Reflections on Earth Day at 50
In 1971, John McPhee published Encounters with the Archdruid. Perhaps McPhee’s best known book, its content first appeared in a series of articles in The New Yorker following the first Earth Day fifty years ago. McPhee’s book tells the story of David Brower’s battles with three protagonists over a proposed copper mine in Washington’s Glacier Peak Wilderness, housing development on a wild island off the coast of Georgia and the Glen Canyon Dam. Brower is the archdruid, chief among those who “prefer trees to people.”
As Earth Day approached this year, I found myself recalling the names and stories of men like Brower who shaped the environmental movement of which I would become part. John Muir. Aldo Leopold. Olaus Murie. Howard Zahniser. Denis Hayes. John Adams.
These guys accomplished a lot. We would not have the places Americans treasure—Yellowstone, Yosemite, the National Forests—without them. Founded by John Adams in 1970, the Natural Resources Defense Council would not exist without them. In law school, I read cases NRDC brought that established basic principles that have breathed meaning into laws Congress passed at the time of the first Earth Day. The Clean Water Act. The Clean Air Act. The National Environmental Policy Act.
But these men didn’t solve everything. The laws they created have failed to address the complexity of the problems we face today. One in three people across the globe lack access to safe drinking water. Over two million of these people live in the United States. These laws have failed to deliver a stable climate that our children deserve
I wondered, what had the Archdruid missed? David Brower won a lot, but he also lost some things including friends along the way. He served for over fifteen years from 1952 as the Sierra Club's first executive director only to be kicked out by its board. He suffered a similar fate at Friends of the Earth, the organization he founded in 1969. Brower’s drive caused him to miss other points of view.
What am I missing? My traditional tools as an environmental lawyer have failed to accomplish all that is needed. Confidence is needed in the courtroom. Confidence to know that my argument is right and to argue passionately and persuasively for it. I have confidence, but perhaps humility is even more important. Humility to know that I do not have all the answers.
The best gifts come in small, unexpected doses. I received one last Sunday. As churches shut their doors in response to the novel coronavirus and “went virtual,” I decided to explore. I’ve been clicking on services from different faith traditions. On April 19, I listened with my daughter to worship provided by Washington DC’s All Souls Unitarian Church. Rev. Dr. Sofia Betancourt, the guest pastor for the day, spoke from Oakland, CA, where she teaches at the Starr King School for the Ministry.
Rev. Betancourt spoke of “planetary love,” a love that liberates all peoples and all beings. She spoke of ecowomanism. I’d heard of ecology and I’d heard of feminism. But what was “ecowomanism”? Betancourt’s sermon provided some clues. She described ecowomanism ethics as “environmental value-making and decision-making drawn from the wisdom of women across the African diaspora.” She spoke of the value of “making do,” a simple yet rich concept from her own West Indian culture. In Betancourt’s words:
[M]aking do is what gets generations of families who experienced chattel slavery, forced migration, chosen migration because of economic suffering or food scarcity, to find ways not only to survive but to keep their families, their loved ones, their communities, and yes, their lands intact in the face of the unimaginable.
In addition to reflecting on the past, Rev. Betancourt spoke about making do today:
Making do finds wisdom in the frontline communities who are already on the quest for racial justice, already on the quest for economic justice, already seeking an earth care that makes everyone whole.
Here was some of what I was missing. The wisdom of another’s perspective. After the sermon, I was curious to know more about ecowomanism. Turns out people have been talking about it for a while. In her 2016 essay “Ecowomanism: Black Women, Religion and the Environment,” Melanie Harris described ecowomanism as “a womanist approach to environmental justice.” Ecowomanism connects social justice to environmental justice. In 2002, Dorceta Taylor wrote a technical report on “Race, class, gender and American Environmentalism.” It was published by the U.S. Forest Service! As revealed in A Color Purple, Alice Walker had been writing about women in nature as early as the 1990s.
What can ecowomanism tell us? I’m still learning. But I see the potential. Wisdom and resilience can be found in the connection between women, spirituality and nature. Wisdom and resilience can be found in the connection between human and non-human beings.
I don’t have all the answers, but at least I know where to look—outside myself.