Two Books … and a Forgotten Earth Day

[Earth Day was April 22. What is notable is that I forgot it. “Notable” because most of my professional life has been dedicated to promoting awareness of and actions to take on this day. What’s wrong with me. Just getting, old? Jaded? Curmudgeonly? Disillusioned? Or maybe basking in the glory of declared victory? I’m trying to figure it out. I first wrote this essay around 35 years ago, and it has been reprinted in a variety of media over the years. SB SM]

This new biography of one of my heroes Stewart Brand by John Markoff is now in my Audible wish list.

The Cauldron

Stephen Morris

Al Gore accepts the Nobel Prize for raising consciousness about global warming. The New Oxford English Dictionary declares “locavore” its Word of the Year. Community groups nationwide meet to discuss strategies for coping with Peak Oil. Wal-Mart announces plans to expand their efforts to “green” their operation.

Paradigm shifts? Sea changes? Overnight sensations? Not really.

New ideas go through stages on the path to acceptance. First, they are ignored, then ridiculed, then resisted, then finally accepted as obvious. The gestation period can be many decades.

British scientist James Lovelock, upon seeing the first NASA-provided photos of earth from outer space blurted out “It’s alive!” For years neither he, nor anyone else, knew quite what he meant by that statement, but gradually it coalesced into the Gaia Theory in which we recognize, even if we still can’t fully articulate it, the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything on the planet.

That same image of earth from space found its way onto the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog, published by Stewart Brand and a freewheeling bunch of intellectual crazies in Berkeley, California in the late 1960s. Their goal was to provide “access to tools” to a generation of kids raised in the splendid isolation of suburban America.

Berkeley was a cauldron of new ideas at the time, but not the only one. In Maine the Nearings were teaching people how to live The Good Life. On Cape Cod the New Alchemists were developing the prototypes of a “living machine,” and some brash scientists at MIT were using their access to a new tool called the computer to create models that predicted that we would deplete certain natural resources such as oil. In a perverse way you could say that the biggest cauldron of all was the one in Southeast Asia. It was decidedly less upbeat, but just as formative to the young Al Gores and John Kerrys.

Today, as we stand on the brink of Peak Oil, accurately predicted by those MIT geeks, we have the tools that give us the promise of future success. At the time the cauldrons bubbled, renewable energy didn’t exist. Solar panels, an outgrowth of the space program were not an option for even the enlightened homeowner. Whole grain bread, wind generators, organic food, and microbrewed beers? Nope, nope, nope, and nope. Prosperity was synonymous with “total electric living,” so said GE’s spokesperson, Ronald Reagan, the Gipper.

He proved a man of his word a few years later when one of his first official acts as President was to remove the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House.

By now (the early 1980s) solar energy, spawned in the cauldron of the late 60s, had advanced to the “ridicule” stage. The prevailing image of solar living was of a group of hippies sitting around a single lightbulb dangling from an exposed wire. (“Organic” was at a similar stage of ridicule. Think of shriveled, unappetizing carrots in a wooden crate at the food coop frequented by the same hippies huddled around the light bulb.)

The Arab Oil Embargos, Chernobyl, Three-Mile Island, and the Exxon-Valdez made it apparent that the entrenched powers were shooting themselves in their collective feet. The Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union became the Soviet Disarray. Then came the first Gulf War, a thinly disguised war for oil.

Steve Jobs was influenced by the Whole Earth Catalog

Earth Day celebrated its twentieth anniversary as the strands of ideas that first bubbled from the cauldron began to intertwine, and mutually support each other. The Silent Spring (thank you, Rachel Carson) flows downstream to give birth to an enterprise like Seventh Generation. Because we now have the access to tools (thank you, Stewart Brand) that enable us to be more self-reliant, we can live off the grid or work from home. But because we are beyond the limits (thank you Donella Meadows et al) we have to choose between two paths. One takes us to the end of nature (thank you, Bill McKibben) while the other begins a one-straw revolution (thank you, Masanobu Fukoka) in which the way we live must not only imitate nature, but be nature. It’s a world where size matters, but where the beautiful size is small (thank you Fritz Schumacher). This is the path that leads to the good life (thank you, Scott and Helen Nearing).

So congratulations, Mr. Gore, for all your good work. Like many of your brethren who experienced life alterations in the late 60s/early 70s you ideas are finally being “accepted as obvious.” Let’s be restrained in our declaration of victory. What we need now is to keep up the momentum for the next fifty years. We just might come up with real world solutions for life’s inconvenient truths.

Epilogue: SB Bill (Hinesburg SBs) sent along this promotional piece for a stock footage company called Framepool. Their message “Don’t travel to get your beauty shots, buy them from us.” This is what they call “Earth Porn.”

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