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What keeps a cynical environmentalist going? Heather Rayburn delves deep to figure it out and shines a hopeful light on our present situation for the coming year.

Many of my friends in the environmental community have children, and sometimes I'll ask them where they muster the optimism, since, to me, having a child is the ultimate statement of hope and faith in the future.

I've only been able to scramble up enough faith in the future so far to baby a posse of dogs, and I know I'm not alone. That's why I'm fascinated to hear from those who do work in the sciences as to what gives them the kind of hope to bring another person into the world.

I value their answers, as they know all too well the facts of our environmental situation. I can't imagine them entering lightly into parenthood with this knowledge.

Some environmentalists respond to my question that perhaps their child may grow up to solve our environmental problems. That outcome, unfortunately, flies in the face of statistical probability, and so it rings too much like wishful thinking to be of serious comfort to me personally.

The alternative answer I've heard, and the one that brings me comfort and enough hope to keep plugging, is an examination of how far we've come in terms of social and environmental awareness in such an amazingly short timeline in human evolution.


Take women's rights: in the U.S., women couldn't vote until 1920. It's amazing to think that my very own great-grandmother couldn't vote for part of her life because of the ignorant sexism of the time.

Progress made within the environmental movement in just a few short decades also seeds a heart like mine with enough hope to carry on.

My great-uncle, who retired as a chemist at a local plant, has told me stories about how casually people would handle and dispose of chemicals there. They would pour what he called "bad actors" straight down the drain. My friend Ben grew up in eastern North Carolina and said that, for fun, the children in his neighborhood would bike behind the city trucks that sprayed DDT pesticide to kill mosquitoes.

We can't imagine such things happening legally today. However, public awareness surrounding the life-threatening impact of chemicals to human and animal health did not occur until the 1960's.

In 1962, a biologist named Rachel Carson published her milestone book Silent Spring and brought serious focus to the damage chemicals take on the entire ecosystem. A few years later, DDT was banned in the States, and the modern environmental movement began.

In my 39 years on this planet, I've lived through some major positive environmental changes. For instance, cars no longer bum leaded gas, many endangered species have rebounded, and ozone-destroying chlorofluorocarbons have been generally phased out.

In 1970, the U.S. created an Environmental Protection Agency and passed the Clean Air Act. In the 1990's, the senate approved $7.8 billion to restore the Florida Everglades system, and this year Al Gore shared a Nobel Prize with climate scientists.

Beams of hope.


I recently finished a wonderful book called Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey by famed primatologist and environmental champion Jane Goodall.

In the book, Goodall talks about where she finds optimism despite the environmental destruction and human suffering surrounding us. She doesn't sugarcoat our plight or offer false optimism. In fact, Goodall, a mother of one, has asked herself if she is justified in bringing a child into a world that seems so hopelessly wicked and self-destructive.

"The planet's resources are running out. And, so, if we truly care about the future of our planet, we must stop leaving it to 'them' out there to solve all the problems, it's up to into save the world for tomorrow. it's up to yon and me," she says.

Goodall looks at the reforms made in human and animal rights and environmental stewardship over the past century and accepts it as a next step in human evolution. "We are moving toward the ultimate destiny of our species--a state of compassion and love."

Heather Rayburn is the co-chair of Mountain Voices Alliance (MVA), an Asheville-based civic and environmental group committed to preserving the natural beauty, abundant resources, unique character, and quality of life of our communities. MVA came together to support environmental stewardship and to help others negatively impacted by development projects. For more information, visit
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Title Annotation:GREEN ROOTS
Publication:New Life Journal
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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