Thursday, 13 Apr 2000

BERKELEY, Calif.

Yesterday I sat down to study for my American Studies midterm with a girl from my class, and as she opened her binder, I saw that she’d gone to the Earth Week website and planned out her whole week around all of the speakers that she’d wanted to see. It was probably the most exciting thing that happened during my day, considering that I spent four and a half hours taking midterms and on top of that got personal phone calls from both Gary Snyder and Lawrence Ferlinghetti saying that they couldn’t make it to Earth Week. Oh well … At least I did decently on the midterms.

Photo: Dave Harris, &copy 2000.

Back in October, our Earth Week group had a long discussion about what Earth Day has been in the past and what we want it to be at UC Berkeley today. In student-activist circles, there has always been a lot of cross-fertilization between human rights and environmental activism. The question we tried to answer was whether or not Earth Week was the ideal place for both.

Our general consensus was that we’d make Earth Week open to anyone who wanted to present and encourage interpretation of the week’s subject m
atter as broadly as possible. Now that our whole schedule is done, it looks like the week is about 60 percent traditional environmental topics, 20 percent purely human rights, and another 20 percent borderline or both. This is definitely to be expected, given the nature of Earth Days past, but it makes me wonder about the future of these two movements.

Last year at the WTO protests in Seattle, it was clear that social justice and environmental protection were the two key issues at hand. I’d be willing to bet that you wouldn’t have been able to find a single environmentalist on the streets who didn’t think that more human rights work needed to be done, and vice versa. Everyone knows that to be effective, you really must choose your battles (something I’m not very good at) and break things down to a manageable size so that you can develop some type of clear goal (another thing I’m not good at).

Photo: Dave Harris, &copy 2000.

My first jump into activism took place during the summer after my junior year of high school. Due to some strange stroke of fate, I ended up on the other side of the world with a dozen other Jewish teens from the Bay Area being shuttled around Israel. We did habitat restoration work in a swamp where irrigation attempts had poisoned wetlands, taught art to students from a school for mentally and physically disabled children, and met with Arab youth and Israeli politicians to discuss the state of affairs in the Middle-East and what we could do about it. The real change, though, took place after the trip, when I spent a week on my own, my home base a ranch on the Red Sea that belonged to a friend of my uncle. I took a four-day hike with a group of mostly college students through the deserts of Egypt and then spent a day with one of the girls I met on the trip exploring the ancient city of Petra, Jordan. To top it all off, I spent most of that summer reading some fairly subversive literature — Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Kerouac’s Dharma Bums, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land — which surely shaped my perspective of the trip.

When I began to see the world from outside of the Silicon bubble I’d grown up in, I realized that air and water pollution were more than just invisible myths, and that there really were poor people in the world who didn’t have anything to eat. Despite the extreme degree of naïveté that characterized my consciousness throughout the voyage, it got me started asking a lot of questions about who I was, what I needed to do about it, and all the craziness going on in the world.

Photo: Dave Harris, &copy 2000.

I’m not sure exactly what drove me to become an environmentalist before a humanitarian — maybe just a general sense of misanthropic disgust with my species, or maybe the idea that the damage that we’re doing today to the earth is irreparable. In many ways, it seems that a world of social equity, although far from present, is within the grasp of the dominant modern worldview, whereas a lasting peace with our physical existence in the world is far from being within our mental grasp.

At the same time, it seems silly and even heartless to fight against invisible problems when I walk past homeless and hungry people every day on my way to class. I’ll have to sleep on this one and give you more thoughts tomorrow. Again, here are some pictures for your contemplative pleasure.