This semester in the introductory, interdisciplinary environmental studies course I co-teach with Chris Brown and Johan Feddema (EVRN/HIST/GEOG 142), we examined the ecological foundations of human civilization over the long term—including our own industrial civilization. Whenever I could, I tried to place myself and my ancestors into this history. We encouraged the rest of the class to do so, as well, by writing a weekly journal focused on current events and participatory activities in the world surrounding us. This blog and the comments that follow is intended to provide a “public forum” for reflecting on our ecological history and our prospects as a species—and for sharing some modest suggestions about how we will “act” on this knowledge.
On my father’s side of my family, my forefathers and foremothers left a path of environmental destruction from sea to shining sea. After depleting the soils, pastures, and forests of Massachusetts, where they attended the mythic first Thanksgiving, the Cushman clan migrated west with swarms of Anglo colonists, causing drastic ecological changes wherever they tarried. Barnabas, his son Silas, and his son Elmer proceeded from the clear-cut forests of Vermont, to the once fertile shores of Lake Erie, to the lead mining district of Wisconsin, to a sod house in the heavily indigenous Dakota Territory, to a health-reform mission in central Chicago, to a chicken ranch on the U.S.-Mexico border, to a suburban house in smoggy Los Angeles—all in the course of three lives lasting from 1787-1927. It is humbling to realize that they usually did so in the belief that they would improve the new lands where they settled.
The founder of the Cushman family in America, Robert Cushman, gave what is now considered a notorious sermon on the environmental ethics of colonialism before he set sail from England in 1621: “What right have I to go live in the heathen’s country?” he asked. “Their land is spacious and void, and there are few, and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts. They are not industrious, neither have art, science, skill or faculty to use either the land or the commodities of it; but all spoils, rots, and is marred for want of manuring, gathering, ordering, &c.” He believed it was his God-given duty to take the land from Native Americans like Tisquantum in order to make the continent a better, more righteous place.
As nuclear radiation, tsunamis, and tornadoes troubles the citizens of Japan, Alabama, and elsewhere, I am again humbled by our capacity to disrupt the natural world, as well as by nature’s capacity to “bite back” and stand in the way of our aspirations. I am still living off the debts my ancestors borrowed from the land, sea, atmosphere, peoples, and creatures they pushed aside in accomplishing their dreams. It is tempting to simply throw up my hands and selfishly go about my business—until I stop to think that Camilo, Andrés, and Olivia Cushman Cabrera will inherit this world, as will the children of billions of human families just like mine and quadrillions of other creatures with families of their own.
My children will have to repay this national debt—first and foremost by watching one of our favorite places in the world, Everglades National Park, disappear beneath the rising sea, urban sprawl, and fertilizer run-off. Their children will probably see their great-grandmothers’ suburban home, right next door, follow the Everglades to watery oblivion. My parents and grandparents have already destroyed the glorious flocks of birds that once inhabited this fragile wilderness.
In my life, my family has chosen an area of emphasis to reduce our ecological impact. We bought a house close enough to walk to work, school, the supermarket, the liquor store, and other necessities of life, and we try (although not hard enough) to use the most natural form of transportation—our legs and feet. The President complains about the obesity epidemic in our country. But from living without an automobile in Hungary and Peru and eating much the same (even at McDonalds in those locales), we learned that walking largely determined whether we put pounds on, or took pounds off, whether our children bounced off the walls, or were ready to live within them once we returned home, whether we went to bed tired (and slept well), or tossed, turned, and ached from unused muscle energy. When we travel we use public transportation available to us—even when it slows down the journey to the conference hotel in Houston by an hour (leaving an extra $50 in my pocket). My divorce this semester forced me to sell our car—which on the bright side, leaves even more $ in my wallet and muscle on our legs, and less fat around my waste and carbon dioxide and other junk in the air.
It will take a lot more than this to change the world. These actions only make up infinitesimally for our kind’s contribution to the oiling of the ocean, to the soiling of the stratosphere, and to the changes of the land. But in the meantime, our lives are changed for the better, and there’s one less exhaust pipe firing at our lungs. We’d love to hear your comments.
Gregory T. Cushman
Lawrence, Kansas, 12 May 2011