This is condensed from a speech of the same name, given at the 2000 Annual Conference of the Wilderness Society, Denver, Colorado.
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 pressure, lack of confidence or fear of perceived consequences often stifle action. Overcoming these limitations opens insight into the beauty, complexity and resiliency of the earth and of the human spirit.
Acting on your values by honoring the voices within, and from the wild, brings a freedom and strength that defies limitation. Each selfless action to sustain wildlands brings hope and inspiration, further defining the path towards a sustainable future.
Reasons to act are myriad: for self, for others and for a higher power. French philosopher, Albert Camus, suggested that whereas we often cannot find meaning in history, we can choose to give our own life meaning. Francis Moore-Lappe states '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.
The condition of our landscapes defines our history, informs our choices and measures our progress as a civilization. When we become aware of deteriorating conditions, it is difficult not to act.
Our conscience goads us into action. We feel compelled to revive respect for our earth, but we're quick to rationalize inaction: we say we lack the skill, the knowledge, the time, the strength. 'I'm only one person.', we lament. However, reflect on the awesome accomplishments of many wildland heroes, 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 to sleepwalk through life.
Ram Dass, gives simple but sound advice on taking action. 'Be brave. Start small. Use what you've got. Do something you enjoy. Don't overcommit.' He's right. But in addition, 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 pratical side, there are necessary tools for taking action. Fortunately, we all possess them. First, a brain... to educate yourself on issues. Curiosity... to ask the penetrating questions. Experience... if not yours, borrow from others. Strength is essential not only to challenge the forces that got us into this mess, but to stretch our comfort zones, to embrace more than we think we already know. And finally, we need self awareness. Knowing our limitations tells us how much we're truly able to give or risk.
In self-assessment, it's imperative to question motivation. Are you acting from desire and a sense of responsiblity, or because you think you should? Be cautious about acting from 'should'. It's human nature to immediately counter with 'should not's'.
Acting from a need for self-aggrandizment is dangerous. It blocks our ability to listen and despite our efforts to conceal it, ego is plainly visible. Ego-driven efforts detract from the action and no one is inspired. Likewise, hidden agendas, like one upping your allies, abound. This internal sabotage diminishes potential gains in synergistic action. Opponents relish the diviseness and are emboldened to further abuse wildlands.
Honesty, intergrity and ethical behavior are the only qualities necessary to ensure right action. Acting within these guidelines, you will not fail. Move forward to your vision with impeccable behavior, doing the right thing despite the difficulty.
When we commit to action, we seldom act alone. Success requires connection. Foremost, connect to your source for faith and widsom. Then seek allies and mentors for encouragement, guidance and help. Don't prejudge who or what can help you. In the divine spontaneity of life, gifts appear daily. Too often, we dismiss or ignore them, be they person, tool or information. Abandoning 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, elucidate the issue, not your knowledge of the issue. Anticipate the obvious questions as well as 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, 'What must I give up?'
Part of connecting with others is knowing the playing field. Triage the opposition. Know the mean-spirited intrangients and 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 not resolution. Your opponents' attitude is far more telling than their opinion, as is yours.
When the spirit moves you to action, it inherently moves you towards compassion. Despite knowing that, some are uncomfortable with the demands of compassion. Ease into it; the first step towards compassion is respect. We all understand respect: you want it, others want it and most of all, the earth needs it. We must demonstrate respectful behavior so our actions do not undercut our message.
Compassion does not mean inappropriate behavior is excused. It means we condemn the behavior, not the person. 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 a person feels when change is thrust upon them too quickly. Entire communities can go into future shock. When changes, externally imposed, threaten the comfortable regularity of tradtional life, communities react. Some embrace change and adapt, others head to the bunkers, blindly fighting for an unsustainable status quo.
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 communtiies. Compassion suggests that we not allow their demise. During the last century, governments developed the capability to support and subsidize resource extraction to the point where communties have assumed that that responsiblity supplants conserving biodiversity of public lands. Despite 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 unsustainablitiy, it is an affliction far greater than any of us can stop in small groups or by fighting our neighbors. Compassion invites us then to collaborate and compromise. Collaborate with the best of intention. Comprise the actions, but not values. Allow that new information may influence your understanding so listen carefully. But, to protect resource integrity... kick butt. But kick it compassionately.
Our world is fraught with compassion killers. Money for one. People do the damnedest things for money. To know the source of your problem, follow the money. Those who benefit the most will resist the most. Battle conventional 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. The need for speed overshadows accuracy. And their corporate sponsors control the agenda. To work effectively with media, be timely, be prepared with readily understandable facts, 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. But 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, bring out the best in the agency individual by being well-prepared, non-combative and repeat a concise, consistent message. Individual input outweighs petitions. Coalitions of diverse interests dominate single organizations.
Most difficult are individuals passionate about their ideology but who are devoid of compassion for you and yours. They bait, threaten, and denigrate through personal attacks. Only the truth and impeccable behavior will protect you. Stick to the facts; losing an argument is far less costly than losing your integrity.
Staying consistent throughout protracted efforts to defend wild places requires unusual stamina. Walk your talk, trustworthy people gain respect and converts. Wisdom persuades, so even if you don't feel wise, act like it. Wise people do not pontificate, they persuade with minimum self-interest. And the wise exhibit grace under fire... and when firing.
Face danger squarely, know your weakest defenses, bolster them or negate the need for them. Quality beats quantity when listing 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 stage! Win, lose or draw, don't eviscerate your opponent, keep the focus on the land, not personalities. Be postive, humble, and generous. Thank everyone. Never concede defeat. There is no failure, except failure to act. Every action you take for the sake of the earth ennobles you, plants a seed, and refines resolve.
So with bruised shins but a shining countenance, take time to heal. Return to your source with gratitude for the lessons learned. If your actions alienated you from your tribe, make peace or a graceful exit. The only power that a person or place can hold over is the power you give it. Negative energy keeps you connected to the opponent and will continue to drain you. Call your spirit back and celebrate your work.
Be prepared, your spirit will speak again, this time more clearly. Your courage cannot be denied. And you do it all over again. Even better. Even stronger.
May this be our 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