Earth Day ~ Helping in a Big Way

by Galen Herz

photo by Jason Matkowski

Bellingham,

Two stories from my childhood:

In my neighborhood in Texas, where I raised, there was a man who watered his lawn, even in the middle of one of the worst droughts in the state’s history. This guy watered his lawn, even against the law. Due to how bad the drought was, you could only water your lawn on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you would see this guy hand-watering his lawn every morning. This guy’s lawn was one of those perfectly manicured, super-green, clearly pesticide and fertilizer-laden, freak of nature lawns. My mom and I would walk past it and joke about destroying it, but at the end she would always say, “Galen, don’t actually do that.”

Well, one night, I grabbed a hand-trowel from our garage and went over to his lawn, and just went at it. I stabbed the hell out of that thing and threw chunks and bits of lawn into the street. I left a furious letter on his doorstep and ran my legs out of there. The next time we saw it, he had transplanted other sections of lawn (probably from his backyard) over the patches, but it was clear something had been done. My mom asked me, “Galen, did you do that? That’s not nice.”

After that, he didn’t water his lawn as much. Direct action gets the goods.

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In Austin, Texas, on the street where I was raised, there is a ritual I think you Bellingham folk will find interesting.  The ritual is this — when it rains, people go out on their porches or sometimes under the eaves in front of their garages. There is no preordainment of this ritual, no neighborhood emails that go out, saying, “Hey! When it rains, we’re all going to go out on our porches.” People just go out to watch the rain.

Aside from a wave to a neighbor across the street, there is very little communication in the whole affair. That is a falsehood though; the ritual itself is profoundly communicative, one that goes beyond talking and body language. The ritual is an acknowledgement of the value of the rain and the life it brings; a collective understanding that the rain matters.

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These stories were born out of two of the worst droughts in Texas’s history, one of which is still continuing. The droughts drained reservoirs and aquifers, brought agricultural ruin (for you economists, estimated costs of over 8 billion dollars), higher energy consumption, immense ecological strain, scorching wildfires (one that came within a few miles of my home), and acres of a dry and dead landscape that inflict misery upon the soul. As with all climate-related disasters, the drought impacts poor and marginalized communities the most as food, energy, and water prices increase.

Texas’s state climatologist told the Texan Legislature that high temperatures related to climate change have exacerbated the drought. The state’s average temperature has increased by an average of about 2oF since the 1970s. As of February 2015, 61% of the state is still in drought and nearly 800 communities in Texas still have mandatory water restrictions.

These are my personal stories, experiences that have shaped me. I do not in any way suggest that I have been dealt a “hard burden” from climate change or other environmental issues. The vast majority of the people who are already living with the consequences of climate change, pollution, and other environmental issues are poor and marginalized communities, many of whom are in the Global South. These groups have already being hard-hit by the effects of a global economy that prioritizes profit over people.

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When I came to Bellingham for college, I was consciously seeking greenery, rain, mountains, and good people. I found these things, and they radicalized me.  Since being here, I have learned a few key things while doing my best to live a meaningful life in line with the Earth:

  • There is a quote from someone wise, “In times of injustice, you have to put your name on the list.” You have to commit to being someone who isn’t going to stand idly by, someone who gives a damn, someone who will put their name out there and live by it.
  • Individual lifestyle choices will not achieve meaningful change. They are good, but do not focus on them. Climate activist and practitioner of civil disobedience, Tim DeChristopher, summed this up well in an excellent YES! magazine interview, “A lot of the blame [for climate change] falls on comfortable liberals who changed their light bulbs, bought organic, and sat back and patted themselves on the back.”
  • A social movement is here: it is called the climate justice movement.
  • Indigenous peoples have been fighting for the environment ever since colonizers came to this land. Today, indigenous peoples lead the fight against climate change and destructive resource extraction in many respects. Those of us who have benefited from colonization have a responsibility to support indigenous peoples in these fights (think listening, responding to requests of support, avoiding savior complexes). Currently, the Lummi Nation, Familias Unidas and the Unist’ot’en Camp have public requests for support.
  • Western Washington University is a great school in many ways. However, the University has chosen the wrong side of history by rejecting overwhelming student support for divestment from the fossil fuel industry. All of this is expected, and it is up to us, students and members of this community, to apply enough pressure until WWU divests. Historical precedent of tobacco/apartheid divestment proves it is an effective tactic to uproot the political influence of broken, unethical, and deceitful industries.
  • The mainstream American environmental movement failed. Its objective was to create a greener version of an unequal and unjust society. The Big Greens spent millions lobbying, trying to negotiate deals with corporations, and online feel-good advocacy. Newcomers like org are better, but still have problems. For truly grassroots organizations operating on a national scale, check out the Climate Justice Alliance (Bellingham’s superb Community to Community is a member) and Rising Tide.

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I am helping organize this year’s Earth Week at Western Washington University. Circle April 20th-25th on your calendar, then I’ll describe what’s happening.

The first Earth Day was in 1970, the legendary one that brought together 20 million people (even Congress closed that day), and gave birth to the EPA, yes, that one. That Earth Day wasn’t a celebration or festival, it was a teach-in. We are “taking Earth Day back to its roots” and focusing on education instead of entertainment.

The organizers recognize that education and skill building are of paramount importance to having an equitable and sustainable world.

We will be having an Earth Ride on Earth Day, Wednesday, April 22nd. We will be giving an educational bicycle tour of Bellingham, reflecting on the past (think the waterfront) and pointing out how exciting the future is (think community gardens, co-ops, Ragfinery).

On Saturday, April 25th, the Earth Day Festival will be happening. There will be many, many workshops to choose from. You are going to be so skilled up, my goodness! I can hear the fossil fuel executives whimpering now.

When you come to the events of Earth Week, I hope you don’t come for the fun (but it will be). I hope you come to learn, to become skilled, to be committed in a fight for justice and collectively build our power.