‘Mister, what is the big problem now?” asked the little girl.
“My parents were arguing last night and my mother said the environment is bigger than war.
“Is that true?” she asked.
I am always delighted by how simple and straightforward young children are. Pretension has not yet squirmed its way into their psyche. They are what they are.
When faced with a roomful of small round eyes all staring up at me waiting for an answer, I clutched.
I thought to myself how sweet and innocent this young person is. How wonderful it must be to be back at that age when everything is simple, very black and white.
I felt pressure building in me. Silence fell over the classroom. I suppose this is why I did not choose a career as a primary teacher. Not quick enough on my feet.
War or the environment?
Which is bigger?
In order to buy a little time, I did what all good cowards would do in this situation. I threw it right back to the little girl.
“Well, what do you think?”
She didn’t hesitate.
“The environment,” she said, “because we can do something about it. And it’s inside us.”
As soon as she said that, my mind went to something I had read earlier that day by Peter Matthiessen.
Matthiessen was relating a story told him by a Gwich’in elder as they stood staring out over the great expanse of the Arctic coastal plain.
“Caribou has a piece of Man’s heart in its heart and Man has a piece of caribou heart in his heart, so each will always know what the other is doing.”
Of course, the little girl in the classroom was right. The environment is in us, like it or not.
Abuse it and we are doing ourselves great harm. Ignore it and we are ignoring ourselves.
And for the most part we have done both.
The environment is hardly on the radar screen during this election. It hardly ever makes the front page of our morning paper.
I was listening to Sounds Like Canada on CBC the other day and the guest being interviewed remarked there are only three “professional environmental writers” at work in Canadian journalism today.
Well damn it, if that is true, now you have four.
Today, I carry forth the message of the young Grade 3 student who stood her ground when faced with the big question.
It makes little if any difference if you prefer to think of yourself as a fiscal conservative, an ardent socialist, or a religious zealot, you cannot escape the “environmentalist” label. We are all environmentalists at the core.
It makes absolutely no difference if we spend our time thinking of the market economy, technological innovation, or homeless shelters, we are all thinking creatures.
What we think with, and therefore what we think about, are our minds.
We think only because we are environmentalists. We drink in through our senses everything around us and if we are lucky, what we drink in grows into ideas.
If we head off to the office in the morning, head off to the country, or head off to war, we cannot dismiss the notion that we are “using our heads.”
No matter where we head off to, what we head off to is a world of living processes.
The how’s, where’s and why’s by which we intercept the living processes we wade into each day, is done through language.
And it makes no difference if our language of the day is filled with mathematics, poetry, or mechanics, it is a language brought to us live and in colour by the living Earth.
What does make a difference, however, is that no matter what language we choose, we have a tendency to spend too much time talking and not enough time paying attention.
The moment we decide to pay attention, something quite marvelous begins to happen.
We become, as if by some act of magic, that small, sweet, round-eyed little person who has the courage to acknowledge that the environment is in all of us.
Paying attention is just like paying the bills. It is a conscious act of doing something.
As soon as we quite talking, we begin listening, smelling, seeing, and feeling. In short we begin to organize ourselves.
And as we begin to organize ourselves we take a rather profound step beyond being paltry environmentalists.
We become ecologists.
Human ecologist Joseph Meeker once confounded me with the following remark.
“Ecology is getting organized, but not very ecologically,” he said.
What he meant by this is ecology — the art of organizing ourselves by paying attention — has been turned into something that has little to do with our understanding of ecological processes.
Real ecology should help us throw off the veil and make us sense that all of us are environmentalists; that the environment is in us, not around us, and that we think, not because we do think, but rather because we can think.
We have allowed ecology to become compartmentalized to the point that is has lost, first, its meaning, and then its effectiveness.
Ecology has taken on the flavour of whatever it sets outs to oppose or replace.
According to Meeker, “Eco-technology has simply become good business. If you aspire to be an ecoteur, you can buy manuals of ecotage. If you prefer to withdraw, there is ecomonasticism.”
We have compartmentalized ecology in these ways (and more — ecopsychology and eco-tourism come to mind) because ecology is still in its pioneering phase.
“The change of consciousness that goes by the name of ecology should be soon ready to move beyond its pioneering stage.
“They (our past ecological efforts) have their own special beauty and vitality, but they will not be suitable much longer.
“More complex and more elegant forms will emerge, and their shape and character will fit new niches.
“When environmentalism begins to resemble in form the wild systems it wishes to protect, then succession will be the clearest sign of success.”
All of this, of course, is clearly understood by the happy and sophisticated Grade 3 student.
We need to pay close attention to what she tells us.