Giving thanks and looking forward

 

With Thanksgiving near, it’s the season to be grateful and take stock of our situation. In that spirit, here’s some of what I’ve been thinking about. First, as we conclude our celebration of the golden anniversary of the Wilderness Act, let’s give a cheer to the 88th U.S. Congress, which, in 1964, passed the law almost unanimously.

Congress’ legacy is a 109-million-acre wilderness system that continues to expand despite frequent efforts, generally Republican, to thwart new collaborative proposals and weaken protections. These lands are meant to be set aside for solitude, research, adventure and future generations — of people, bears, loons and other creatures. As a haven for both wildlife and the human mind, wilderness is more relevant than ever as we face the entwined crises of climate disruption, ocean acidification and declining biodiversity.

But while giving thanks, we should also acknowledge that our wilderness system is still a work in progress. Many good wilderness proposals are stalled in Congress, and as climate change ramps up, we need to encourage ideas that increase connectivity between wild places.

Though I’m grateful to a host of American conservationists, recently I’ve been thinking a lot about Ed Abbey, because as much as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir, Abbey knew the importance of wildness to the human spirit. He rooted himself in the American desert and fought for its protection with his books, and yes, sometimes with the “night work” known as monkey wrenching. Cactus Ed’s uncompromising love of the wild is something to consider today as our free spaces disappear and scientists warn we are going over the cliff on climate.

I’m also glad Dave Foreman is still kicking. A former Wilderness Society staffer and Sierra Club board member, he co-founded Earth First!, the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and has written books on the state of nature. He has spent his life protecting wild places, and he’s still out there giving rousing sermons on wilderness. Catch one — live or online — if you can.

I’m also thankful for Celia Hunter, Ginny Wood, Rachel Carson, Rosalie Edge, Mardy Murie, Julia Butterfly Hill and Gwich’in elder Sarah James, among many others, who remind us that women have long played heroic roles in conservation. In the early 1960s, Carson refused to let the physical pain of cancer prevent her from testifying before Congress about the harm that pesticides and other chemicals do to wildlife, workers and children. She was vilified and threatened, but her work led to bans on DDT and other poisons. In women is the preservation of the world -- I hope Thoreau would agree.

Terry Tempest Williams deserves thanks, too. Her love for the West’s land and people is as strong as anyone’s, and her message is clear: We are losing our public lands, wildlife, oceans and climate. She calls us to direct action, each in our own way.

Williams is a loyal supporter of Timothy DeChristopher, aka Bidder #70. In December 2008, DeChristopher monkey-wrenched a Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease auction for lands alongside Canyonlands and Arches national parks. Like Thoreau, Martin Luther King and others, he was jailed for his peaceful protest, although his nearly two years behind bars for spoiling an auction far exceeded the sentences served by King or Thoreau. His civil disobedience spotlighted many illegal Bush-era leases that were eventually overturned.

I’m also thankful to the 400,000 people who joined the People’s Climate March in New York City in September, co-organized by climate activist Bill McKibben. Many rode overnight on cramped buses to reach New York, where they merged with a river of humanity flowing through the canyons of Manhattan. The main stem was 30 blocks long, with tributaries of marchers surging through side streets. It was a peaceful flood of humanity -- people coming together to call on world leaders to adopt a clean-energy future. Over 1,000 simultaneous events occurred across the globe.

There has never been a moment like this. In 2014, we steadily rose toward the dangerous average of 400 parts-per-million of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The oceans absorb much of this pollution, creating the most acidic conditions in some 50 million years. Like it or not, we may be the most important generation in human history.

As Americans, we bear a unique responsibility, as our lifestyles produce something like one-fifth of the planet’s heat-trapping CO2 molecules. But we also have social stability and a proud history of free speech. So, while it’s a time for thanks, let’s also read some Cactus Ed and other writers, whose stories have helped to bring about change. Let’s think about the role we’ll play in the year ahead, because any way you look at it, no one sits this one out.

Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He writes in Girdwood, Alaska.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.