I suppose you could say that my childhood was always green. We called it being poor. Recycling and reuse? Always. Our furniture was someone else’s throwaways and we passed on to others anything we didn’t need. When you have no money, reusing is the only option. But we never felt deprived. We walked or took a bus everywhere. We didn’t own a car until I was in fourth grade which was also the year we finally got a refrigerator. We had an ice box before that.
Even after most folks had a TV, we got by without one. I do remember having an old, second hand television briefly during part of my years in high school. But without a TV, I never got hooked into hours of television watching the “boob tube”.
I was raised by a hardworking, divorced mom who had survived the depression and “waste not, want not” was our total way of life. Hand-me-down clothing from older cousins or clothes made by my mother was the norm. We almost always had a garden. I earned what money I could doing chores for the neighbors. That was my life.
I laugh now at the “discovery” of walking, bicycling, reading vs. TV, recycling, reusing and organic. We always raised stuff organically, because manure was free and we would never have wasted money on pesticides when we could just pick the bugs off. I was lucky that my mother had taken a year of college nutrition classes before she married. She was a great cook. In addition, my grandmother lived with us and since she was diabetic we never had too many sweets. Meat was expensive so we ate lots of fruits and vegetables as well as casseroles and soups with a minimum of meat stock. I was raised on a very healthy, organic diet.
Before you feel sorry for my poor family upbringing let me say that my sister and I never felt poor. Our life was rich is so many ways and we believed in the “waste not, want not” philosophy. My mother believed in education and the importance of bringing culture into our lives. I had piano lessons and dance lessons, regardless of the financial sacrifice. We took advantage of every free concert and lecture available (and there were many in those days) and we all spent many hours in the library.
We were encouraged to take part in the community and expand our knowledge in every way possible. The “nose bleed” sections of the opera and symphony were cheap enough in those days that even my family could afford it. For people wanting to become greener, those are good activities to do with your family today instead of video games and expensive, gas guzzling trips.
Many summers we camped out and traveled the west coast, harvesting fields at u-pick places and canning up our food for the winter. Nothing ever got wasted. We returned bottles for the deposit and bought our food as close to the source as possible. It was simply cheaper that way. I helped out at a chicken farm so that we always had eggs and we lived next to a dairy so milk was never a problem.
I always loved nature and by the time I started high school we had camped out and hiked in almost all of the national parks (they were free then) in the western United States. In the early 50’s I became a Junior Ranger in the National Park Service. It is still an active program for children today, but was far more challenging then. We learned to identify birds, animals, flowers, trees, and scat. We had outdoor classes on the geology of the region and the influence of the ice age on the fantastic formations and dramatic vistas we were seeing. We went on long hikes with rangers and naturalists. I learned about men like John Muir and other farsighted naturalists who helped save those great natural treasures for us to enjoy.
One exceptional summer in Yosemite they offered a photographic workshop and I met an old, gray bearded man who kindled my love of photography and photographing nature. His name was Ansel Adams .
I was introduced to the writings of naturalists Aldo Leopold and Henry David Thoreau. I read the poems and ideas of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The work of these and others like them set the stage for the early environmental movement and are still well worth reading today. In the late 50’s I began to become acquainted with another stream of thought that would lend itself to environmentalism in the future: the beginnings of the “natural food” phenomena. It was these early pioneers who first began to raise alarm about additives in food, use of pesticides and the lack of nutrition in our “white bread” American society. One fortunate day I had lunch in one of California’s first health food restaurants with an enthusiastic man who has been called the “godfather of fitness”. He talked to me about natural food, exercise, and nutrition. I have tried (not always successfully) to follow his lead for most of my life and will never forget my lunch with Jack La Lanne.
Moving on into the 60’s, there was a lot going on in the world: civil rights, anti-war marches, economic changes, and my own early involvement in local politics and community organizations. Through it all, however, my love of nature never left me. With the publishing of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson in 1962, the environmental movement really got its start. That book was followed by another eye opener. Nobel Prize winning scientist Paul Ehrlick’s book The Population Bomb, was published in 1968. Thoughtful people began to see that we were using up our resources and that something needed to be done. That was the year that my old VW bus sported the popular peace sign done in green for world peace and ecological awareness.
Another scientist who was trying to wake people up at that time was Garrett Hardin. His paper “The Tragedy of the Commons” published in 1968 was a serious wake up call concerning overpopulation and the scarcity of resources. He warned of the effects of pollution and the need to limit access to important natural areas to protect them. He was the ecologist who coined the term, “spaceship earth”. His ideas were extreme at the time and to some extent, still are. In 2007 we are still trying to catch up to this man.
It’s striking that in today’s renewed efforts to work toward a sustainable future, little is being said about aggressive population control, which many believe is the most important issue of all. More than anything else, overpopulation is what’s killing the earth and over using it’s resources. The political climate has become very difficult on population control issues and that’s a major tragedy.
While in graduate school in the 70’s, I heard British born economist and social activist Kenneth Boulding speak and discovered that ecology and economics do go hand in hand. Even today that concept is difficult to grasp. He was one of the founders of an entire school of thought and inquiry called Ecological Economics. He warned that nothing can grow forever and that we were going to run out of all of our critical resources someday. His line of thought, as well as Garrett Hardin’s, is still studied in many organizations and academic circles all over the world.
I started back to college in 1971 after years of working and being in business. It was there that I was introduced to Barry Commoner’s amazing book The Closing Circle. He was called the “Paul Revere of Ecology” and his work formed the backdrop for me to do a year long set of science classes called Ecology. The instructor I had was a newly graduated scientist and one of a small handful of teachers around the world introducing this new discipline to the college curriculum. I began to understand the interconnectedness of all things and the impact we make on our world with every decision we make.
In 1973, one of the great successes of the early environmental movement came to pass; the Endangered Species Act. Finally the government and the public had to come to grips with the fact that our activities in the world had caused the degradation of habitat and endangered many of the earth’s animal and bird species. The danger of DDT was well documented and the far reaching legislation that created the EPA also opened the door to decades of activities that not only saved and restored many animal and bird species, but created a nationwide momentum that gave birth to hundred of land trusts and other organizations seeking ways to protect valuable habitat.
That was also the time, in the Bay Area of California that I got a harsh lesson about the importance of water. “If it’s yellow let it mellow, if it’s brown flush it down” was the mantra for several years of drought conditions in Northern California. Saving water and being aware of all the ways I could minimize water usage was a lesson I learned well.
Why the comment about water? Because that’s what our future wars will be fought over. There are already skirmishes in other parts of the world over this scarce and absolutely required resource. Once we get solar power online everywhere we will have free, sustainable energy forever. But water is another story and one that we must look at seriously.
In the 70’s I also joined the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Greenpeace, and many other organizations struggling to get the attention of a distracted nation. One triumph of that period was the birth of Earth Day which raised awareness and is still an annual event. I also learned about organic gardening, worm bins, integrated pest management, composting, mulching, raised bed planting, and animal husbandry in the early ‘70’s. I studied dome homes, sod houses, use of solar energy, rainwater reuse, recycling of building materials, and cluster housing in the 70’s too. So much of what is talked about today has been around since the 60’s and 70’s. It’s just higher tech now.
The 1980’s brought us more national and international news concerning toxic waste, nuclear power issues, population explosion, environmental degradation and a growing sense that it was time to do something. Those of us paying attention were also learning about the loss of the Amazon rainforests. But it was not until the 1990’s that we began to see a huge growth in awareness and activism.
In 1992 the UN convened one of the most important international events ever planned. The United Nation Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, also called the Earth Summit. It was then that we began to see that others in the world were also waking up to the problems. In fact it is amazing to realize that many countries are decades ahead of us in sustainability and conservation. If you really want to know what’s happening in business, academia and social/policy change as it relates to the environment, look at Europe, New Zealand, and the Scandinavian countries. We have a long way to go.
Among the leaders of the new environmental consciousness in the early ‘90’s was Hunter Lovins. As co-founder of the California Conservation Project (Tree People), she and her husband, physicist Amory Lovins, founded the well known Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado. She was named Hero of the Planet in 2000 by Time Magazine. Her book, Natural Capitalism, which she co-authored with husband Amory and Paul Hawkins, shook the academic and political world. Respected award winning scientists and environmentalists, these three individuals, in great part, introduced the modern concept of sustainability. Meeting Hunter Lovins and hearing her speak has been a real inspiration to me.