I'll spare you the photos, but I want you to know that I have a gross bacterial rash on my chest that I'm treating with antibiotics. And while I don't want to point any fingers, we just got back from a week and a half on the Hudson, and there's a fair chance that "the river that flows both ways" is also "the river that gave me a staph infection". While there have been major cleanup efforts on the river in recent years, outdated sewage systems in the communities along the way mean that there is still a fair amount of bacterial contamination in many places, and I wouldn't be the first person to exit the Hudson with a little bit more than I entered with.
The rash got me researching the history of human pollution on the river, and it's not surprising (as an Eastern American waterway) that it has a fairly extensive one. The most notable cleanup efforts in recent years have been focused on the removal of PCBs - industrial plastic neurotoxins and likely carcinogens that were pumped into the river en masse for 30 years, most notably by General Electric, until the late 1970s, when their production was banned by the Federal Government. PCBs made Hudson silt toxic, fish inedible, and swimming dangerous, so the EPA designated 200 miles of the river as a superfund site requiring cleanup. GE resisted participating in the cleanup initially, and made arguments that we'd all be better off if we just left the PCBs in the river where they now belong. The EPA pushed back and GE agreed to help fund what became the largest ever environmental cleanup of a river, which is still ongoing. (Or so Wikipedia says. Wikipedia also points out that the musician Pete Seeger was a major leader in pushing for cleanup efforts.)
Staring at my rash on the same week that the President announced that he's pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it's easy enough to draw some analogies between the situation on the Hudson and the narrow corporate interests that are driving the push to ignore the testimony of the vast majority of the world's scientific community, and the political consensus of every other country in the world (excepting Nicaragua and Syria). They're both, ultimately, about abdication of responsibility: weak arguments are made against the validity of the best science because a responsible party doesn't want to deal with the cost of their actions. The financial concerns of the few, and the culpable, are asserted against the economic and health concerns of the many.
The difference between the situations being, of course, that in the case of the Hudson, the US government was actually a driving force towards a cleanup process that has been largely successful: the ecosystem is healing, and people can generally now interact with the river much more safely than in the 1970s (my own rash notwithstanding).
While economic, pragmatic, and ethical arguments about why we should protect the world we live in are probably the most important ones, personally my own sense of the importance of the environment would probably best be labelled as spiritual.
I've inherently loved being outside since I was a kid, but when I was 23 Angel and I moved to New Zealand and I did a Masters degree in Theology focused (in very broad terms) on the idea that God is present in nature. While I worked this out academically at University, I felt it personally in New Zealand's beautiful landscape - and maybe most powerfully on the Pacific along the spectacular Otago coast where we lived.
While the way that I'd conceptualize my theology has changed significantly in the time since I finished my degree, and I wouldn't necessarily describe my feelings about the outdoors in religious terms, my sense of connection to the natural world has only grown. Trailrunning has put nature at the center of my most important means of maintaining health and happiness. Thru-hiking put it at the center of my emotional processing of my father's death. And paddling has made the outdoors a means of connecting with my own mortality and place in the world. The outdoors is something to feel, as much as anything to conceptualize or commodify as a political or economic unit.
And so, as I experience it, the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, like other human decisions not to live in ways that are ecologically sustainable, is a spiritual failing, which does spiritual damage, as well as a political and economic problem.
Every Boldly Went story is essentially a variation on this theme, "The outdoors is meaningful to me because...", and I think it is probably a natural human tendency to develop a sense of connection to the environment. In the span of history, it's a strange situation we're in, for many of us to spend more of our time in a built environment than a natural one, and for this sense to require intentional cultivation. But I think it's why outdoor athletes, along with farmers, foresters, fishermen, hunters and others who interact with the outdoor environment on a regular basis keep some element of essential humanity alive that might otherwise be lost. Environmental interests are human interests, because humans are one element of the environment. People who interact with the non-built environment regularly get that intuitively.
New Zealand is one of the world's most beautiful countries, and also one of it's more sparsely populated - particularly on the South Island where we lived. When we moved there we noticed a sort of "If you don't build it, they will come" dynamic, where protected land was abundant, and life in the outdoors - both recreationally and vocationally - was an assumed and ordinary part of life. It's no surprise then that the preservation and protection of their natural environment was a key part of Kiwi identity. Because it's such a beautiful place, there's a chicken and egg question: do they protect it because it's so beautiful, or is it so beautiful because they've protected it? Whatever the case, the presence of clean, beautiful natural spaces drew people outdoors, and the fact that people were outdoors led them to value clean, beautiful natural spaces. They were locked in a positive cultural cycle that was good for people, and good for their environment.
Spiritually sound environmental leadership, I think, which recognizes the essential human connection to the world around us, looks something like trying to kickstart that cycle. Costa Rica is a country that has done it with some degree of success in a culture that is very different from New Zealand's, and with far fewer resources, and in the US Western states including our home in Washington and some of the New England states have done so as well. At our local levels, in our outdoor communities, grassroots cultural change is exactly this - reinforcing for those who feel less connected that the outdoors is essential to who we are as human beings, helping more people get outside, and building the community connections that make durable political change inevitable.
That gross rash I've got? It's a nice, concrete reminder that our leaders' spiritual failures have real world consequences. But our connections in the outdoor community? They're the foundation being built to subvert short sighted interests that do damage to our planet, and to our essential humanity.
The next few weeks' podcasts feature environmental leaders Mike Webb, a surfer still going strong at 68 years old who also leads eco-tours, Ellen Bayer, a Barkley Fall Classic finisher and University of Washington professor of literature with an academic interest in Environmental literature, Ken Campbell, founder of the Ikkatsu Project who, among other things, constructed a kayak out of discarded plastic bottles and paddled it between Seattle and Bellingham to raise awareness of the fragility of Puget Sound, and Dean Burke, hardcore SUP boarder and TedX and University of Washington presenter on the relationship between the city and Puget Sound in Tacoma.