We congratulate Julia Jorgensen and Mark Pena as the new co-chairs of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club. By way of introduction, we’ll be running their stories about how they found their way into the Sierra Club.
Dwelling in a House of One Room
By Julia Jorgensen
How did I become an environmentalist? This kind of thing is never a simple story.
I spent much of my childhood in a big yard and garden on the outskirts of a small town in Texas, but I proceeded to live in seven other states before returning to Texas. I got graduate degrees in Cognitive Science and Anthropology, and I’ve taught for nearly thirty years.
One important thing I learned from Anthropology is that our early ancestors did not view their own lives as existing separately from the lives of the forests, grasslands, deserts, streams, and oceans that surrounded them. As John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, said, “we all (men or beast) dwell in a house of one room – the world with the firmament for its roof – we are all sailing the celestial spaces without leaving any track”. This ancient view of life was functional – it led to respect for nature’s limits and an appreciation that plundering would prevent the regeneration of the resources human life required. This planet is our only possible home.
As a child living in rural Texas and playing every day under big trees and starry skies, I, too, felt this connection, deeply and strongly, and I was moved by the beauty of my green world.
I still believe that the non-human creatures living on earth are not only the source of our well-being, but they are our kin and almost persons in their own right. I believe it is genuinely immoral to destroy a species or ecosystem.
After Anthropology I became a Psychology teacher. Teaching teaches the teacher: One of the most eye-opening courses I’ve taught is Environmental Psychology. I first taught this around 1994, before climate change was a well-known issue, but the teaching forced me to learn my stuff. I learned about the greenhouse effect, and I was startled to discover that the basic theory of the effects of fossil fuel burning on climate had been worked out all the way back in 1895 by a Swedish Nobel Prize winner, Svante Arrhenius!
So I first got worried about climate ninety-nine years after Arrhenius did! And it has continued, and my concern has expanded: How have we gotten to be a species that has “overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born”? How is it that “the noise of the chainsaw will (now) always be in the woods”? Why does even the rain carry the debris from our cars, factories, and explosions? (Bill McKibben)
And why has our global atmosphere changed so much, putting our planet in “imminent peril” from climate change, a potentially mortal danger for all species on the planet? (James Hansen) Wasn’t Arrhenius’ warning in 1895 enough to get us to change our ways?
Bill McKibben’s succinct answer is that no, it wasn’t. He says, “Over the last century a human life has become a machine for burning petroleum”.
The significance of this became vivid for me when I learned, from Alfred Crosby that: “Fossil fuels are the tiny residue of immense quantities of plant matter. An American gallon of gasoline corresponds to about 90 tons of plant matter, the equivalent of 40 acres of wheat—seeds, roots, stalks, all. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the end products of an immensity of exploitation of sunshine via photosynthesis over periods of time measured by the same calendars used for tectonic shuffling of continental plates.”
Of course we can’t see the carbon dioxide produced by burning a gallon of gasoline, but maybe it would help if we at least try to imagine the smoke it represents. Imagine how a fire of 40 acres of wheat would look. Imagine this multiplied by all the citizens of your state or country for all the gallons they burn over a period of many decades. The US Energy Information Administration tells us that in 2012, about 133 billion gallonsof gasoline were consumed in the United States.* Is it reasonable to believe this massive amount of burning would not affect our atmosphere? At the very least we should figure that out!
We do not need to live this way. As Dr. James Hansen says, “The tragedy is that the actions needed to stabilize climate…are not only feasible but provide additional benefits as well.” The benefits include the end of much death and disease caused by air and water pollution, and the preservation of clean groundwater and natural habitat, farms, and homesteads scarred by coal mining, fracking, and pipelines.
These are some of the reasons I’m an environmentalist, and why I cared enough about the LRGV Sierra Club to become a co-chair this year.
The Sierra Club is the only US environmental organization that encourages grass-roots activism in local groups. That means that the Club supports our efforts to do all we can in the LRGV to fight for clean water, clean air, habitat for our fellow creatures, green environments for humans to enjoy, and an end to the policies that promote fossil fuel use.
We are a core group of around twenty active and friendly people, surrounded by a lot of Sierra Club members who don’t join in our local meetings. We wish you, out there, who care about the environment, would join our efforts, our hikes, and our parties! We would love to meet you! With you we could do so much more.
Here are the books cited in my essay or recommended as background:
Anderson, E. N. Ecologies of the heart. Oxford University Press, 1990.
Christianson, Gale E. Greenhouse: The 200-year story of global warming. Penguin, 1999.
Crosby, Alfred W. Children of the sun: A history of humanity’s unappeasable appetite for energy. W.W. Norton, 2006.
Hansen, James. Storms of my grandchildren. Bloomsbury, 2009.
McKibben, Bill. The end of nature. Anchor Books, 1989.