September/October 2007


Altar Call for True Believers

Photo: Mark Tomalty / Masterfile

If I ever preached to the choir, this luncheon was it. The sixty people in the room were professed environmentalists, all of them on the advisory council of an earth center at a college that advertises itself, rightfully, as strongly committed to environmental responsibility. Seated to my right was a friendly but road-weary woman who had arrived minutes before from Chicago. She had rented a car at the airport and driven straight here.

“When will you return home?” I asked.

“I’ll go back this afternoon,” she said.

My white cloth napkin lay folded in my lap. Two silver forks waited to the left of my plate. In minutes I would rise to speak at a meal for which and only for which one woman had flown from Illinois to North Carolina. In fact, I was speaking about the climate crisis. Could anything I said be worth those 750 pounds of carbon dioxide blasted into the atmosphere? Fifty-nine other people had journeyed here by various conveyances. Surely I was in part responsible.

That afternoon, on a panel at the same college, I was asked to discuss “walking the talk.” As invariably happens in the company in which I often find myself, someone referred to the audience as “the choir” and to us panelists as “ministers” — “What can we do to quit just preaching to the choir?”

By “choir” I assume the person meant the already converted, the dedicated, the environmentalists, which implies that somewhere out in the big world there are people who have not yet seen the light, or have seen the light but have not accepted it as their savior, and that our job might more necessarily be to bring those people into the fold. Another person raised her hand and talked about how the uneducated firefighters at the station where she volunteers drive F-150s and employ chemicals to green their lawns. “Where are those people today?” she asked.

As missionaries, the choir member implied, we are failing.

I looked around the room, trying to find the so-called choir. I have been trying to find the choir for a long time, and even more importantly, have been trying to join the choir. From where I stand, even the choir seems to be failing. Or as my friend Dave Brown put it, the choir may be much smaller than we thought.

MANY YEARS AGO A MAN I REVERE, a forest ecologist who has done more than anybody I know to promote his home ecosystem, revealed to me that he shoots hawks. He and his wife love the birds that flock to their butterfly gardens; they love to watch them through a floor-to-ceiling bird window. Yet my mentor loves the colorful songbirds more than he loves the raptors they attract, and in this conflict of interest the ecologist kills hawks.

This private confession of a forest ecologist caused a great turmoil in me. Whitman, of course, said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself.” But I’m a purist. I like black and white. I like hawks.

I fear what this choir — the one I attempt to sing in and occasionally preach to — actually looks like.

At risk of appearing a fraud, I want to admit my own culpability right up front. I live in a comfortable house in the small city of Brattleboro, Vermont. My husband and I cut trees to heat our home, and some of them are alive when we fell them. On the coldest days we turn to fossil fuels to keep the house above sixty degrees. We drive vehicles that consume fossil fuels, and we have raised a son who also now drives a gasoline-powered vehicle. We even own a motorboat. Our home uses electricity that, in part, is produced by the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. I fly regularly. Never having been to Europe, I’d like to take my family there someday, and chances are we’ll fly.

A portion of the food we buy is trucked or flown to us from a shocking distance. We have three dogs, demanding their own portions of the Earth’s resources. Somehow my desk holder is always filled with disposable pens. I shave my legs, and I don’t do it with a straight edge. I’ve purchased clothing at times that was surely made in sweatshops. So, perfect I am not. In fact, my part in the destruction of nature is both serious and shameful.

Yet many times a day, I move ever toward a more sustainable life, learning to weigh the implications of my actions. To measure sustainability, I often refer to Jim Merkel’s definition, which is human consumption based on biospheric production or, using the Earth’s resources at a rate slower than they regenerate. Step by step I creep toward a life that is easier on the planet, eating locally as much as possible, buying secondhand goods, using manual technology instead of electric. For over a year my husband and I saved to buy a hybrid car before purchasing a used one at list price from a friend. A state grant allowed us to exchange every incandescent bulb in our home for a compact florescent. Each spring our vegetable garden expands.

These conversions toward sustainability may be easier for me than for some. I was raised very poor — on a junkyard, in fact. I learned almost from infancy to recycle, to make do or do without, to keep needs separate from desires, to waste not. Living within our means taught me to live within the Earth’s means. Growing up in a fanatically religious family, too, I learned early that “putting your money where your mouth is” was more than an adage. My family practiced what my father preached.

Still, I am far from saved. My footprint is surely too large for me to enter the kingdom of sustainability heaven. If sustainable living is a continuum, from excessive waste to zero waste, then I too am not where I want to be on it.

However, I gaze out across the continuum and see people — environmentalists! — much farther behind than I expect.

A few people I know who consider themselves environmentalists have purchased new cars recently, ones that run on internal-combustion engines and get less than thirty miles to the gallon. One friend, a global-warming scientist, told me he decided not to buy a hybrid “until the kinks get worked out.”

Three other environmentalist friends have built new homes. Full of love and admiration for my friends, I have enjoyed these beautiful homes, all artfully designed, comfortable, well-heated, well-lit, and more than 2,500 square feet in size. All of the houses are connected to the power grid, although one also has solar panels. Another was described to me by my friend, the owner, as “sustainable,” by which she meant that some passive solar techniques were employed in its construction and that natural stone was used for the mammoth fireplace. That particular home has a pool and a hot tub.

I watched another friend buy a pint of blueberries from a farmstand and accept a plastic bag offered by the cashier. The minute we got to the car, he removed the blueberries from the bag and we started to eat them. I was brought face to face with a plastic bag whose lifespan was less than five minutes (but whose slow death in a landfill may take more than a thousand years).

Every day, in thousands of actions large and small, we who profess to love the Earth are making decisions that destroy it. Some of these choices are unavoidable, to be sure. But in many cases we could easily choose less harmful options and not suffer measurably, if at all.

PERHAPS THE HARDEST THING FOR ME IN LIFE is contradiction. There is an ancient enmity between deed and creed, it seems. Knowing the complexity of the human psyche, my own included, I never expect the two to align perfectly. Nor are contradictions easy to recognize in ourselves. However, when words and actions are obviously incongruous, I start to feel crazy, and in the face of new and startling evidence of environmental catastrophe, the contradictions are almost too much to bear.

A global-warming speaker is invited to a village ten miles from Brattleboro to speak. She accepts. There is no effort made to organize a carpool or a bus, and as might be expected, most of the people in the audience, including myself, have motored from town. Or, eighteen hundred land-trust advocates gather in Nashville. I am among them, grimly imagining the jet fuel, gasoline, and oil burned to get eighteen hundred people to a single location.

Some of the contradictions are less dramatic. Last Thanksgiving we ordered a locally grown, organic turkey. When I called, the farmer said that I would need to pick up the turkey on the Sunday prior to Thanksgiving at her farm, located thirty miles away.

“Is there no other way to get it?” I asked. “Do you not deliver to town?”

“The only way we distribute is at the farm.”

“I’m very worried about climate change,” I said. “Could I have someone else from town pick up my turkey? I’ll send a check.”

“Listen,” she said. “I have ninety turkeys to distribute. I don’t have time to find someone who will bring your turkey to you.”

“Not necessarily to my door,” I said. “I could meet the person in town. If you give me a few numbers, I’ll call around and find someone.”

“Sorry,” she said, annoyed. “I can’t give out the names of my customers.”

There I was, caught between eating locally and driving sixty miles to pick up a turkey.

And that’s the conundrum we all should be facing. Every day we should be weighing even the minutest decision and asking ourselves, Which action causes the least harm? Should I travel these miles? Will my gains in knowledge and inspiration offset my damage to the planet?

In the case of the turkey, I found two other families who’d ordered birds and we rode together to the farm. In the end, the benefits of that particular Thanksgiving fowl still outweighed the costs associated with the mass-produced, store-bought option, but even my share of the miles traveled to fetch it left a bitter taste in my mouth.

WE CHOIR MEMBERS ARE WELL-EDUCATED. We’ve read Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Long Emergency and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. But are we committed enough to really make change? Are we part of being change, or are we just talking about change? Do we consider every decision we make? Do we analyze our own impact and work to decrease it, day by day? Do we continually strive to get by with less?

Or are we, too, alongside the unenlightened multitudes, living in denial, turning our heads from the true consequences of our actions? Are we still living safely, properly? Are we unwilling to give up our memberships? Are we unwilling to look different, to act different, to stand behind our beliefs even if we might be considered eccentric or even losers by the dominant culture? Are we granting ourselves exemptions? Do we justify harmful actions because they’re done on behalf of the Earth? Or worse, do we justify them because we think we’re already doing enough?

And, having been taught so well to act — to be activists — are we able to see that the best decisions may not look like action? That the right action (as with the Chicagoan) may be staying closer to home?

Many times I have attended some gathering or other to speak about environmental issues, and when the final word has been delivered, the final question debated, refreshments are served on plastic plates and in plastic cups. I prepare my remarks. I take a deep breath, step in front of the crowd. I rant, I rave, I weep and open my heart. I preach fire and brimstone, and the punch is served in plastic cups. I cannot tell you the horrible feeling that envelops me.

Now, when invited somewhere to speak, I send a sheet ahead of time asking organizers for an environment-friendly event: paper instead of plastics; no Styrofoam; if possible, real flatware and dinnerware; at least biodegradable flatware; recycled paper in fliers and press releases; services provided by local businesses; locally grown and organic food preferred for meals or receptions; receptacles for recycling; carpooling encouraged. These guidelines, with many more that you or I have yet to imagine, are ones that we need to employ every hour of every day. We have to believe with our bodies what we know in our minds to be true. We have to accept the solutions to our environmental problems as personal and start applying them personally, and then all around us.

Given that our government won’t ratify the Kyoto Protocol or take steps to limit production of carbon and other greenhouse gases, we choir members have to sign the Kyoto treaty individually, or take a pledge to reduce our personal emissions 30 percent in the next two years and 80 percent by 2050. We also have to keep applying pressure to government, and holding our elected officials accountable. If we’re not doing it, who is?

Living a lie destroys the spirit. It is a kind of mental illness, a schizophrenia. It also undermines our credibility. That’s why An Inconvenient Truth disappointed me. The night the film premiered in Brattleboro, my husband and I bicycled to the theater and waited in line for tickets. Afterward, we were uplifted: we knew millions of people would watch the movie and would change. I remain grateful for the film and the effect it’s having, but what I remember most now are its contradictions. In scene after scene, Al Gore gobbles up fossil fuels: he’s behind the wheel of an SUV, he’s going through customs, he’s on a plane, he’s being driven through a city. Even when demonstrating a graph about rising temperatures, Mr. Gore doesn’t climb a ladder affixed to the wall. No, he mounts a hydraulic lift.

I HAVE BEEN ACCUSED OF BEING JUDGMENTAL. Lean in instead of leaning out, I’ve been told. Judge not that ye be not judged. But I wonder if judgment is really a bad habit — or if the social taboo against passing judgment simply allows us to feel safer in our own hypocrisy.

Whether we be heads of state or directors of organizations or worker bees or armchair cheerleaders, we in the choir are leaders and role models. We, of all people, have to show that life can be lived differently, and that the reimagined life can be beautiful, functional, and overflowing with rewards none of us expected.

So the question becomes: what should the choir look like? And: what do I have to do to belong?

We can look to Susana Lein for part of the answer. Lein runs Salamander Springs Farm near Berea, Kentucky. She spent the better part of the 1980s as a landscape architect in the Boston area, then seven years living in her husband’s native Guatemala, learning to live simply, making do. When her marriage ended, she returned to the United States, bought ninety-eight acres with friends, and began to live on the land in a tent. She farms six acres without tillage or chemicals of any kind. A designer and alternative builder, she is also a person determined to live within her means and the means of the Earth. She built a rough house by raiding dumpsters for building supplies and trading labor with friends. She uses a composting toilet, a spring for water, solar energy.

I heard Lein speak at a Northeast Organic Farming Association conference. What attracted me to her talk was its title: “Creating a Farm and Homestead on Marginal Land (While Penniless).” Humble and unassuming, private and down-to-earth, Susana Lein was the most inspiring person I’d seen in a long time. Without a doubt she walks the talk.

We also need to recognize that others in the choir may not look the way we expect them to. My father the junkman belongs in the choir, although he would never call himself an environmentalist. He’s never flown in a passenger jet and rarely travels by car beyond his home county. He lives simply, makes do. That he never went to college, never read Aldo Leopold, and may not have heard of carrying capacity matters not. Now is as good a time as any to shed our preconceptions about what an environmentalist looks like, and to recognize that the most unlikely people are going to be allies in the quest for sustainability.

The good news is that I’m starting to see more determination and more personal accountability. Recently I spoke to environmental educators in North Carolina during an eco-picnic in a longleaf pine grove on Fort Bragg. The day was sunny and gorgeous. Lois Nixon, who organized the event, made sure that picnic lunches were served in reusable cooler bags, that napkins were cotton washcloths, and that most of the lunch was local and organic. She distributed compact fluorescent bulbs (donated
to the group) to offset some of the carbon generated by travel.

A Covington, Georgia Montessori school sponsored a reception after a reading I gave at the local public library. The hors d’oeuvres were bowls of cherry tomatoes and carrot sticks, grown by local gardeners — no brownies from a box, no cheese sticks. By using porcelain plates and cloth napkins, the group met its goal of zero waste.

At the Farmers Diner in Vermont, where we ate on my birthday, there was not a paper towel to be found in the restroom. On the sink sat a basket of white hand-towels and underneath, a basket for used ones.

Of course, no matter how many paper cups or napkins I decline, the fact remains that I fly around the country in a direct negation of my mission. To scale back this personal gluttony of fossil fuels, I have been accepting fewer invitations, scheduling multiple events in one area, and combining business with social visits and research. At home, I bike and walk a lot. A lot is not enough, I know. I am working toward leaving home on my bike more often than in my car, until maybe there’s no longer any use for the car.

And when my son goes off to college next fall and I can be away from home for longer periods of time, I intend to put a moratorium on air travel. I’ll be taking the train and the bus, which means that I’ll think long and hard about going to Arizona for a two-day conference when the journey itself is two days each way. I’ll miss some of the travel, but I look forward to the unsurpassable joys of staying close to home — and that joy is the key here, because I’m not preaching a life of deprivation. I’m talking about bringing our actions into better alignment with our aspirations for the Earth.

I want to see our communities get more and more localized, with more local food produced and consumed, more local goods bought and sold. I want to see local entrepreneurship and craftsmanship encouraged. I want a renaissance of the hands, so that we use fewer electrical gadgets and motorized tools.

I want to hear of an organization that decides, because of the climate crisis, to cancel its annual conference. I want to see us relying on the mail and conference calls and e-mail for corresponding with distant colleagues, and engaging more deliberately with our neighbors. I want to see us using petroleum as if it were precious, which is to say sparingly and wisely, driving shorter distances and less often; in fact, I want getting in a single-occupancy vehicle to be a last resort.

I want us to get radical. I want us choir members to make even the hardest decisions while holding the Earth in mind.

I want us to raise the bar for ourselves.

This article, along with other landmark Orion essays about transformative action, are collected in a new anthology, Change Everything Now. Order your copy here.

Janisse Ray is an American writer whose subject most often falls into the borderland of nature and culture. She has published five books of nonfiction and a collection of eco-poetry. Ray has won an American Book Award, Pushcart Prize, Southern Bookseller Awards, Southern Environmental Law Center Writing Awards, and Eisenberg Award, among others. Her first book, Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, was a New York Times Notable Book. The author has been inducted into the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. She lives on an organic farm near Savannah. Red Lanterns, Ray’s second book of poetry, is forthcoming in Spring 2021.