I’ve been working in the environmental movement for nearly two decades, and if there’s one lesson I have had hammered into me, particularly over the past year, it is that facts do not matter as much as I would like them to. People by-and-large prefer to believe whatever aligns with what they already believe, and will twist themselves into a knot rationalizing and cherry-picking whatever sound-bite supports their pre-existing world view rather than going through the difficult work of questioning and testing those assumptions. Because facts, figures and statistics are rarely compelling enough on their own, perhaps we need to learn to speak at a deeper level.
I recently attended my second GreenLatinos Summit, and though environmental policy objectives rightly dominated the discussion, I found myself most moved by those who chose to speak from the heart and talked about love, faith, the sacredness of Nature, and the spiritual dimension of our work. I felt moved in the same way at last year’s event, but then went back to work where such concepts seemed to be less helpful and instead felt awkward, uncomfortable and frankly incompatible with my day-to-day. So I pushed those thoughts and feelings aside and plowed through another year of business as usual. Looking back, that may have been a mistake- particularly given the year we’ve had.
Because while it is obvious that we can’t have healthy communities in a toxic environment, the opposite is also true, though perhaps less apparent: that we can’t possibly heal the Earth without healing our society. It seems like a daunting task and I have no idea how to approach it, but I believe we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that half of the equation. I doubt that there is a clear political or technological solution to what so clearly ails our systems of governance and commerce. Rather, I suspect it’s going to require something much deeper and more complex that ultimately shifts in our entire worldview.
I’d much rather cling to reductionist science, and linear thinking, and follow the clearly marked path on the map from A to B to C. But that’s what we’ve been doing, and it is obviously not enough. At a time when we know more about the natural world than we ever have, and every day brings new discoveries, we are also destroying that world at an ever increasing rate. Something is amiss, clearly and undeniably. But let me be very clear: I do not propose that we give up on knowledge and reason. Science is already under attack and we urgently need to defend it. What I suggest is that science in itself is not enough. Though we are right to stand for scientific truth, it is not the only truth that needs defending.
“Water is Life” is a powerful political statement because it is both factually true and spiritually true. It is a scientific fact that life as we know it requires water. And it is a spiritual fact that water nourishes our soul, soothes our mind, and renews our spirit. We seek out bodies of water in our spare time, sometimes to play in them, but often just to be near them, to watch the waves or fall asleep listening to the murmur of a stream. We rejoice when the rains come (except when they come too strong and too often, for the giver of life can also take it). Our first look at the ocean; that swimming hole we found; those nights we went skinny-dipping; that kiss in the rain; the cold days spent soaking at the hot springs; and those long childhood summers spent at the public pool- these joys stay with us, we recall them fondly decades later, because they shaped our lives, and gave it meaning. So yes, we need data, technology, and infrastructure to prevent pollution, but it is just as important to proclaim that when we desecrate water, we desecrate ourselves. Because industry will always attempt to cast doubt on the science and argue over cost-benefit analyses, but it cannot refute the sacredness of water. So we would be wise to speak at this deeper level, and frame the conversation in these undeniable terms.
Of all the communities fighting to protect their water, one in particular had a message that resonated worldwide last year. The support and encouragement that flowed from every continent to a previously unremarkable corner of North Dakota was unprecedented in scope for what is objectively a relatively minor scuffle when we consider the hundreds of millions that already lack access to clean water. And it is no coincidence that the Standing Rock Sioux captured our hearts and minds by speaking clearly and unapologetically of what they hold sacred.
If for no other reason, we ought to follow their lead because they have shown us that there are powerful alliances to be gained by doing so.
I remember none of the charts, tables, and maps that I saw just a few weeks ago. But there is one image from the conference that I can’t forget. It is a painting by Niria Garcia, a former coworker. In it salmon swim up through a busted dam, people walk through a hole in a wall, and a Monarch butterfly floats above it all. The words “Migration is Beautiful” stretch across the entire scene. Of course this is factually true, for who among us isn’t awed by the epic travels of whales, sea turtles, birds, or caribou? But the reason I find this image so powerful is because it cuts to the heart of seemingly disparate and unrelated issues by reminding us that migration is not only natural, but also necessary. It is key to the sacred cycle of life and death, to nature’s ebb and flow through time and space. Migration drives rebirth and renewal, and any attempt to block it either through physical barriers or misguided policies is an affront to Life itself.
During the conference I also heard a lot about how we’ve faced these attempts to roll back environmental and public health protections before. As I have ever since the election, I shook my head in disbelief at mistakes being repeated by those in power, while taking comfort in examples of prior victories. But this too is part of nature’s eternal cycle of give and take, and a reminder that how things are now is neither how they’ve always been nor how they will be. Too often I forget that life itself is a process of forever becoming something else. I want a permanent fix, I want things to stay the same, or worse, I long for a return to the good old days. But if my own personal relationships require near constant upkeep, maintenance and repair, should I not expect the same of our collective relationships to our nation, other countries, other species, and the planet itself?
The key to maintaining any relationship is good communication, and that begins with listening. That’s why I can’t help but feel that those rational, evidence-based, and scientific solutions we seek would become both more evident and more easily achieved if we could also, as a society, revive the lost art of contemplation, and collectively rediscover that space where facts and figures cease to matter- not because they are meaningless, but because they are superfluous.
I suspect (with absolutely no evidence to back up such an outrageous claim) that if we could truly listen to the abundance of the forest, the depths of the ocean, and the voices of those “disproportionately impacted”, we would learn that what we really lack is not only better data, stronger policies, and more effective technologies, but rather the humility to feel grateful for what we already have, the wisdom to do better with what we’ve been given, and the compassion to share both blessings and burdens.
I still have no idea how to incorporate all this into my work, but maybe it’s asking the question that matters. Maybe it’s as simple as remembering to give thanks not just for each victory, but for every given moment. Maybe it starts with taking a few minutes every now and then to acknowledge these other, sacred truths.
David Nuñez is a biologist, photographer and author of several books on the Wildlife of the Mexican Caribbean, as well as a founding member of Mexiconservación.