Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Swimming Upstream

"A fish!" I screamed to my boys who were playing in a small creek near the ocean. "We have to save it." Yanking off my socks and shoes, I burst across the water toward a sandbar where a two foot long fish flapped, scattering water along the shore. I reached for the fish and quickly pulled back. Raised as a city girl and a vegetarian, I've never touched one in my life. Finally, I eased my hands around the suddenly still trout. It flipped up, out of my hands and back into the ankle deep water. I nudged it toward a slightly deeper portion of the stream bed and it took off swimming in the opposite direction. Damn! I chased after it and caught up when it slowed and rolled over on its side.

More bravely, this time, I reached for the fish and grabbed it, lifting it out of the water and bolting upstream, to deeper waters. It lurched forward but I held on. Wriggling and fighting, the fish finally pitched into knee deep water and then again swam downstream and up onto a sandbar. By the time I caught up to it, it had lolled over on its side and seemed to gasp for air. It stilled for the last time.

Later, I learned that, when a fish is out of water for any length of time, you are supposed to glide it through the water, to get water moving through the gills and prevent the fish from drowning. I also discovered that the creek is drying out; it no longer touches the ocean this time of year. Swimming downstream was certain loss.

That afternoon, however, as I watched the life seep out of the trout, I could do nothing but return to my boys, staring on the beach, and tell them that mommy had failed. The fish was dead.

Reading my Be a Bookworm book, Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, it hit me how my inability to save the fish was much like our inability, as a people, to lower the United States' carbon emissions, to reverse the melting of the Arctic or preserve the Amazon rain forest. It's not that our fight is not just, our hearts not true, our dedication not unwavering. But we lack know how. We are swimming upstream without a map. We have not learned from our mistakes.

The second chapter of Break Through covers deforestation of the Amazon rainforest, which is tied to global warming. As a teen, I clearly remember efforts to halt that deforestation and earnestly gave gifts of "an acre of rain forest" to family members at Christmas time. While the battle has been waged for decades, it has met with little success. "Today, approximately 20 percent of the forest is gone, and the equivalent of eleven football fields of Amazon rain forest is being destroyed ever minute, the fastest rate of forest destruction anywhere." (Break Through, 54). What we have been doing for the last twenty to thirty years to "save the lungs of the world" has failed.

Mary Pickford famously wrote that "this thing we call "failure" is not the falling down, but the staying down." I cannot see how we can give up when it comes to saving a stranded fish or a burning forest.

The authors of Break Through promise that we can save the Amazon but, only if we change our approach, shift our paradigm from protection of nature to protection of people. Brazil shoulders a monstrous debt and spiraling inflation. Drug traffickers rule its streets and it boasts a murder rate found only in war zones. One in five of its citizens go to bed hungry every night. Faced with these issues, it is no wonder the Brazilian government has not made preserving the Amazon a priority. To save the rain forest, the authors argue, we must look beyond it's canopied borders to the people who inhabit that land. We must first help them before we can expect them to turn their eyes toward saving their national treasure.

As to my lost fish, only minutes after the first died, two more trout headed downstream, to the end of water. One banked itself on a beach and died before I could reach it. The other, we chased upstream and into deeper waters. We learned from our mistakes. We had fallen down but we got back up. That final fish, we saved.


Joyce said...

Raising up the people in a degraded area is crucial. If you're just subsisting, you chop down any wood you can get to burn for fuel, you do slash and burn agriculture, you eat illegal bush meat..the list goes on and on. We would all do the same in their place.

Going Crunchy said...

Oh YES. I actually have a new co-worker that is from India. We've had discussions about how those in abject poverty are just trying to survive. Worrying about the larger issues isn't at all in the picture.

What pains me terribly is much of the slash and burn is on our behalf - - agriculture and lumber.

arduous said...

The important thing to remember is, it is really truly not enough to save the fish. You have to teach the fish to ummm ... fish.

That's why I thought Melissa's blog post about supporting local food in 3rd world countries was so important. Food aid is well and good, but because it does nothing to grow indigenous economies in the developing world, it doesn't have much of a lasting effect. Essentially, it's analogous to the fact that those fish that you couldn't save by physically being there died. You can't always be there. It's not sustainable. I mean, I know you're a super hero, but still. ;)

Green Bean said...

Joyce: Absolutely. Who can focus on what will kill you in 20 years if you are faced with dying today.

Shannon: You are right. It is on our behalf. One way to stop the slash and burn is obviously to use only reclaimed wood, eat less or no meat (particularly red meat). We need to help Brazil but we also need to continue taking steps here to discourage the destructive practices and encourage the regenerative or at least sustainable practices.

Arduous: I AM a super hero, dammit! I can be there to save them all. Actually, being able to only save one really shook me. I've never seen anything but bugs die before and I'm just not cut out for it. That said, you are absolutely right. We need to change focus, stop thinking out ourselves in the short term and help others gain the resources to be able to help themselves. That, in the long term, will help us all. But, again, I really am a super hero. Wanna see my cape?

CindyW said...

You see, not having read the book Breakthrough (on my list) doesn't stop me from discussing the book :) I did listen to a few interviews with these guys. Like many authors, to bring light and focus on a theme/thesis, they tend to go a bit too far. I don't believe it is that simple - inventing new technologies and raising people's standard of living and by extension they will care about their environment. If that were the case, every American would be an eco hero.

Yes, people have to have their basic and immediate needs satisfied before they care about other things beyond their sphere of existence. However having basic needs satisfied doesn't not necessarily lead people to environmental enlightenment. We still need environmental education and advocacy. To me, to say that environmentalism is dead is more or less an intended attention grabbing subtitle. Why can we only have one or the other?

Now I totally feel like a book critic - critique before reading :) I will read the book and write more about it.

eco 'burban mom said...

This resonated with me for many reasons. As the mom of 4 boys and with a lake in our backyard we often find fish, duck eggs, frogs and other animals in various phases of distress. Teaching my boys to help them return them to their habitat without disturbing the delicate balance of nature will, I hope, teach them how to care for the people in our world without disturbing the delicate balance of other cultures, religions and traditions.

Green Bean said...

Cindy: Despite my post, I do see your point. Arduous recently posted about raising universal health care as the primary issue if a Democrat is elected to the White House. She argued that people can't focus on the environment when they have to pay $40 for an asthma inhaler. I see her point too - and her point jives with Break Through and Common Wealth. Of course, we are then left with how high of a standard of living does a people need to be able to focus on environmentalism. I do think, legitimately, we need to ease the burden on Brazil. People will never focus on the long term when they don't know if they'll make it through the day or week. I don't know what the answer is - but there must be a balance and we must try something new because status quo is definitely not working.

EBM: Beautiful. How lucky your boys are to have land like that and a mother like you. A great lesson for them.

kale for sale said...

I remember my first time touching a live fish too, a stream trout. I screamed and made my Grandfather take it off the hook. It's family legend.

But to Arduous's point about food aid, and I didn't read Melissa's post, the food aid we send often messes with the local ecosystems we send it to. We send GMO commodities that ruin the acclimated seeds of the area. While initially the aid feeds a hunger in the long run it takes the fishing pole, to go back to the fishy metaphor, and breaks it in two as GMO crops require ever increasing amounts of fertilizers and pesticides that can't be sustained in poor communities. The more I learn the more I realize I don't know. Thank goodness we've got our green superheros though because every one fish counts! Thanks, green bean.

Natalie said...

GB said, "Of course, we are then left with how high of a standard of living does a people need to be able to focus on environmentalism."

How high, indeed?!

I'm all for raising the standard of living for all people - in a sound and sustainable way. But standard of living alone doesn't have a direct positve correlation to either the protection of the environment or the ability to adopt a sustainable lifestyle. In fact, is usually quite the opposite. (See the US as prime example!)

Until we start focusing our efforts building sustainable, indigenous economies all over the globe (including here) we're just headed down the same dead-end path. Failure.

arduous said...

Katrina, I completely agree with you. Here's the link to Melissa's excellent post about food aid.

Also, to be fair, I think we can deal with multiple things at once. I don't think we have to have everything ironed out before we start focusing on the environment. But my point was more that charging $40 for a CFC-free inhaler pits people against the environment. It doesn't have to be that way, and it shouldn't be that way. If we care about people, and we care air pollution causing asthma, then we should care about asthma even when it conflicts with environmental goals.

Because the truth is, health care IS an environmental issue. Our health, our well being, the environment, they are all inextricably linked.

Okay, I've yammered off long enough. Hope this makes sense. ;)

Joyce said...

Natalie, I agree with raising the standard of living for the poor in a sustainable way. I wouldn't hope for them to wind up driving Escalades and drinking lattes necesarily, just having a steady living and enough food, shelter health care, etc. We're the ones who need to tone down the whole life-style thing.

Melissa said...

What a great discussion - and thanks for all the wonderful comments about my post!

I agree that a decent standard of living alone won't create super-environmentalists of everyone, BUT, I agree with all those who point out that it's impossible to worry about protecting the environment when you're worried about where your next meal will come from.

I'm currently reading "Fast Food Nation" for GB's book challenge, and what I'm thinking is that a basic standard of living is definitely needed before people can legitimately be expected to worry about global issues. What is tricky at that point is that once that standard of living has been reached, there's a prime market created for industries such as fast food, focused on profits above all else, to come in and trick us into living some very non-sustainable lifestyles.

I know this kind of sounds like a cop out, but I am thinking about all the media and advertising we are bombarded with every day. With the demands of every day life, it is difficult to find time to sift through all the information out there - especially when so many large corporations are working so hard to convince us that, for example, we can still drive an SUV and not feel guilty, because now there are hybrid SUVs available...or we can still shop to our heart's content, because now we can buy tshirts made of recycled soda bottles at any big box store...or we can still eat exotic produce, because it's organic. We're constantly being given "sustainable choices" that lull us into forgetting that the hybrid SUV still uses more gas than public transportation or biking, that the recycled tshirts take resources to make and are wasteful if we already have a drawerful of tshirts we don't wear, and the organic produce that's travelled 3,000 miles to reach us takes a bigger toll on the earth than something grown closer to home.

All this to say that there are some truly selfish people out there driving around in Hummers and eating steak three times a day, but I like to believe that there are a lot of others out there who are trying to make the right choices, albeit sometimes in a slightly lazy way.

These people are the ones who give me hope. They may not be making all the right choices or changes in their life, (I know I'm certainly not there yet), but they're trying - and that's why I think it's important to encourage each other in the small steps we take - because big business and the government in this country seem to be working awfully hard to confuse is into continuing a generally non-sustainable lifestyle.

pink dogwood said...

That was so brave of you - I would probably want to save the fish, but would be too scared to touch it. It might sound really stupid, but when I was a little girl, growing up in India, we used to have a million flies around. People used to try to do all kinds of stuff to get rid of them - me - well if I saw a fly land in water and struggling to get out, I used to find a leaf or something and get it out and put it on a ledge to dry. I used to fell so good to see it dry up and fly away. Well, all life was precious to me. Now I am not so sure, especially about mosquitoes.

as always, great write up.

Debbie said...

Hi GB ~ Sometimes life is so bizarre. I was prepared to write about how I hadn't started my book yet for the challenge because I need to finish my current book - 'Saving Fish From Drowning' by Amy Tan. So of course I had to chuckle when I read your post. While not being a 'green' book, 'Saving Fish...' takes place in Myanmar(Burma)so it has been an interesting read considering the recent events in that area of the world. During the upcoming long weekend while relaxing at our camp, I will be able to start 'Animal. Vegetable, Miracle' and I will also try to see if the huge bass that seems to enjoy hanging out in the water in front of our place for the last few years is still swimmimg around.


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