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April 18, 2011

Earth Day: A few questions for Fred Montague

From FYI, the newsletter for faculty and staff of the University of Utah, an interview with 2010 Utah Environmental Education Conference Keynote Speaker Fred Montague. Find the original article here.

Fred Montague

Earth Day is April 22. For more than forty years, people around the world on this date have participated in conscious actions to honor the Earth. We asked Emeritus Professor of Biology Fred Montague to share his views on Earth Day.

FYI News: Why is it important to celebrate Earth Day?
Fred Montague: For an immature and reckless society, the annual Earth Day observance is an important prelude to the daily practice of joyful sustainable living that is characteristic of a more mature and secure society that understands that everyday is Earth Day.

FYI: What is your biggest concern for the planet today? Montague: The problem is one of human perception. In my view, there is nothing wrong with the planet–as the common term “environmental crisis” might imply. What has happened is that we have fostered a society whose economic and self-promotional activities have resulted in impacts on the environment. Until we reform the culture’s goals and the means to those goals we will continue to squander exhaustible resources, use renewable resources faster than they can regenerate, evict species from the Earth at rates 1,000 times faster than natural extinction rates, contaminate our living space beyond the environment’s capacity to process the pollution, change the relatively benign global climate, and in general create by our own actions a diminished future for ourselves and our children.

The Earth will still be spinning long after our species has taken its place in the history of the rocks. The real question is whether modern humans can protect the conditions on Earth that called them into existence and that enable them to live and thrive, laugh, learn, love, and play. This is mostly a matter of ethics and justice and education—education much different than what we call it today.

FYI: When you look back on the first Earth Day in 1970 and compare it with today, where are we making progress and where are we falling short?
Since 1970 in the U. S., citizens have forced corporate and political “leaders” to take the lead out of gasoline, to attempt to regulate ozone-depleting chemicals, to protect breathable air and drinkable water, and to protect wild species that might be in the path of human “progress.” At a few times it almost seemed possible that we could have added “safe environment” to the “Bill of Rights.”

We are falling short in reaching a universal understanding of our ultimate dependence on earth-based ecological processes and functions. We do not all understand, even as a literate and educated society (e.g. Americans), that there are limits to exploitation and that if we transcend those limits, there are usually unintended and harsh consequences. When we ignore the limits, we temporarily create an American false prosperity by using other countries’ resources, by exporting our pollution into the global commons, and by changing and degrading our grandchildren’s world. In other words, our material prosperity is taken from other people, from the Earth, and from the future.

FYI: How have your own views changed since 1970?
They haven’t changed. They have only been reinforced by scientific evidence, by demographic observations, by economic and consumption statistics, and by taking a walk through almost any city or landscape.

FYI: Of all the many facets associated with Earth Day (e.g. conservation, climate change, alternative energy, sustainability, recycling, green building, planting trees, etc.) what areas are most critical?
What are commonly referred to by their apologists as “pure capitalism” and the “free market” must be recognized for what they are. The adjectives are incorrect. I’m not an economist, but you don’t need to be a botanist to recognize a rotten apple. Every single parenthetical “facet” listed in the question would instantaneously be addressed and resolved if the “market” told the truth and did not externalize (defer) the costs of products and processes. For example, if just the costs of air pollution and climate change impacts (e.g. sea level rise, agricultural disruption, human health issues, etc.) were factored into the cost of our energy purchases, a gallon of gasoline would cost about $1,200, and a kilowatt of coal, natural gas, or nuclear electricity would cost about $180. There must be full disclosure of real costs and the subsidies and penalties that enable a dysfunctional and dangerous system to persist. On the other hand, if the values of life-enabling ecological functions (services of “Nature”) were fully accounted for, they would be instantaneously and universally protected.

As for the “capitalism” part, ask Jesus.

We must get to the root of the problem by asking thoughtful, difficult, and critical questions about “business as usual.” Otherwise we will recycle a few cans, plant a tree at city hall, and be asking these same questions on Earth Day’s 50th anniversary.

FYI: How do you change people’s behavior?
All conscious people embrace a world view—their core values and beliefs about how the world “works.” and about what their role in the world should be. Worldviews are implanted in people by their families, by their culture, and by their own learning and discovery. Many people either don’t understand that there are other worldviews or they discredit out-of-hand worldviews that contradict theirs. All worldviews are based on various assumptions. Many assumptions don’t fit the ecological context anymore. An honest evaluation of the assumptions underlying one’s beliefs is the starting point.

FYI: Who are our best role models?
For 99.9 percent of our 200,000-year history on Earth, we humans lived by the natural productivity of the Earth’s landscapes and seashores, and we lived, by necessity, within their environmental constraints. We are not the descendents of those who “over-lived” their surroundings. Today, however, with powerful technology and arrogant stories or worldviews, we appear to have chosen to “over-live” the Earth. In our modern times, our best role models are those folks who, by choice, live rich and fulfilling lives by giving back to the landscape more than they take. They use appropriate technology for appropriate reasons at appropriate times. Wherever people do this, we have role models.

FYI: If you could give everyone an assignment to do on behalf of the Earth, what would it be?
Montague: Plant a garden. While you are tending your garden, outline your worldview and list all of the assumptions upon which it is based. Once you have honestly done this, your path will become more and more obvious—and the polar bears and the wildflowers and the children will thank you.

FYI: Who are your conservation heroes?
To mention just a few of the many: Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Lester Brown, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, Pete Seeger, Henry Beston. . . .

FYI: Name three books you think everyone should read in order to gain a better education and understanding of the situation.
Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac: with Essays on Conservation from Round River (read first the essay “The Land Ethic”); Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality; and Lester Brown’s World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse (a free download). A fourth possibility is an obscure quirky book titled Gardening: An Ecological Approach (to individual, community, and global health). See Mountain Bear INK online.

FYI: How will you celebrate Earth Day this year?
Montague: In Barbara Kingsolver’s words, by trying to “be a good animal today.”

Check out Fred Montague’s website at Mountain Bear Ink. He also has an article in the April issue of Catalyst magazine on why the size of raised garden beds matters—practical advice indeed!

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