Monday, October 13, 2008

Save the Earth (er...wait...I got a date with St. Peter)

This week I am tackling human influence on the environment.

Language does odd things with ideas--that we can separate "human" from "environment," as though we were superimposed on a world made just for us, says a lot about the way we view the world.
Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.

Genesis 1:28, KJV
We got the subdue part down pat.

Most of my students were raised in the dominant western culture here (call it European, call it Judeo-Christian, call it whatever creed allows us to exploit life in the name of God, in the name of capitalism, in the name of Manifest Destiny, in the name of freedom).

Americans live unsustainable lives. Children do not want to hear this. The parents paying me to teach their children do not want to hear this.

The logo at the top of this post means a lot to me.

Mary Beth is my sister. She was killed by a Christian missionary who accidentally ran her off the road, but it's OK, I guess, because it was God's will. The missionary told me so.

Mary Beth did phenomenal work as an environmental activist. You could look it up.

She was unfaltering in her conviction that the individual can make a difference. Her work is proof of her belief. She helped shut down Michigan’s polluting medical waste incinerators. She did some of the most effective initial organizing and educating that led to the enactment of laws limiting out-of-state trash and promoting recycling. She was a key strategist in the effort to protect women of child-bearing age from poisons in fish when the State of Michigan tried to do away with science-based advisories.
Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council

This is my fourth attempt to bring Mary Beth into my classroom. I hope I am ready this time.

Wendell Berry, a farmer, a writer, and a thinker (a religious one at that) tackles our cultural icons head on.

In Genesis, the living soul is made of both the Earth's clay and God's breath.

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
Genesis 2:7, KJV

According to the myth, God did not stuff a soul into a human body made of clay. The soul is the clay, the soul is the breath.

"Living soul" comes from the Hebrew word nefesh. A lot of Americans do not realize that the Genesis was written in ancient Hebrew. No vowels. No spaces. The original text has been missing for a couple of millenia.

A common perception among dominant Christian sects is that the body and the soul are distinct elements; the body is a temporary vessel holding the more valuable soul. It has led to a pervasive themes in Western thought:

The Earth has little value; we exist to get to Heaven.
The body has little value; it exists to (temporarily) hold the soul.

The present has little value; our souls will exist for eternity in Heaven or Hell.

I am not about to tackle the meaning of soul in a classroom, but I am obligated to discuss life. That I do not see much of a distinction between the two (and that I pray for the clams as I steam them to death) no doubt influences the way I see the world.

The major denominations in these parts will tell you that they do, in fact, care for the Earth.

"Look! We have a social awareness committee!"
"Look! We recycle and drink fair trade coffee after service!"
"Look! The pastor drives a Prius and even walks to church!"

So in class I will say "Look!"

Look, children, and know that stories told by old men and old women of seas full of fish and skies full of carrier pigeons are not fairy tales.
Look, children, and see your grandmothers felled by breast cancer, a disease much rarer before industrialized farming.
Look, children, the ice caps are melting....

And I will try to get Mary Beth's voice in there when they start to feel a little desperate.

Mary Beth's empathy was always with the individual citizen, or small group of citizens, fighting against the odds to stop environmental health damage or promote an environmentally-sound alternative. She was unfaltering in her conviction that the individual can make a difference,and was the most ethical advocate I've ever known.
Dave Dempsey, Michigan Environmental Council

Enough ram
bling on a day dedicated to a man who marveled at the generosity of the Arawaks who greeted him in the New World, then enslaved them.

For a brilliant dicussion on the artificial dichotomy of soul and body (and one I generously borrowed from) see "Christianity and The Survival of Creation" in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community, Pantheon Books, 1993 by Wendell Berry. Berry notes that while Western culture behaves as though body + soul = man, allowing us to debase our bodies and our planet while holding on the hope that our spiritual component (soul) will live forever in bliss, the original view of man in Genesis is dust + God's breath = living soul.


Louise Maine said...

Love this post! I have a problem with Genesis for the reasons you have as if we were allowed to have control over all that was made. We are one of many who need to survive here and we cannot do it by ourselves.

I just had an interesting discussion today with a student who thought there will always be food, who cares if a few animals died, etc. Your right, children don't want to know. Our ego can be a problem.

I am beginning to sense that we think alike which is why you are in my blogroll. It would be great to have a conversation with you (clams would be good to!)

doyle said...

Thanks for the kind words.

In a sense, we are having a conversation. At least I hope so.

Food is a wonderfully complex topic, laden with mythology, politics, science, and history.

I believe that if everybody had access to real food--fresh flour, fresh water, fresh vegetables, and animals raised humanely and slaughtered the same day they're eaten (with obvious exceptions)--we'd be a lot closer to true community.

I'm not going to wander into tinfoil hat territory, speculating what Wonder Bread and Twinkies does to our children. I will say this much, though--it takes time and care to make decent food, time spent with families, time not spent at a desk.

Once you've tasted fresh baked bread from fresh ground flour, there's no going back.

(If you're ever in town, give a holler--as long as the water's warm enough to wade in, I can get clams fresher than any you can buy.)

Dave Dempsey said...

Mary Beth is impossible to forget; I know her family never will, but she left an indelible memory in our heart and minds. I hope you can convey to your students her gusto and compassion as well as her commitment to critical thinking.

I'm sorry I was unable to attend her park dedication in June in Ann Arbor.

doyle said...

Dear Dave,

Maybe this year I will convey a small part of Mary Beth in the classroom. It's been a long time coming.

I miss her "gusto and compassion"--I miss her everything. I still expect to see her dancing in the kitchen.

I hope to catch you at the Ecology Center fundraiser in the spring. Your words have been an extraordinary source of strength for me and others close to Mary Beth.

Thanks for your thoughts. Maybe I'll borrow your ear in the future. (How does one present the issues to children without promoting despair? Mary Beth told me how a few times, but I need reminding now and then.)

Dave Dempsey said...

It's about time I made one of those fundraisers instead of sending a check. I do hope to see you there.

May I ask whatever happened to the man who caused the accident? I heard he was in line to get off with virtually nothing...I hope that's not the case.