Homeplanet Security

"Sobs racked the body of a middle-aged man as he cradled the head of his baby, its dust-covered body dressed only in a blue diaper, lying beside the bodies of three other children, their colorful clothes layered with debris from their shattered homes." 

I held this sentence, from a Reuters report on the civilian casualties in Afghanistan, in my head all day long. By the time my girls were in bed I was storming around the house, slamming cupboard doors, and sending the day's accumulation of Legos and crayons clattering into bins.

I've had more than enough of the bombs, the burning airplanes, and the deadly bacteria. I'm fed up with the men, in uniforms, in robes, or in business suits, who are re-enacting thousand-year-old reflexes with modern weaponry. I'm tired of them pounding, cutting, burning, and breaking as though anything sacred, from holy Mecca to cherished babies, could be saved by the destruction of somebody else's treasures and loved ones.

I'm sick of the simplistic thinking, which says "we will kill our enemies and then be safe." The killing and dying didn't make the world any safer for that baby in the blue diaper, and I cannot see how it will make it any safer for my diapered baby either. 

Of course, beneath most anger lies fear, and I have been searching for mine. My fear is that our poor world just won't be able to take this. By world I don't mean the Earth and all its life. Blue-green algae, microscopic fungi, and hot-springs bacteria will barely notice the types of calamities that could shake the human species right off the planet. The Earth I am worried about is the one we are accustomed to, the Earth that provides grain, fruit, pure water, and endurable weather. The Earth that has coral reefs, rain forests, and alpine meadows.

That Earth was already under assault before September 11th. With many of the world's nations involved in an escalating confrontation that might last for years, where will we find the attention and resources to begin to restore our wetlands, our soil, and our atmosphere? Already, across this country, budgets are being reconfigured with more money for "security" and less for organic farming, land preservation, and alternative energy.

This sends me from fear back again to anger. Where does security come from anyway? There are no more islands of safety. You can't get much farther from the industrial world than the Arctic Circle, but we have known for years that the breast milk of women there contains PCBs. We understand that greenhouse emissions from American cars warm up the whole globe, not just America. And now we know that airplanes, and even the mail, can be used as weapons by the desperately angry. Thinking that our country can provide itself with "homeland security" is like thinking that you can keep your left leg fed while the rest of your body starves.

I don't think of myself as a fighter, but I can be fierce in protecting the people I care about, especially my kids. The fierce part of me is not very nimble or very articulate. It focuses on hot stoves and sharp objects. It doesn't know how to respond to acid rain, or deforestation, or global war. It's a mother bear that lives in the basement of my soul, and when I let it upstairs for some air we usually have a period of door-slamming and muttering without much constructive action.

Lately though, I think the mother bear has been listening to the part of my mind that tries to comprehend the whole world. If no place is safe until all places are safe, then we need a worldwide blossoming of conservation projects, women's health initiatives, schools, nutrition projects, and peace brigades. The mother bear has no words for any of this, but I can feel a shift as she catches her first scent of a place to act.

The sophisticated thinking side of me is sidetracked so easily. Can we change the world? Is there enough time? These are meaningless distractions to the mama bear. What mother ever stopped to ask, "can I get to the scissors in time"? Even when it seems hopeless, even when the blades are millimeters away from skin, you don't ask questions -- you just run, you just leap at the danger.

There are people who will beat at flames or claw at rocks with their bare hands to save one child. We tend to call these people heroes, but that capacity is in all of us. There are also people who insist that no child is safe until all children are safe. We tend to call such people dreamers, or saints, but, of course, we all also have the capacity see their point for ourselves.

I don't think heroes are enough today, and neither are dreamers. What we need are whole people who have let the mother bear out of the basement and made sure her full power is guided by the knowledge that, like it or not, we are all in this together. What we need are people who will claw at rocks with their bare hands to save all the children.

Elizabeth Sawin writes a regular column on global systems for the Sustainability Institute of Hartland, Vermont.

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