Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Earth Day 2009

String Band
Originally uploaded by paynehollow
Part of the service consisted of Michelle reading a powerful, wonderful essay her daughter, Chie, wrote. Chie is one of our graduating high school seniors this year, of whom we are all well-pleased...

Light streams into my room creating warm spots on my quilt. The panels of sunshine, cast by the south-facing window, fall like so many parallelograms. On a cold winter day it's comforting to feel that live energy, transmitted over unfathomable distance, sink into my skin.

A few miles away, a woman enjoys the same luxury. Yet for her, sunbeams aren't a mere source of trivial pleasure. That same energy is working; powering her lights, dishwasher, water heater, and refrigerator. People may scoff at her investment: prominent glossy black solar panels mounted on the roof of her modest home. How much effect can one person's actions have on the wider world? What they don’t know is that in one year she will have prevented 15 tons of carbon dioxide from entering our atmosphere.

The woman chooses this lifestyle because she understands that humankind is walking the edge of an environmental precipice. With every ounce of pollution, every razed forest, every extinct species, we borrow against ourselves. She's choosing to confront the terrifying question that has haunted humans since the day they first began altering their surroundings:

Can humankind live sustainably, or will we inevitably destroy the earth and ourselves?

After centuries of ignorance and waste, the choice has been made for us: we must adapt or die. We must repudiate denial as a false comfort and embrace the uncertainty of new ideas. The future is daunting, but I believe with all my heart that there is yet a chance for redemption. Fortunately there are luminaries such as this woman, leading those who will listen, living the question—stretching it to its limits, and challenging us all to do the same.

I credit my mother for bringing this question into my life. Walking into our kitchen, it’s easy to spot the little signs of our family’s personal environmental crusade. On any given day, drip-drying dishes spread on towels cover nearly every inch of limited counter space. Stretched above the sink is a recycled line clipped with drying sandwich bags. The water beads, resembling sparkling swarovski crystal, reflect light from energy-efficient fluorescent light bulbs. It’s a labor of love to hand-wash each plate, cup, utensil or “disposable” bag for reuse.

Our reward is in the knowing that among four people we use one box per year. In the corner of the counter against the wall is our compost bucket, a reused container that held wall spackle in a former life. During the winter months, it becomes an object of controversy as my siblings and I squabble over who will make the cold journey to the backyard compost pile.

Growing up composting food scraps, I never fully appreciated the beauty of the natural cycle enacted each year. The ritual begins in the spring when we prepare the ground by spreading seasoned compost on our barren organic vegetable garden. We do it with faith, knowing that the nutrients will visit us again later in the year when we harvest glowing cantaloupe, watermelon, squash, zucchini, and heirloom red tomatoes.

Besides composting, and conserving water and energy, I am from a family of avid recyclers. However, over the years I’ve come to the realization that the answer to trash problems isn’t recycling more—it’s consuming less. Consuming less, ironic though it may seem, is the most difficult commitment of all.

I’m sure our seemingly innate need to acquire more and more possessions is rooted somewhere deep in our survival instincts. The question I find myself asking nearly every day is: how can I conquer this urge in my own life? In some ways the quest for simplicity is much easier for me because my family makes just enough to get by. However, I worry about the future and how a successful career and more money might transform me as a person. Would I settle into a comfortable suburban life and easily forget the dying rainforests of South America?

It’s one of the questions I’m living out, and yet my perennial optimism has endowed me with a certain unshakable feeling that comfort and success need not be at odds with conservation and sustainability. This is my paradigm, based on the fundamental belief that the earth is not something that should be owned, owned in the sense that someone can ravage, destroy, or use it up as they please. The Native Americans, the ultimate example of peoples who lived sustainably with the land, have an ancient proverb that forms the basis of my beliefs:

We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow if from our children.

As I leave my childhood behind me, I am aware that it is my generation’s task to take on the responsibility of living out this question of sustainability. I want to be able to look into the eyes of my children without guilt; knowing that I’ve given them what is rightfully theirs in better condition than when it was handed to me.

So each morning when the sun filters in through my windows, I am filled with fresh hope and the knowledge that the tools are already here to engineer the earth’s salvation. It’s in hearts of green builders like the woman with the solar house, hardworking families who are doing what they can, and passionate leaders who will dare to overturn centuries’ worth of negligent environmental precedents. I know the work won’t be over in my lifetime, so I’ll continue to live out my answer in the best way I know how.

Earth Day Kid's Choir and Mighty Kazoo Band