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Avoiding ‘the equality of extinction’

I try to read about and take action on the environment when Earth Day rolls around, and I hope you do too. It’s the least we can do.

Given the array of threats to our planet as a whole and to our state, we ought to be active year-round. With global warming, oil spills, chemical contamination and the ravages of open pit mining regularly making headlines, you’d think a lot more people would be up in arms. Yet national polls show the public rates environmental issues as a concern far below jobs, the economy, health care, taxes, education, immigration and more.

I understand people’s focus on bread-and-butter issues and personal survival. But there’s a much bigger survival issue at stake.

In one of the most chilling segments in A Fierce Green Fire, to be aired by PBS on April 22, a civil rights leader says: “If we do not save the environment, then whatever we do in civil rights will be of no meaning. Because then we will have the equality of extinction.”

Not everyone can be activists 24/7, but we can all take small steps to increase environmental consciousness — our own, our neighbors’ and that of policymakers.

Read the founding texts of the conservation and environmental movements by Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and Wisconsin’s Aldo Leopold. Then check out contemporary books by Al Gore, Bill McKibben and Vandana Shiva. Some are based on personal observations of nature, others on scientific data. All brim with moral purpose. 

Not a big reader? Then spend a few minutes checking them out on Wikipedia. Share what you’ve learned with others.

I read a biography of Carson along with her classic Silent Spring last year and was blown away by her passion and integrity. You’ve got to love a woman who is still the subject of million-dollar slander campaigns by chemical polluters 50 years after her death!

Vandana Shiva, an Indian scientist, is our modern day Rachel Carson. She bravely sticks her neck out denouncing corporate globalization for its role in destroying biodiversity and local economies (through the imposition of patented, genetically modified seeds). She writes eloquently about the concepts of ecofeminism and “Earth democracy.”

This year I read A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, first published in 1949. It’s a delightful account of the activities of bird, insect, animal and plant life on the sandy terrain of Leopold’s farm in Sauk County. The edition I have includes his essay “The Land Ethic,” whose principles form the bedrock of conservation.

In its most famous passage, Leopold wrote: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

“The fallacy the economic determinists have tied around our collective neck,” he wrote, “is the belief that economics determines all land use.” Leopold argued instead for “the existence of obligations above self-interest.”

Leopold’s plea for “obligations above self-interest” reminded me of Abe Lincoln’s takedown of slavery proponents for claiming there was “no right principle of action but self-interest” — meaning profit and property rights. We need leaders with such moral conviction today to assert the wider public interest and that of the Earth.

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