Originally published in Canary Literary Magazine.
I want to give up. Each morning the headlines are heavier and my heart buckles under the load. A United Nations report, prepared by 145 experts from 50 countries, warns that one million of the planet’s eight million species are threatened with extinction by humans. This comes after a recent report by the Living Planet Index and the World Wildlife Fund which reveals that, since 1970, 60 percent of all vertebrate wildlife has been destroyed. The outlook is grim for invertebrate wildlife, too. Groundbreaking research describes how flying insect populations fell by 75 percent in just 27 years in Germany, prompting scientists to declare: “The insect apocalypse is here.”
The bad news globally reflects my bad news personally. I am an environmental lawyer. I became a lawyer because I saw law as a tool to wield in the service of life. I’ve devoted my career to protecting what’s left of the natural world.
It isn’t working.
Not long ago, I helped to file the first-ever federal lawsuit seeking rights of nature for a major ecosystem, the Colorado River. Despite the fact that nearly 40 million humans and countless non-humans depend on the Colorado River for fresh water, the Colorado River is one of the most abused rivers in the world. We filed the lawsuit hoping to gain meaningful protections for the river as a major source of life in the region. In response, the Colorado Attorney General threatened us with financial and ethical sanctions if we didn’t withdraw the lawsuit because our argument that the Colorado River should have similar rights to those possessed by the corporations destroying her was, according to the AG, “frivolous.”
I’m currently involved in helping citizens of Toledo, Ohio, defend a rights of nature law for Lake Erie from attack by agricultural interests. The law, titled the Lake Erie Bill of Rights, was drafted by citizens of Toledo after their tap water was shut off in 2014 due to a poisonous harmful algae bloom. These blooms are fed by phosphorus in manure run-off primarily produced by corporate agricultural operations. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights, which was enacted through one of the most directly democratic processes available to American citizens – a citizen initiative process – was passed with 61 percent of the vote. Without regard to the clear expression of political will expressed by 61 percent of the Toledoans who voted for the law, the City of Toledo agreed to a court order preventing the City from enforcing the law. And, the grassroots organization who ushered the law through the initiative process has been denied the ability to intervene to argue on behalf of Lake Erie in both the federal district court and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Lake Erie Bill of Rights, despite all the effort put into its passage, will, almost certainly, be invalidated without ever going into effect.
More and more, I realize the change we so badly need is unlikely to ever come through the legal system. Sure, we sometimes succeed in delaying destructive projects when corporations make a mistake in filing their permit applications. But they always correct the mistake and the destruction continues. Yes, we sometimes succeed in protecting an endangered species from the most direct threats to their survival. But we have not alleviated the global processes, like climate change and human overpopulation, that will likely spell endangered species’ long-term doom. True, we have brought a growing awareness of ecological collapse to the general public. But awareness is a primarily mental affair happening within human heads while environmental issues are physical problems happening in the real world and they require physical, not mental, solutions.
Despair pushes me into my backyard where a small voice within me, growing increasingly louder, tells me to give up. When the problems are so big and the vast majority of people simply don’t care, the voice demands, why are you struggling so hard to fight back?
The Wasatch Mountains, looming in the west above the Heber Valley where I live, help me keep that nagging voice at bay. Across most of the world, the horizon is boundless. When burdens are too much to bear, you may spill your consciousness across the landscape. You can let your mind run to that place, always pleasantly just out of reach, where land meets sky. You can let your thoughts slip down the perpetual curve of Mother Earth’s body where you can lose your anxieties in her vastness.
But, not in my backyard. The Wasatch Mountains hold my soul in place. They won’t let me hide. They stand high and proud, displaying their injuries. I never doubted, but the mountains pull my spirit like Thomas’ fingers into Christ’s wounds. Roads slice across the mountains’ shoulders. Swathes of forest, clear-cut by ski resorts for ski runs, are lacerations that stripe the backs of the flogged. Bare stone, where snow was snatched away by climate change, is flayed skin. In my backyard, to witness the Wasatch Mountains is to ache.
Mountains speak. To listen, you must be as the mountains are: patient, persistent, still. If you try, you might hear, as John Muir did, the mountains calling. They call on us to be strong, to stand proud and resolute, to resist environmental destruction like the mountains resist the roadbuilders, the clear-cutters, and the miners. They’re calling on us to resist ecocide like mountains resist the geologic forces trying to drag them down. We have suffered, the mountains explain. We will continue to suffer until this madness stops. Yet, still we rise.
As massive as they are, the mountains’ wounds are only a fraction of the planet’s. Yes, the bad news piles up. The horrors intensify. The voice urging me to quit amplifies. But, with the Wasatch Mountains’ help, until all of Earth’s festering wounds have healed and only scars remain, I will not quit. I will do as the mountains do. I will rise and fight.