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Monday, April 22, 2013

Running into sustainability’s fire

In this overwhelming, speed of light complicated, conflicted and screwed up world, a moment of clarity, sublimity, and eternal meaning.

By Dave Newport

The now famous 1988 PBS interview series between Bill Moyers and hero-mythologist Joseph Campbell exploded back into my mind after recent events.

Campbell, the renowned historian and author of the seminal work The Hero with a Thousand Faces was interviewed by hall of fame journalist Bill Moyers as they dug into heroes, heroism, and how that greatness defines cultures. It’s as good as TV gets.

And watching the Boston and West, Texas incidents unfold, the incomprehensible all made a little more sense, thanks to those two.

One poignant incident Campbell recalled was of a Hawaii State Patrolman who came upon a tourist-driven car dangling precipitously from a mountainside road. The driver was still in the car and it was still rocking from the accident, teetering towards infinity only seconds away.

The patrolman ran immediately to the car and was able to extricate the driver as the car slipped over the cliff and plummeted onto the rocks below.

Asked later why he so instinctively ran toward danger and put his life on the line to try and help a stranger, the patrolman responded, “If I didn’t try my entire life would have been meaningless.”

We saw a lot of that in the Boston bomb attacks and the plant explosion in Texas. And in both cases, it wasn’t just the trained first responders than immediately ran into harm’s way, it was everyman. Police, fireman, and medics were joined by many everyday citizens as they ran into the smoke, into the fire, to help those who were down.

In this overwhelming, speed of light complicated, conflicted and screwed up world, a moment of clarity, sublimity, and eternal meaning.


That said, it is important to recognize the heroism and meaning in the work of sustainability folks. We are trying to save lives, human and otherwise, and the culture and environment upon which we all depend.

It’s safer than standing in front of bullets and I would never equate these forms of heroism. But everyday, many of you engage in heroic acts.

Think of those acts that are directly impacting sustainability: Folks building water systems in remote villages, feeding the hungry, weatherizing low income homes, teaching under-resourced people, helping subsistence farmers practice low-flow irrigation, rebuilding Haiti, provide medical services where there are none, providing clothing and support for refugees, or fighting fires in Colorado cooked up by climate change, etc, etc.

Saints all.

They are directly advancing sustainability’s finest traditions of humanity, justice, and inclusion. I cherish these people. They define heroism too. They are running into sustainability’s fire.

[Coda added 4/21]: And then there are those sustainability advocates that do put their lives on the line in a very vivid way. This Earth Day marked the first day that Cornell and Ithaca College Professor and fracking activist Sandra Steingraber was allowed out of solitary confinement in an upstate NY county jail. Bad things happen to people in jail. We hope she survives unscathed. And it's probably not a career enhancing move--but that's not her aim. Her crime was protesting too much the legal, ethical, and environmental insults being hurled at us all by the fracking industry. Her "Letter From Jail on Earth Day" will inspire many to do much. I appreciate all the more that AASHE keynoted her at the annual conference a couple years ago. We need more leaders/heros of her obvious spine and eloquence.

For me, I go to meetings a lot. Talk on the phone/in the office, and process email. Write reports and think about things.

I measure my impact by program metrics, budgets, policies, students reached, and so forth. We are making a difference but it is indirect and I am putting far less of my life on the line. Far less. What I do is a second-order act. It’s necessary and good, but I really feel good when I help provide a meal for homeless people. Did something. Do it more.

Which brings us to how heroes help define culture. Indeed, we venerate them because we live through them. We may never have the opportunity to directly stand in harm’s way—but we vicariously experience front line heroes’ acts through story and a mythology that defines our best angels and the ethical standards to which we all longingly aspire.

If we are lucky we will be given a split second in life when it all makes sense and we don’t flinch. I simultaneously long for and fear that moment may someday come. For after a career working on sustainability, I worry that one decision could make it or break it.

Consider Gamble Rogers. A well known guitar player and storyteller in the South, Gamble for years toured music festivals playing awesome acoustic guitar and spinning comical tales of a fictional Florida county where politics driven by easy tourist dollars enabled sprawl and the defiling of a once pristine Florida environment. He pilloried the typical Florida snowbird tourist relentlessly for their carpet bagging tendencies. Yet it was an entertaining and comical allegory presented over some of the best flat picking I have ever heard.

Moreover, he used the arts to indirectly message the story of sustainability.

Then at age 54, “while Rogers was camping at Flagler Beach, Florida, a frightened young girl ran to him, begging him to help her father, who was in trouble in rough surf. Compromised by spinal arthritis that had been worsening since childhood, Rogers nevertheless grabbed an air mattress and headed into the ocean in a rescue attempt.

Both men died in the surf.

The man Rogers tried to rescue was a tourist.

In honor of his heroism, the Florida Legislature renamed the state park Gamble Rogers Memorial State Recreation Area at Flagler Beach.”

Rogers also posthumously won a Carnegie Award for Heroism, has schools and parks and music festivals named after him, and reminds us that what is worth living for is worth dying for: humanity.

Rogers’s life indirectly advanced sustainability by telling a story that highlighted an ethic and values that touch the best in our culture and in us. And he closed out his life modeling that ethic.

So while we remember and respect the sacrifices and noble acts we’ve seen in recent days, I see the nobility in all of you that everyday run into sustainability’s fire.