The planet and the public will

This article first appeared in The Seattle Times, March 10, 2018.

The most inspiring speech I’ve witnessed was a commencement address at the University of Washington. It was given by an icon of the Pacific Northwest: Bill Gates, Sr.

Mr. Gates is an old head; a revered elder; someone who has, as my younger son says, seen some stuff. The theme of this speech was simple: He called on graduates to become citizens of the world.

In making that call, Mr. Gates referred to what he called the public will: “when the right thing to do becomes a consensus, and people … start expressing the convictions they share.”

He viewed the civil rights movement, “America’s march toward racial justice,” as the most profound expression of the public will he’d ever seen. That expression, and that march toward justice, continues today in BlackLivesMatter.

More recently, we’ve seen the public will rise to defend the status of women, in #MeToo. Behavior that we, as a society, tolerated just a year or two ago is now intolerable.

These expressions of the public will are simple, but profound, extensions of ethical behavior. They make decency and mutual respect—the best in human nature—an expectation and norm.

Soon we must see the public will rise in defense of this planet.

I teach a course at the University of Washington that introduces students to projections on how human population size, global warming, deforestation, and extinction will play out over their course of their lifetimes, if present trends continue. The students are shocked—as shocked as they are when reading first-hand accounts of Harry Weinstein’s depredations, or watching videos of unarmed black men being shot.

As a teacher, I never editorialize or tell my students what to think—my job is to help them learn how to think. But I also see their reaction to the data on the state of the planet, and I worry. It is important to think globally, as Bill Gates Sr. was asking that graduating class to do when he implored them to care deeply about the over 500,000 preschoolers who die of diarrhea each year, when the treatment costs about $0.10 per dose. But still, projections that Seattle’s climate will be similar to the Bay Area’s by the year 2100, if rates of greenhouse gas release don’t slow? Current rates of extinction that will put their grandchildren in the middle of the 6th mass extinction in the history of life?

Despair is understandable, but it is a problem, not a solution. I have no interest in curling up in the fetal position and howling. I want the public will to rise. I want it to rise and make decency and mutual respect extend to the natural world—to the soil and air, and the creatures that share the planet with us—just as we work to extend it to all people.

This is not a new idea. The people of North America’s First Nations have had it for a long time. The conservationist Aldo Leopold—my wife Susan’s grandfather—called it the Land Ethic, and published it in 1947.

It is also an idea that I try to put into practice as my wife and family, along with hundreds of friends and community members, work to restore a degraded salmon stream called Tarboo Creek on the Olympic Peninsula. Fourteen years and tens of thousands of work-hours into the project, we are being rewarded with 30-foot-tall trees, a remeandered stream, revitalized populations of chum and coho salmon, and visits by mink, cougar, river otter, and beaver.

So after analyzing data on the state of the planet’s ecosystems, my students learn about Tarboo Creek and other restoration efforts in the Puget Sound basin. They read about the Green Belt Movement that Wangaari Matthei started in Kenya, combining tree planting with a social movement to empower women; the Malpai Borderlands project that brought local ranchers together to restore damaged grasslands in southern Arizona; the Samboja Lestari effort in Borneo that has created synergies between rural development and orangutan conservation. Students will often volunteer stories of how they have taken part with local tree-planting efforts, or worked on school-based gardening or sustainable agriculture programs.

These students understand the task that they have been given, at this crossroads in history. And they are determined.

This is not despair, or whining, or howling. It is the public will, rising.