The breast cancer epidemic, childhood asthma, West Nile virus, developmental disorders, falling sperm counts and rising infertility—all these may be warning signs that the damage we have been inflicting on the environment is coming back into our own bodies. The laws of nature do not necessarily bend to human hubris. We may think we can mine, clear-cut, change the climate, concoct and release thousands of chemical combinations, and re-engineer life itself without consequence to ourselves. But the signs are there to be seen.
Mother Earth is a generous provider. But she can protect and provide for us only to the extent that she is healthy. As we researched this issue, we learned that the effects from climate change, genetically altered life forms, and chemical contamination turn up in our health in ways that we might not have imagined. The science can be subtle and the immediate causes difficult to pin down, but the effects can be devastating on children suffering from cognitive delays, the hundreds of thousand with cancer, those with difficulty breathing when the air quality worsens, and many others.
So where is the hope in this story of environmental decline and human illness? And where is the good news in a time when the Bush administration is moving the world toward an environmentally catastrophic war (catastrophic in other respects also, of course) while blocking climate change action and weakening clean air and water standards?
The hope may come in the dawning understanding that we really are all interconnected—that the health of you and me and your sister and my son are all linked to the well-being of planet Earth. If we are to love these bodies we are born into, we must also love the mother who gave birth to us and sustains us each day with her air, water, nutrients, and shelter. This is something indigenous peoples the world over know by heart, and it's something many of the more restless peoples have learned after they've stayed put for a while.
Is there anything we can do when national and global trends are so negative? The good news is that caring for the health of the planet is transforming lives, here and now. For John Beal, a Vietnam veteran—pictured on the front cover—it was his decision to spend his dying weeks caring for a creek that not only transformed him, but saved his life. Now he's working to restore an entire industrialized watershed, bringing back salmon and involving disabled people and prisoners, who also find themselves transformed. Anna Marie Carter, “the Seed Lady of Watts,” planted organic gardens throughout South Central Los Angeles, and saw people's health improve as they reconnected to the source of life (see article by Carter ). European regulators realized that high-tech hardware, with its built-in obsolescence, was a solid waste crisis waiting to happen, and created a take-back law that could become a global model (see article by Smith and Raphael ). For the Mapuche people of South America, illnesses brought by oil exploitation brought them back to their own traditions as a source of healing for all life (see article by Garrigues ).
That so much is being lost during this time of ecological calamity is a tragedy. But if we are able to find the teachings in these afflictions, perhaps we will become wise enough to make it through this Age of Extinction and even limit its damage. As Michael Lerner suggests, if we open our hearts to the implications of this age, we may—like people who face near-death experiences—find ourselves transformed by a fresh clarity about the radical interdependence of life.
Sarah Ruth van Gelder
P.S. You might notice some new design in this issue of YES! Art director Lynn Brofsky has been updating departments; artist Ruth Richards designed the icons that help define each section. Tell us what you think. Send your comments about what you read in YES!, what you agree with or don't agree with—and tell us what you're doing. We'll read all your letters and e-mails, and publish some in Readers' Forum and Readers Take Action.