By Donella Meadows
–March 10, 1994–
“Why I Am An Environmentalist,” was the title of a paper handed in by one of my students — the kind of title that makes my heart sink. There may not be a whole lot of folks out there waiting breathlessly to hear why you’re an environmentalist, I told him. That’s true, he said, but you told us to write about what’s most important to us. For me, this is it.
His paper described snorkling with his ecology class in the Caribbean coral reefs. The class was exploring the outermost reef, shallow on one side, the other side dropping off into the deep ocean. My student was poking around on the deep side when suddenly his instructor pointed out, 80 feet below, a giant sea turtle. Gasping with wonder, the student tried to follow it, but the turtle swam as if it was jet-powered. It headed away from the reef down to where the sun couldn’t reach, and it vanished into the dark.
The instructor told the student how lucky he was. The huge turtles used to be common, but because of hunting, fishnet entanglements, beach development, and pollution, sightings are now rare. I wonder every year, said the instructor, whether I’ll ever be able to show a student a sea turtle again.
The rest of the paper was the student’s struggle to express the tangled emotions that still gripped him from that moment — the awe, the exhilaration, the anger, the grief.
It was hard for him to find the words. An experience like that is not a matter of words. Nature hits you with a magnificence that grabs you so totally, involves you so deeply, that it knocks all words out of your head — until afterward, when you babble about it to everyone you know.
Words can’t capture a transcendent experience, but my student’s words could trigger my own memories. The first time I saw a whale I was high on a cliff in Hawaii, looking out across a sparkling sea. The whale was barely visible, a black dot in the middle of all that blue. I knew what it was only when it spouted. The thought of how enormous the whale must have been for me to see it from such a distance brought up a shiver in me, and a prayer of thanks for even a glimpse of such a creature.
The first time I saw a bald eagle, I was paddling a kayak through the Delaware Water Gap. The guidebook said there were eagles on the wild cliffs that rose from the river. I looked up and there it was, or there its silhouette was, motionless, perched on a snag hundreds of feet above. Like the whale, it was too distant to be visually impressive, but I felt a comfort that such a great bird not only lived, but lived on the edge of the Eastern megalopolis. It told me that something was right with the world.
For decades I worked on behalf of whales and eagles without seeing another one of either. Then a few years ago a young bald eagle started fishing the Connecticut River a few miles from my farm. I was driving along the river road the first time I saw him. He swooped low, right above my car, his enormous wings outstretched. It was one of those jaw-dropping, breath-taking, ohmygosh moments. I nearly drove off the road.
And last year a South African family invited me to their beach cottage in Hermanus. There, in a broad sunny bay near Capetown, with breakers rolling in from Antarctica, were more whales than I could count. About half the world’s population of Southern Right Whales comes to calve in Hermanus Bay. Standing on shore, I could see the massive bulks rising and falling in the waves, some with smaller bulks at their sides. They heaved, they spouted, they seemed to dance, waving their flippers or tails, even arching themselves fully out of the water for a miraculous second or two.
I watched them for hours. It was like drinking in something for which I had been desperately thirsty.
I can think of only one word for the experience of being so swept away by something outside yourself that your inner chatter ceases, time stops, you forget who you are, where you are, or even that you are. The word is love. Whatever person or thing, sunset or cathedral, symphony or ski-slope, fills you with that kind of ecstatic self-unconsciousness is something you love. You will go to astounding lengths to defend the possibility of having that experience again — and of others having it.
And you will run up against people who wield a gun or bulldozer or government budget or some other power over that which you love. Have you ever tried to tell why you love baseball, or opera, or a sea turtle, or an old-growth forest, or your neighborhood, or your kids, to someone who is hostile to the subject? It can’t be done. It is not a matter of words. You know there is something lovable there, for anyone who will pay close attention, open to the wonder. But you can’t force that attention. You can’t cause that opening.
You may be able to touch an experience of love in another person, as the student’s turtle story touched the whale and the eagle in me. But if the person in power has no such experience, or no willingness to access it, you will be called a sentimental fool, a tree-hugger, an environmental wacko. Then power, uninformed by love, will crush beauty and mystery in the name of efficiency, economic growth, national security, racial purity, or some other loveless abstraction. It happens every day.
What to do about power uninformed by love? I wish I knew. One answer is to seek power yourself. Another answer is to respect other people’s loves, knowing that a love you don’t share is a wonder to which you have yet to learn to open. The most effective answer is to be sure that power is never entrusted to those who cannot love — though they are attracted to power like moths to a flame, because it is all they have.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994