Living in Two Worlds
by Sam Hitt
Thanks to everyone – Carol Norton, Bryan Bird, Lori Colt and so many others for putting this 20th Anniversary Gala together. Wow! Has it really been 20 years?
And a special thanks to John Horning for inviting me to speak although he has no idea what I am about to say. That takes guts. When I ran this organization we didn’t let loose cannons like me take the podium.
Speaking of loose cannons, anyone remember Mike Cherin? Mike was our street savvy canvasser who knew a thing or two about pipe bombs. It was Mike thank goodness who picked up the mail the day when someone put a pipe bomb in our mailbox.
In any case, the bomb squad was called. They closed off Second Street and evaluated nearby buildings. As we guardians bravely crouched behind the police cars, the commander turns to me and says, “Everyone out the office, right?” He was just checking before detonating the bomb via remote control.
Guess where John was? Inside the office finishing up some appeal that was due that day. Well, we got him out. The bomb went off, blowing apart the mailbox and destroying that day’s mail.
I remember thinking. Wow! This war for the west is really a war. And we’re going to win. We’re going to win because people like John are willing to risk it all to do the paperwork. To meet the deadlines. To read all the fine print. To know forestry and biology better than the federal land manager (that’s actually not very hard).
And to do what every radical must – hold the powerful accountable to their own rules. Not the rules under which we would like to see government run, not rules for a perfect world – but rules full of loopholes and get-out-of-jail-cards that are none the less routinely ignored.
John Horning’s job description didn’t require being torn apart by flying glass and buried under a mountain of rubble. But it did require he be a guardian – a protector of what he loved. John’s extraordinary valor, however, is all his own, a moving reminder of the common courage that lies waiting to be born in every human heart.
Tonight I’d like to briefly explore the question – can caring, courage and guardianship save the world?
Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” I believe she missed a big part of the story.
In the early days that certainly seemed true. A few of us – Rich Ryan, Gary Schrodt, Grove Burnett, Steve Sugarman, Letty Belin and especially the late Navaho activist Leroy Jackson – were changing the world.
We appealed and litigated, getting favorable press coverage and broad public support, halting timber sales in the Jemez, the Sacramentos, the Kaibab Plateau, the Chuskas and the most of the Carson national forest.
Then in 1996 we shut down all logging for a time in the Arizona and New Mexico, thanks to the systematic failure of the Forest Service to comply with the Endangered Species Act. The timber industry started closing mills and blaming us. Just what you’d expect. But had our lawsuits, appeals and petitions really shut down the mills? Had just a few of us changed history? Probably not.
Less than 5 percent of the profitable old-growth ponderosa pine remained by the time we came on the scene in the 1980s – much of it in remote areas that were too expensive to log. The multi-national mill owners had long seen the end of logging in the Southwest. They were moving capitol elsewhere to get greater returns. Blaming the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act was a smokescreen they used for cover.
And although the masses of people seemed supportive of our efforts, most were not fully engaged or informed. When the over-managed forests in Arizona and later New Mexico began to burn a few years later, many were easily convinced that logging would make the forest healthy.
We had followed the well-worn reformist path of social change, rocking the ship of state but not fundamentally altering its course. Our analysis was shallow, our vision limited, our victories temporary and, unfortunately, our defeats long-lasting. So, lesson learned. We must adapt to these perilous times by thinking deeper, aiming higher and acting more boldly.
I believe that will mean living in two world at once. One is the increasingly chaotic and violent world of collapsing capitalism, plagued with intolerance, a loss of inner and outer freedoms and climate-driven disasters. This world also provides us, the fortunate few, with staggering abundance through a global mega-machine of exploitation hidden off-stage.
We must obviously continue to modulate, regulate, form and channel our wounded world into a functional steady state. It is grueling work. My hat goes off to today’s guardians who shoulder this burden.
The other world – the world of the radical imagination – we have to create from scratch. There are no blueprints, ideologies or simple formulas. There will be no Moses or revolutionary vanguard to lead because, honestly, no one knows the way.
The Mayan Indians in southern Mexico say of their revolution, “We make the path by walking.” Our revolution will be made on the path of everyday life, starting perhaps with a newly planted garden or a random act of kindness to a stranger. Small steps, but there is usually just enough light shining to reveal the next step.
There will be times when we will have to become moral pioneers, probing deeply beneath the surface of complex situations and practicing what philosopher Hannah Arendt called “attentive facing up to.”
Along the path we will need to invent a counter-narrative to the simple dualisms that dominate political discourse. There are many ways to achieve to a just, humane and ecologically enlightened world. Each needs a means of expression that does justice to its wisdom and complexity.
Increasingly, I fear everyday life will come to resemble a disaster for us social animals that crave connection, purpose and meaning. The current economic crisis is a case in point, as millions slip into impoverished shame and isolation. However, there are disasters like Katrina where an improvised, cooperative and local society providing mutual aid through a dispersed and decentralized form of direct democracy arises spontaneously. It’s both the world we want and a shining example of what we can be.
How can civil society grow from these openings? Rebecca Solnit writes, “Disaster shocks us out of slumber, but only skillful effort keeps us awake.” At the same time, the powerful will try to take advantage of the disorientation that chaos and disaster produces to institute harsh economic regimes. In the cauldron of conflicting motives, new societies will emerge.
In my ripening years I strive for a future where there will always be room for that inner state of contentment and well-being we call happiness, allowing us to be at ease and liberated from endless wanting. For restless desire and the suffering it causes is at the root of our dilemma.
Maybe if we were truly happy we would produce fewer but happier children. Every four days human population rises by 1 million. If every human female on earth were limited to one child, in less than a century there would 1.6 billion of us instead of double our current 6.5 billion.
We can avoid the inhumane mistakes of the Chinese one-child-per-couple policy, a crude but necessary first attempt at voluntary population reduction. The alternative of war, pestilence and disease in a crowded and unstable world is the grim alternative.
With much fewer of us, earth can be turned back over to management by evolution, “. . . indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” worked in the long run. And as life returns – as it surely will – there will opportunities for us two-leggeds to broaden our identities. Perhaps it will not be me, Sam Hitt, saving the forest. Rather I will be apart of the forest saving itself, a part of the forest only recently emerged into consciousness.
We will not arrive at this enlightened state because of strident exhortations to self-sacrifice. The virtuous few driven by duty have not saved the world nor have they prevented the many from pursuing their self-interest as they see it. Leaving all that behind will lift a great burden from our shoulders, giving a new buoyancy to our movement.
We can then draw on a deep kinship, a bondedness with all creation far beyond what we think know, remembering far back into deep time in our mother’s womb when we wore gills and tails and had fins for hands. When we act from this connection – with emphasis on acting and not just having noble thoughts – we are, in the words of writer and teacher Joanna Macy, “being acted through and sustained by those very beings on whose behalf one acts.”
This is very close to the Christian concept of grace and the tradition of deep wisdom in Eastern thought. It’s called synergy in the language of systems theory. With the whole living world to call on there comes into play courage, endurance, ingenuity and, I dare say, even startling joy. When we expand our self-conception to include this story, we will have a wonderful time and we will survive.
Keynote address for WildEarth Guardians 20th Anniversary Gala, September 25, 2009, Bishop’s Lodge, Santa Fe, NM.