions and engage in other conversations beyond this space.