Leadership Blog Part 10: Reclaiming Our Environmental Imagination (NEPA at 50 and beyond)

During the decade of the 1960’s and 1970’s, there were many literary figures writing of the simplicity, the beauty, and the spiritual depth of Nature, giving us vivid imagery that represented our emotional landscape.  For example, Theodore Roethke’s The Far Field that included the wonderful “North American Sequence,” was published in 1964 and instantly won the National Book Award for that year.  Mary Oliver, one of the finest nature poets to have ever lived (Oliver passed away in January 2019), published American Primitive in 1978 to much literary acclaim, including the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

This nation’s environmental movement that began in the early 1960’s had gained considerable momentum by the end of that decade.  Beyond the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), lobbyists in Washington DC were creating considerable pressure to enact many other environmental protection laws.  Congress was hearing testimony from scientists about the alarming rate of environmental degradation and the potential for environmental disasters.  The authors of NEPA believed it was America’s responsibility to do something about protecting the environment.  Section 101 of NEPA describes a mission to “foster and promote the general welfare, to create and maintain conditions under which (man) and nature can exist in productive harmony.” 

The penultimate phrase from Section 101 lets us, as humans living on this earth, into understanding a deeper reality, a deeper responsibility and purpose: “the responsibilities of each generation as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations.”  This phrase speaks to me of stewardship and sustainability.  The last phrase of Section 101, “assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive and aesthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings,” speaks to me of the new science of environmental assessment and protection, and the quality of life that we all seek. I would like to believe these two leading thoughts, written over 50 years ago, are the beginning of the next chapter of our NEPA years.

Rachel Carson was an U.S. Forest Service employee who saw first-hand what was happening to our nation’s lakes, rivers, forests, and earth.  Her scientific background gave her the understanding of the cause and effect relationships between the use of chemicals and pesticides for weed and insect control and the pollution of water and soil.  Silent Spring was a dramatic warning to a nation of people that had grown lax in their awareness of the natural world around them.  In the book Carson states, “Have we fallen into a mesmerized state that makes us accept as inevitable that which is inferior or detrimental, as though having lost the will or the vision to demand that which is good?”  Silent Spring is dedicated to Albert Schweitzer whom she quotes in the forward of the book, “Man has lost the capacity to foresee and forestall.  He will end by destroying the earth.”

As we, as a nation, moved into the late 20th century, we finally saw ourselves for what we had become.  We saw the vision of our exploitation, of bending Nature to our will.  We realized that our excessive consumerism-demands and our unresponsive neglect had done much harm to our natural surroundings.  We had tampered with Nature and now it seemed Nature was recoiling back on us. In 1997, thirty-five years after the publication of Silent Spring, Sandra Steingraber published Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment.  The book is a scientific and personal account of the link between the use of chemicals, carcinogens in the air, water and soil, and the incidence of cancer in humans. The accounts and stories are profound, and Steingraber shares many things in common with Rachael Carson.  Both women are concerned about the relationship between environmental contamination and human rights, and the threat to human health created by the reckless pollution of the world.  Both women urge for an individual’s right to know about poisons introduced into the environment by others and the right to protection against them.  Both women were diagnosed with breast cancer.  Rachael Carson died of cancer in 1964 at the age of 56.  She was diagnosed four years earlier in 1960 while she was writing Silent Spring. Sandra is a cancer survivor.

In the early 1980’s, a group of environmental activists demonstrated at the Glen Canyon Dam, a new project many people thought was an environmental disaster, the flooding of a pristine canyon along the Colorado River to produce electrical power.  Many tourists still come to the dam to marvel at its “built” proportions.  However, the vision of those who sounded the environmental alarm, those who “looked into the light” on that day of protest in 1981, resulted in creating the advocacy group Earth First!

On March 28, 2001, a group of writers including Scott Russell Sanders, Bill McKibben, and Richard Nelson introduced to Congress a new book entitled, Artic Refuge: A Circle of Testimony. It is a collection of essays by Jimmy Carter, Wendell Berry, Rick Bass, Terry Tempest Williams, Barry Lopez, and others that offer a chorus of voices on behalf of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  This book is modeled on an effort by Terry Tempest Williams and Stephen Trimble in 1996, Testimony: Writers of the West Speak on Behalf of Utah Wilderness.  The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) was created in response to a new presidential administration’s interest in opening the ANWR to oil drilling, in the hope that there would be an increased understanding of the importance of undeveloped landscapes.

Our heightened level of commitment comes from a deep place and it is Nature itself that stimulates this.  I believe there is a resonance in the natural world that can strike a chord deep within our being that can enliven our spirit, stir our imagination, and stimulate our highest creative efforts.  Aldo Leopold, perhaps best known for his book, Sand County Almanac, once stated, “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we begin to use it with love and respect.”  As we currently face our 21st century’s environmental challenges, it is through our renewed sense of respect and stewardship for the land that we as environmental professionals can be inspired to a deeper level of mission regarding our profession and its place in protecting the environment.

Biologist Tim Clark has said that at the heart of good biology is a core of imagination.  It is the basis for responsible science.  Author Rick Bass stated in an article, “I hope that there will be a coming generation of scientists intelligent and talented and observant enough to measure the mysterious goings-on at the level that art does.”  I believe what they are saying is that only by following our impulses, our imagination, will we be ready and open to the potential of our environmental accomplishments.  Only then will we find ourselves closer to our real selves, our passion; only then will our professional work be work of art as well as insightful science.

Ron Deverman
NAEP Fellow

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