Earth Day: The Uneasy Chair of Hope
April 15, 2009
As The Asia Foundation’s Director for the Environment Program, I work on environment and sustainability issues. Recently as I was traveling to support rainwater harvesting and a safe drinking water law in Rajasthan, an arid western state of India, I thought about the geographic and climate parallels to the places I’ve lived in the American West. The parallels led me almost immediately to Wallace Stegner and the geography of hope.
Written in 1960, Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” emphasized the importance of the relationship of people to land and nature. It also highlighted the hope that geography, especially America’s western landscapes, has given to people over time and throughout history. Stegner believed that we are shaped by the land – and that we shape the land. The geography of hope, as he summarized in his letter, identified the West itself as an especially important place for hope. As I met with people in Rajasthan, I saw a similar hope and similar relationships people had to their land.
And so I need to be hopeful as well. And yet, while I am cautiously optimistic, my perspective of global environmental progress is deeply mixed. The most polluting steel mills and cement plants that were closed and dismantled in the U.S. have been reassembled and opened in other parts of the world, including Asia. The end-of-pipe waste technologies that no longer turn a profit in America still make economic sense overseas. And the environmental policies that work in the U.S. just don’t measure up in countries with weaker governing institutions and even scarcer cash than we have for expensive compliance and enforcement monitoring. Yet, I also see progress across the globe. Data shows infant mortality rates have declined. From the private and public sectors, there is increased determination to measure progress and separate that from mere activity. And there is expanded citizen engagement in local decisions. Furthermore, greater cross-sectoral collaboration on the most complex of global development challenges continues to accelerate.
“The Uneasy Chair” is another favorite of mine by Stegner. It’s a biography of Bernard DeVoto, whose perspective on geography, hope, and progress closely resembles my own. That is perhaps in a word – uneasy.
Today, when someone asks you about the environment, or mercury in tuna, odd weather, low-lying countries, renewable energy, furry animals, global warming, green jobs – any jobs, our children, the future of the planet, what do you say? How do you answer? Does it depend on who you are? What you know? What you are known for/as? Who you are AND what you know? Where you are? Most of you perhaps consider some combination of these questions before answering.
Where you are – physically, mentally, emotionally, and in relation to others – and who you count as family, friends, and colleagues may indicate how you respond to those questions. In both American and Asian societies, we are all grappling with our own behavior and attitudes towards the environment.
As for me, an environment professional, I sit in an uneasy chair of hope. Above all the rest of my resume, I am a father to two small children. So while I get asked my opinion of the environment many times a day at work, it’s when I am home with my family, that I wonder the most about my internal geographies of hope. I believe that the uneasy chair of hope – the constant urge to discover more about how to improve the Earth – provides me with what I need to discover what I need to say and how I’d like to say it.
Chris Plante is The Asia Foundation’s Director for Environment Program. He can be reached at [email protected].
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