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#767 - Walking North on a Southbound Train, Part 2, 16-Apr-2003

Published July 3, 2003

by David W. Orr**

[Continued from Rachel's #766.]

What is to be done? To that question there can be no simple or
definitive answer, but I do think there are some obvious places
to begin. The first step requires that we take back public
words such as conservative and patriot, which have been coopted
and put to no good or accurate use. How is it, for example,
that the word conservative came to describe those willing to
run irreversible risks with the Earth? Intending to conserve
nothing, they are not conservatives but vandals now working at
a global scale. How have those driving their sport utility
vehicles to the mall, sporting two American flags and a "God
bless America" bumper sticker come to regard themselves as
patriots? They are not moved by authentic patriotism at all,
but by self indulgence. For that matter how has the great and
noble word liberal been demeaned and slandered as the height of
political and intellectual folly? Unable to defend the
integrity of words, we cannot defend the earth or anything

The integrity of our common language, however, depends a great
deal on the cultivation of discerning intelligence among the
public, and that requires better education than we now offer.
But education has been whittled down to smaller purposes of
passing tests and ensuring large "lifetime earnings" in some
part of the global economy. What passes for education has
become highly technical and specialized, little of which is
aimed to draw out the full human stature of young people. We've
become a nation of specialists and technicians, not broadly
educated and discerning people. Scholars have been too intent
on developing "professional knowledge," arcane theories, and
complicated methodologies, instead of broad knowledge useful to
the wider public. Consequently, fewer and fewer people know
history, how the world works as a physical system, or the
rudiments of the constitution, and fewer have a respectable
political philosophy. We are a people ripe for the plucking.

This leads to a third point. We do not have an environmental
crisis so much as a political crisis. A great majority of
people still wish a decent and habitable world for their
descendants, but those desires are thwarted by the machinery
that ought to connect the popular will to public decisions but
no longer does so. We will have to repair and perhaps reinvent
the institutions of democratic governance for a global world,
and that means dealing with issues that the founders of this
republic did not and could not have anticipated. The process of
political engagement at all levels has become increasingly
Byzantine, confusing, and inaccessible. And in the
mass-consumption society we have all become better consumers
than citizens, which is to say willing participants in our own
undoing. The solution, however difficult, is to reconnect
people with the political process and government at all levels.

Fourth, it is necessary to expose the mythology that surrounds
what Marjorie Kelly calls "the divine rights of capital" and
place democratic controls on corporations and the movement of

We once fought a revolutionary war to establish political
democracy in western societies, but have yet to democratize the
workplace and the ownership of capital. These are still
governed by the same illogic of unquestioned divine right by
which monarchies once ruled. The assumption that corporations
are legal persons and thereby beyond effective public scrutiny,
control, or law is foolishness and worse. The latest corporate
scandals are only that, the latest in a recurring pattern of
illegality, self dealing, and political corruption surpassing
even that of the robber baron era. The solution is to enforce
corporate charters as public license to do business on behalf
of the public that are revocable if and when the terms of the
charter are violated. If private ownership is a good thing, it
should be widely extended, not restricted to the superwealthy.
By the same logic, we must remove the corrupting influence of
money from politics, beginning with corporate campaign
contributions and the hundreds of billions of dollars of public
subsidies for cars, highways, fossil fuels, and nuclear power
that corrupt the democratic process and public policy.

Fifth, political reform requires an active, engaged, and
sometimes enraged citizenry. An example is the Illinois
farmer-citizens who stood for hours to hear Lincoln and Douglas
debate issues of slavery and sectionalism in 1858. Those
debates were full of careful argument, eloquence, and wit.
Those citizens applauded, laughed, and jeered, which is to say
that they followed the flow of argument and heard what was
being said. Later, some died for and because of those same
arguments. They were citizens and were willing to sacrifice a
great deal for that privilege. In our time, while the issues
have grown to global scale with consequences that extend as far
into the future as the mind dares to imagine, political
argument is whittled down to sound bites fitted in between
advertisements. The means whereby citizens are informed have
been increasingly monopolized and manipulated. Only half or
fewer of citizens bother to vote. Some believe public apathy
and political incompetence to be good or at least tolerable. I
do not. Unless we reverse course, apathy and incompetence will
prove to be the undoing of democratic government and all that
depends on a healthy democracy. The nature of what will replace
it is already evident: an unconstrained and well-armed
managerial plutocracy intent on global plunder.

Sixth, we need a positive strategy that fires the public
imagination. The public, I believe, knows what we are against
but not what we are for. And there are many things that should
be stopped, but what should be started? The answer to that
question lies in a more coherent agenda formed around what is
being called ecological design as it applies to land use,
buildings, energy systems, transportation, materials, water,
agriculture, forestry, and urban planning. For three decades
and longer we have been developing the ideas, science, and
technological wherewithal to build a sustainable society. The
public knows of these things only in fragments, but not as a
coherent and practical agenda -- indeed the only practical
course available. That is the fault of those in the field of
conservation, and we should start now to put a positive agenda
before the public that includes the human and economic
advantages of better technology, integrated planning, coherent
purposes, and foresight.

Finally, we should expect far more of our leaders than we
presently do. Never has the need for genuine leadership been
greater, and seldom has it been less evident. We cannot be
ruled by ignorant, malicious, greedy, incompetent, and
shortsighted people and expect things to turn out well. If we
are to navigate the challenges of the decades ahead, what E. O.
Wilson calls "the bottleneck," we will need leaders of great
stature, clarity of mind, spiritual depth, courage, and vision.
We need leaders who see patterns that connect us across the
divisions of culture, religion, geography, and time. We need
leadership that draws us together to resolve conflicts, move
quickly from fossil fuels to solar power, reverse global
environmental deterioration, and empower us to provide shelter,
food, medical care, decent livelihood, and education for
everyone. We need leadership that is capable of energizing
genuine commitment to old and venerable traditions as well as
new visions for a global civilization that preserves and honors
local cultures, economies, and knowledge.

Imagine a world in which those who purport to lead us must
first make a pilgrimage to ground zero at Hiroshima and
publicly pledge "never again." Imagine a world in which those
who purport to lead us must go to Auschwitz and the Killing
Fields and pledge publicly "never again." Imagine a world in
which leaders must go to Bhopal and say to the victims "We are
truly sorry. This will never happen again, anywhere." Imagine,
too, those pilgrim leaders going to hundreds of places where
love, kindness, forgiveness, sacrifice, compassion, wisdom,
ecological ingenuity, and foresight have been evident.

Imagine a world in which those who purport to lead us must help
identify places around the world degraded by human actions and
help initiate their restoration. Some areas might take as long
as 1000 years to restore, such as the Aral Sea, the Harrapan
region in India, the forests of Lebanon, soil fertility in the
Middle East, Chesapeake Bay, and the North Atlantic cod
fishery. Imagine a world in which those who intend to lead help
lift our sights above the daily crisis to the far horizon of
what could be.

Imagine, too, leaders with the kind of humility demonstrated by
Czech President, Vaclav Havel[2]: "In time I have become a good
deal less sure of myself, a good deal more humble... every day
I suffer more and more from stage fright; every day I am more
afraid that I won't be up to the job... more and more often, I
am afraid that I will fall woefully short of expectations, that
I will somehow reveal my own lack of qualifications for the
job, that despite my good faith I will make even greater
mistakes, that I will cease to be trustworthy and therefore
lose the right to do what I do."

Self-described realists will dismiss the idea of better
leadership as muddle-headed. Some will see in it some global
conspiracy or another. Prospective leaders will profess
sympathy but say they do not have the time to improve
themselves further. And those least qualified to lead will pay
no attention at all. But it is not up to any of them to
prescribe for us. We are now citizens of the earth joined in a
common enterprise with many variations. We have every right to
insist that those who purport to lead us be worthy of the task.
Imagine such a time! Imagine a time, not far off, when we might
all be on board a train heading north!


* Reprinted from Conservation Biology Volume 17, No. 2, April
2003, pgs. 348-351. The title comes from Peter Montague,
Rachel's Environment and Health News #570 (October 30, 1997)
available at www.rachel.org.

** David W. Orr is chairperson of the Environmental Studies
Program at Oberlin College, Oberlin, OH 44074, U.S.A.; E-mail:

[1] Kelly, M. 2001. The divine right of capital.
Barrett-Koehler, San Francisco.

[2] Havel, V. 2002. A farewell to politics. The New York Review
of Books 24 October, pg. 4.