Heeding the Call
The call of the wild was for many years a whisper, soft as the folding of wings, audible only to the most sensitive souls.As "civilization" encroached, the whisper grew urgent. Grew louder and more shrill. Screamed its fate to the skyscrapers. And still, only a few of us are listening.In mid-October, the Missouri Botanical Garden gave writer Bill McKibben its highest honor, the Henry Shaw Medal. McKibben's first wide success had been The End of Nature, pointing out the encroachment of "civilization" in wild terrain and the disastrous consequences. Now -- partly to keep his own mental balance -- he's written Hope, Human and Wild, chronicling several communities in which people are "living lightly on the earth."In the Adirondacks, where McKibben lives with his wife, writer Sue Halpern, and baby daughter Sophie, forest has been restored from clear-cut wasteland, and the beaver, moose and coyote have returned on cue. In Kerala, a densely populated state in southern India with a per capita income 1/70th of the U.S. average, they've reached 100 percent literacy and dramatically decreased the birthrate. In Curitiba, an unwealthy city in Brazil, they've instituted one of the world's best mass-transit systems, invented ecological solutions to sanitation problems, gotten children off the streets and into the arms of adults who care.Meanwhile, in New York City, sidewalk stalls could prevent puddles of urine, feces and stagnant water in public restrooms -- but a two-year study has been undertaken to determine how much advertising should be allowed on the sides. As McKibben puts it, "Complexity has overwhelmed common sense."Despite the optimism of his new book's title, he remains "quite pessimistic and alarmed" by the U.S. approach to global warming and other environmental problems. "We are pretty darn stuck in our ways," he notes. "It's very frustrating, especially because I have the strong sense that people would enjoy the other possible ways of living. By all the ways these things are measured, Americans are not particularly happy."What's gone wrong? "Some of the obstacles are structural," he begins slowly. "We have built a landscape that depends on the automobile, and it's very difficult to build backwards from there -- although I doubt we'd make the same set of choices again." Other obstacles stem from perception and image: After all, "no one makes us drive Ford Explorers," McKibben points out. "Over 90 percent of sport-utility vehicles don't leave a paved road -- and the average mileage of the cars being junked each year is higher than the mileage of the cars being built." He cringes at the old Land Rover injunction: Celebrate Thoreau's birthday: Drive through a pond. "There is something deeply ironic and postmodern about the way the vehicles we purchase to mythically connect with the wilderness are an essential part of its destruction."In Hope, Human and Wild, McKibben settles into naturalist Barry Lopez' goal: "To find some place between the extremes of nature and civilization where it is possible to live without regret." Introducing examples of this equilibrium, he admits that he found "no miracle cures, no Twinkie diets. The treatment they suggest has side effects. There are no 50 simple ways to save the planet; there are only a few difficult ways to learn to live within its bounds."In Curitiba, people exchange sacks of garbage for food. A big canvas tent travels through poor neighborhoods; in the tent, children are taught to make toys from recycled trash. Mayor Jaime Lerner has charmed the townspeople into a state of exuberant community, insisting on the importance of having fun and keeping one's humanity. When anxiety and bureaucracy threaten to paralyze a project, his response is: "Just start."When Curitibans talk about children, "it doesn't sound sort of icky, the way it does when American politicans ramble on about the children,'" McKibben notes. "People in Curitiba have actually done something." A chilling consequence of North American affluence is our isolation -- from problems, from people, from the physical world. "It's possible to go through a year without ever getting too wet, too cold or too hot," he remarks. "Which strikes me as a kind of hell. It keeps us from even noticing the world as it is."That may explain our inertia toward global warming, the issue that scares McKibben most. "The science gets clearer all the time," he observes. "When you change temperature, you have changed literally everything. Yet in this country, we have done nothing. We are addicted to cheap energy. It's going to be wrenching for our economy to wean itself from those resources -- and unfortunately, we don't have a lot of time. It needs to happen more quickly than President Clinton and certainly most of Washington has cottoned onto."Upcoming negotiations in Kyoto, Japan, have started the issue buzzing, gnatlike, in official faces. But McKibben predicts the talks will be "unproductive -- which is probably best. It would be a mistake to get locked into an unambitious program of carbon reductions. Better to let the flow of events convince people. "Environmental change is even harder than the civil-rights movement," he adds. "That was about bringing people into the existing system. Environmentalism is about changing the very nature of the system, changing the addiction to growth that's been the absolute hallmark of our civilization."The central ideology of a consumer society is that you are incredibly important. The ideology of the natural world is that you are a small part of something very large and very beautiful."Conservationist David Western, director of Kenya's National Wildlife Service, also visited the Missouri Botanical Garden last month, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Kenyan national parks he's reshaped. After helping create Amboseli National Park in 1974, Western worked for the Masai tribe's right to participate in park operations and benefits. This change transformed policy nationwide.Who'd have guessed that Western's father was an English adventurer who hunted elephants to pay for David's schooling? "He saw emerging conflicts between humans and wildlife, but his solution was to shoot the elephants that were raiding people's farms and then arrest the poachers," recalls Western. "He ended up being a policeman on both sides." The son's very different relationship with animals crystallized when he looked into an antelope's eyes, gently locking gazes. The intensity of that moment clarified the rest of his life, sending him to the University of Leicester for a degree in zoology and to the University of Nairobi for a doctorate in ecology."It's difficult to get across what is different about our approach without understanding the history of conservation," he remarks now, ignoring a current-events question and starting where he needs to start, with the old view that "if there is a problem, you stop people from using animals, deny them the right." That approach exacerbated tensions in East Africa, where colonialists were afraid that when the Africans gained their independence, they would not conserve wildlife. The parks were created, and "the way it was done created a deep antipathy," Western explains. "Most East Africans felt very bitter about the wildlife, felt it was owned by the British. Even the national parks were called the Queen's Garden -- Shamba la Bibi in Swahili."He had studied Amboseli for years before it became a park, exploring it as an ecologist and noting the patterns of coexistence. His goal was to go beyond the separatist style of preservation by conserving the entire ecosystem, including people such as the Masai, who had lived in an intricate relationship with the wildlife all along. Now they receive a fee that more than covers the cost of accommodating the wildlife; use the park staff's education and health facilities; open their land to tourists, relieving congestion inside the park and bringing profit to their tribe.Western leans forward, eyes alight. "The day this program went into effect, the wildlife organization earned itself 3,000 extra pairs of eyes to look out for poachers." Elephant poaching had been very heavy; the area now has the best-known elephant population in the world, and the animals are extraordinarily tame because they've lost their fear. Last year, the Masai -- traditionally hunters -- set aside their own first wildlife preserve. In celebration, the Royal Ballet performed a spectacular piece called "Dancers in Harmony" on an open-air stage in front of Kilamanjaro.Western's voice softens, remembering the night. But a question about the ethics of hunting brings back the undernote of intelligent impatience. "The West tends to search for one ethic, one rule for using wildlife," he notes. "But look at Yellowstone: it was set aside for recreation; today its purpose is to conserve biological diversity. Your views of nature have changed over time, and each time, you have taken a different approach to conservation. Conservation is not static; it must be adapted to society. I don't think it is ethically acceptable for the West to say how the rest of the world should manage. You have to make sure the values a particular people have for wildlife are fulfilled. Our policy is, the more reasons to conserve, the better. Now, if animals are going to be wiped out, hunting would not be acceptable. But we give the vote to the animals, letting them speak for themselves by an increase in numbers, which is a measure of their welfare."Western's still a bit peeved over U.S. reluctance to fund a program in Zimbabwe that included hunting. "It begs the question whether a New Yorker has more rights over land than a Masai," he explains. "Societies like the Masai have done a much better job, even though hunting is part of their approach." When a Masai dies, he is not buried in the inert earth but put outside the settlement, returned to the living realm."The Masai don't have any such word as wilderness'; that's an alien concept peculiar to the West," he notes wryly. "The parks were created wildernesses,' and the irony is that many are actually losing species diversity."It's called the "segregation effect": "Smaller parks become extinction traps. Even Serengeti and other important parks cannot stand in isolation if they are fenced off."When livestock and wildlife are not barricaded from each other, the elephants graze on trees, opening up the land for grasses, and then the cattle eat the grass and create trees. When this minuet is interrupted, cattle move in on the park's grass, and elephants, having consumed all the trees, head for neighboring ranches. That's one reason Western wants to extend ecological thinking beyond the parks' boundaries, reaching the remaining 75 percent of African wildlife. But thinking more inclusively means reinventing tourism, which until recently meant thousands of minibuses gliding through the parks while their inhabitants gawked at the Big Five (elephant, buffalo, rhinoceros, leopard and lion)."The kind of tourism I've always been passionate about," says the adventurer's son, "is being in wildlife, re-immersed in nature." The new tourism includes camel trips through north Kenya, walks through the savannah; canoe trips through the oldest human history on earth; stays in small Masai lodges with hot-and-cold shower under the stars. "You become sensitive. It slows down the rate at which you're moving; you become more aware of the different species, the local culture, the web of life. In the minibus, people are lulled into this soporific sense with the vehicle lurching and they're just saying, Where's the next lion?'"Sister Ivone Gebara is a less typical -- but equally intense -- environmentalist, living alongside the poor in Brazil and practicing ecofeminist theology. Last week, Gebara inaugurated St. Louis University's Mev Puleo Lectureship in Third World Theology and Culture, named to honor an acclaimed photojournalist and SLU alum who died of a brain tumor at 32. Puleo had interviewed Gebara in Brazil for her book, The Struggle Is One: Voices and Visions of Liberation (1994).Despite doctorates in philosophy and theology and an international reputation, Gebara spoke simply, urging her audience to break free from hierarchical traditions. "The Earth is round," she said softly, "and everything is connected with everything. There is a relatedness to all situations of destructiveness and struggle for liberation. We are invited to make round our idea of solidarity, moving beyond hierarchical conceptions of justice and charity in which solidarity with the poor means helping them live as poor and keeping others rich."Gebara cheerfully blames a politicized, hierarchical Roman Catholic Church for perpetuating the status quo; she urges "a world where all human and nonhuman beings can live with dignity. The world is our common home, and we are absolutely important, one to another." Instead of throwing out more words to define "ecofeminist theology," she talked about a group of women in a poor Brazilian neighborhood polluted by the paper industry. "They are my source. I ask them what solidarity' means. They are silent a moment, then one says, Solidarity is belief that we are always together, for the good things and for the bad things. The owners of this industry believe that the pollution they are provoking is not bad for them and is not bad for us because it gives jobs. This is a lack of solidarity. Maybe now they can live without feeling the bad consequences, but it will not be possible tomorrow. The destruction will touch them too, in their children and grandchildren.' Another woman says, I work in one of their houses, and it is full of plants. They love nature, but only for themselves."Gebara draws her theology from the insights of the poor, but she stresses "the fragility of this wisdom. It helps them survive only in a marginalized society; it does not have access to political power." She admits to having had her confidence shaken in her work with the poor: "I have never in my life been afraid of children. And in the last three years, I was assaulted three times." The dreams of capitalism, "when awakened, produce violence in the lives of poor young people."With the rise of multinational corporations, Gebara has come to see the state, once a source of oppression, as the only way to protect poor people against the free market. "We need to search for a new wisdom, one with political and economic consequences," she remarked. "I know it is so difficult, but it is also easy, because most people are feeling a lack inside themselves, and this lack can help us change. Help will come from nature, from the healings it can provide for us. Voices are crying in the wilderness: Make a straight way for all life. We are invited to leave our anthropocentric, androcentric theology; to understand from inside the relatedness of everything, and build a new ethics, theology, spirituality."Poor people never talk about spirituality," she added dryly. "It's a word from another world." Nor are the poor all freethinking liberationists, either. "Most are very conservative. What I learn from them is how much life is complex. I cannot reduce. I cannot impose on their lives what I want for my own."In an interview, Gebara says she's "not saying we can live in a society totally without hierarchy. But there are different models. This one means concretely that people at the top are the best, they have the rights and the power to decide the lives of those beneath them." The inequity happens even between countries, she adds, with the U.S. dominating trade relationships with small, poor countries such as Haiti. And the same hierarchical model makes nonhuman life inferior, open to exploitation. "We may need to eat animals to survive -- life eats life, that is the way of nature. But we do not need to destroy rain forests to live. The destruction is not for life; it is for profit."What's needed is not radical overthrow but balance. "The ecosystem, the Earth, is our body; a human being is a being that can reflect inside this body," Gebara says. "I cannot leave the Earth to reflect; I am connected to the Earth." Christianity does not yet have much to offer ecology, she admits freely. "We are in the very beginning of thinking ecologically. The first idea is to try to revise our model of God. We experience a mystery we call God, but we need to change the idea that there is an almighty, powerful God outside and above us." That image leads to a hierarchical model that "keeps our fear alive." In Gebara's thinking, "We are in God. It's a round model. I am not asking to God outside and above us to stop the destruction; that is not possible, it does not work. I am in God, and with God in me we can try to stop the destruction."