This is the general text of a speech of the same title presented at the 2000 Annual Conference of The Wilderness Society. A shorter version was published in the conference proceedings.
Inherent in human nature is the desire to oppose suffering. Taking action to stop environmental degradation is a natural response to the suffering of the earth. But social pressures, lack of confidence, or fear of perceived consequences often stifle action. Overcoming these limitations opens a window of insight into the beauty, complexity and resiliency of the earth and of the human spirit.
Acting on your values by honoring the voice within and the voice of the wild brings a freedom and strength that defies limitation. Each selfless action for our diminishing wildlands brings hope and inspiration, and further defines the path towards a more sustainable future. However, to stop aggression towards the land, and to bring about healing solutions requires courage. And courage requires that we nurture ourselves as we follow the path of the peaceful warrior.
Reasons to act are myriad: for self, for others and for a higher power. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, suggested that whereas we often cannot find meaning in history, we can choose to act in a way to give our life meaning. Francis Moore-Lappe stated 'We need to gain the sense of satisfaction that comes from shouldering responsibility and acting on our values in the larger world.' Fundamentally, I believe we act to honor the Creator by protecting this fragile and splendid earth.
Spending time in nature allows us to feel the baraka -- that is, the life force -- that physical and energetic expression of the creative source that connects all living things. Simultaneously, we recognize that the condition of our landscapes defines our history, informs our choices and measures our progress as a civilization. When we become aware of deteriorated conditions or of proposed dastardly deeds that would cause them, it is difficult not to act.
Our conscience has a sharp little stick expressly for poking us, goading us into action. We feel compelled to revive respect for our earth. But it is so easy to rationalize inaction: we lack the skill, the knowledge, the time, the strength. 'I?m only one person.', we lament. However, reflecting on the awesome accomplishments of such wildland heroes as Mardie Murie, Bob Marshall, Howard Zanhiser, they each are 'only one person.' It is the fear of changing our comfortable habits that keeps us from acting, yet it is the urgent need for change that keeps poking us. So prepare to act or go back to sleepwalking through life.
Ram Dass, in his wonderful book Compassion in Action, gives simple but sound advice on taking action. 'Be brave. Start small. Use what you?ve got. Do something you enjoy. Don?t over-commit.' He?s right. But let me add that the degree to which you commit to action, is the degree to which you will experience the great adventure of moving with spirit into a mystery.
On the practical side, there are simple, necessary tools for taking action. Fortunately, we all possess them. First, a brain... to educate yourself on issues that concern you. Curiosity... to ask the penetrating questions, to connect pieces of information. Experience... if not yours, borrow from others. Strength is essential. Strength not only to challenge the powers that got us into this mess, but also the strength to stretch our own comfort zones, the flexibility to embrace more than you think you know. And finally, we need judgement. Know your limitations and how much you are truly able to give or risk. You?ll be faced with many 'can?t's, from those who try to discourage you and from yourself. Question those 'can?t's closely.
In self-assessment, it is imperative to question motivation. Are you acting from desire, or a sense of responsibility, or because you think you should? Be cautious about acting from should. It is human nature to immediately counter with all the should not?s, resisting directives, even if they originate internally.
Acting from a need for self-aggrandizement is dangerous. It blocks our ability to listen. And despite thinking it is well hidden, ego is plainly visible. Ego-driven efforts detract from the action, regardless of how effective it may be. No one is inspired to emulate you. Check also for your hidden agendas. Hidden agendas like one upping your allies abound in the environmental community. This kind of internal sabotage diminishes potential gains in synergistically healing the earth. Opponents relish the divisiveness and are emboldened to further abuse wildlands.
Honesty, integrity and ethical behavior are the only three qualities necessary to ensure right action. Acting within these guidelines, you will not fail. Move forward to your vision with impeccable behavior, it will allow you to do the right thing, even when it is very difficult.
When we commit to action, we commit to success, but we seldom act alone. Success requires connection. Foremost, connect to you source for faith and wisdom. Then seek allies and mentors for encouragement, guidance and help. Be careful not to prejudge who or what can help you. In the divine spontaneity of life, gifts come our way every day. Too often, we limit ourselves by dismissing or ignoring those gifts, be they person, tool or information. Freeing ourselves of preconceived notions of a specific path to success keeps us open to the gifts. The fastest way to success is not necessarily our straight line.
Connect with strangers, engage them, and elucidate the issue, not your knowledge of the issue. Anticipate the obvious questions, and have an answer for them. Especially have an answer for the inevitable, unspoken ones: 'What?s in it for me?', 'What?s in it for you?', 'What?s in it for the land?', and 'What?s it going to cost?'. Hidden in that last question is the real concern... 'Do I have to change?'
Part of connecting with others is knowing the playing field. Who?s on the field, and who needs to be? Triage on the opposition. Know who are the mean-spirited intransigents and who are the sleepwalkers who can be awakened? Use your energy efficiently by focusing on those who are willing to engage in meaningful, rationale discussion rather than the energy vampires interested in conflict over resolution. Your opponents? attitude is far more telling than their opinion.
When the spirit moves you to action, it inherently moves you towards compassion. Knowing to ignore that motivation is perilous, some are uncomfortable with the intimacy of the word compassion. Ease into it; the first step towards compassion is respect. We understand respect: you want it, others want it and most of all, the earth needs it. Therefore, we must demonstrate respectful behavior so our actions do not undercut our message.
Compassion does not mean inappropriate behavior is excused. But it does mean that we condemn the behavior, not the person. We can gain compassion by understanding that frequently, those who act with disrespect towards the earth are in future shock. Alvin Toffler defined future shock as the ' extreme stress and shattering disorientation... finish accurately.... '. Entire communities can go into future shock. When changes, driven by local, conditions but externally imposed, threaten the comfortable regularity of traditional life, communities react. Some embrace change and adapt, others head to the bunkers, viewing change an assault and blindly fighting for an unsustainable status quo.
Fundamental to this reaction is the life history of resource dependent communities, particularly in the rural West. History and crumbling stone foundations remind us that in normal circumstances, when the resources dry up, so do the communities they?ve sustained. The landscapes of the west burgeon with ghost towns.
But today, there is an unnatural life expectancy for resource dependent communities. Compassion suggests that we not allow the death of a community. During the last century, governments developed the capability to support and subsidize resource extraction to the point where communities have assumed that that responsibility is more important than conserving biodiversity of public lands. Despite the clear scientific and common sense indicators, we are destroying our natural capital in an effort to keep these towns alive via their traditional economic base. But public resources are at stake, the broader public has said 'no more.' Aware of earth?s limitations we need to find new ways to sustain communities while sustaining our resources.
Compassion asks that we seek ways to show that change is inevitable and affects us all. We need to work together to address the reasons for unsustainable choices, which are afflictions far greater than any of us can stop in small groups or by fighting. Compassion invites us then to collaborate and compromise. Comprise in the details, but not your values. Allow that new information may influence your beliefs so listen carefully. Collaborate with the best of intention. But if necessary, to protect resource integrity... kick butt. But kick it compassionately.
Our world is fraught with compassion killers. Money looms large; people do the damnedest things for money. If you want to understand the source of your problem, follow the money. Those who benefit the most will resist the most. Battle preconceived notions of false economics by understanding natural capital and ecological economics.
Media thrive on conflict, not compassion. They stand ready to attack the unprepared and the shrill rather than the issue. Their need for speed can overshadow accuracy. And their corporate sponsors have an agenda. To work effectively with the media, be timely, be prepared, make your facts readily understandable, and be honest. Don?t attack the opponent or the attack becomes the story.
Government agencies provide an excellent cover for those afraid of compassion. When attacked directly, they will withdraw to outwait you. Agencies are unpredictable; they are comprised of individuals who are in part self-directed and in part following direction. Which part surfaces when is the question. Political pressure, real or perceived, drives them. So, be well prepared, forget the frontal attack, and repeat a concise and consistent message. Petitions, while useful for general sensing mean far less than individual input. Coalitions of diverse interests carry much more weight than single organizations.
Most difficult are the individuals who are passionate about their issues but are devoid of compassion for you and yours. They resort to baiting, threatening, and denigrating you through personal attacks. Only the truth and impeccable behavior will protect you. Always return to the facts. Losing a battle is far less costly then losing your integrity.
Staying the course throughout the protracted efforts to defend wild places requires unusual stamina. Always speak honestly, trustworthy people gain respect and converts. Wisdom persuades, even if you don?t feel wise, act like it. Wise people do not pontificate or make didactic pronouncements. Wise people persuade with minimum self-interest, exhibiting grace under fire. More importantly, they exhibit grace when gently firing.
Face danger squarely, know your weakest defenses, bolster them or negate the need for their use in your argument. Quality beats quantity when listing your grievances. And remember to rest, to sing, to have fun. Your soul needs no less.
When the battle is done, expect a bit of attention. But you may be looking for the back door not the hero?s welcome! But win, lose or draw, don?t eviscerate your opponent, keep the focus on the land, not personalities. Be positive, humble, and generous. Thank everyone and share the praise. Never concede defeat. Know that there is no failure, except failure to act. Every action you take for the sake of the earth ennobles you, plants a seed for the future, refines your resolve. And you invigorate others by your effort.
Now with bruised shins but a shining countenance, take time to heal. Your actions may have alienated you from your tribe, if so, make a graceful exit. Remember, the only power that a person or place can hold over is the power you give it. Most importantly, call your spirit back. Negative energy keeps you connected to the opponent and will continue to drain you. Release the past and bury your dead. You can?t afford the energy to carry all the wounds, you want to inspire action, not sympathy. Finally, celebrate your work. Go back to your source smiling with gratitude for the lessons learned. Gather your power. Sing and dance!
And be ready, your spirit will speak again, this time more clearly. Your courage cannot be denied, you have done this before. And you do it all over again, even better, even stronger.
Allow me a benediction: Let us make peace with the life force, befriend our fellow creatures and speak for the voiceless wilderness. In the spiral of time, when the eyes of the future gaze into ours, pray we see no tears because we failed to act.
© Gloria Flora, September 2000