I once had a friend who threw trash on the ground.
Not just his cigarette butts—which people tend to think are so small that they are somehow allowed to be smashed into the dirt and left there—no, not just the butts of his own addiction, but more than that.
We often argued about trash. Looking back, it seems like a waste of energy to fight over something that I thought should have been commonsense.
Don’t litter. Isn’t that just a given, a universal standard, something we can all agree on as just being good?
“It’s someone’s job to clean it up; I’m keeping them employed,” he’d say, as if he was really doing anyone a favor.
“What about the earth?” I’d plead. “What about Papatūāanuku?” I’d wonder pulling on the stories of his home.
He never believed in “stories.”
“Do you really think a woman gave birth to islands, do you reaaallly?” he’d ask as if there was no way anyone with a mind could value such “myth.”
I’d try to explain that it wasn’t the literal interpretation of the story that mattered, as much but the lessons. The stories tell us to care about the earth as we would our mother.
But this story isn’t really about my friend.
Rather, this story is about why so many people don’t care:
don’t care about the earth,
don’t care about the future,
don’t care to genuinely
And what’s worse, this story is about those who pretend to care, or who put on the mask of concern, all the while being advocates of destruction.
In her book great tide rising, philosopher and nature essayist Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) recounts a conversation with her neighbor about how to move people to care, to care enough to “save the world” (as pageant-y and overly-optimistic as that may sound). In a conversation about climate change, she states:
“My neighbor is a practical man. ‘Look,’ he says to me, ʻif you want to call people to action on climate change [or any other disaster], talk to them about what moves people to action—self-interest, money, and fear. Don’t tell them it’s wrong to wreck the world. Tell them it’s stupid or expensive or dangerous” (p. 17).
What her neighbor meant is that it’s not enough to fight the moral argument, to draw on ethics to make change. You have to show people how destroying the earth will impact them economically, raising the cost of food when our earth is so devastated that food is scarce; that it will impact them socially, as countries fight for what is left and as bombs are dropped, and fighting ensues, and as world wars are ignited to ensure a people’s ability to live in particular places over others; and that it will impact them culturally, as people lose ground to stand upon, land to live upon, the capacity to breathe clean air, to raise their children in the ways of their ancestors.
You can’t just say, “Hey, it’s wrong,” in other words. You have to tug at people’s concerns, he argued, which (unfortunately) are not often centered on the life of the planet for the sake of the planet, but rather on the life of the planet for the sake of human beings’ self-serving concerns: money, possessions, power.
I read this and wondered if that’s why the “moral” argument of “You should care for the earth as you would your mother” never quite worked with my friend.
While I sometimes took his apparent disregard of the land and ocean as a personal offense against my mother, Papahānaumoku, and against all of creation, he just couldn’t see how the immediate act of throwing trash on the ground led to larger, worldly consequences.
“What if 10 people, 100 people, 1,000 people, 10,000 people, 100,000 people all have the same attitude as you?” I’d ask.
That still never worked. And time and time again, I felt as if I had to send a personal apology to the ground, his whenua, on his behalf.
“I’m so sorry,” I’d say silently. “He’s been disconnected, the tie severed and never repaired; he doesn’t know you anymore,” I insisted. “But I will help him see you, embrace you, care for you.”
I hate to think that I never quite succeeded at that. But that, too, is another story.
Suffice it to say, that was not my journey, but one I hope he makes on his own, when he is ready to reconnect to his own turangawaewae, his own place to stand, and his own place and role to protect.
As Kathleen Dean Moore (2016) expands:
“It’s not that we aren’t natural creatures, it’s not that we don’t live always in the most intimate contact with the natural world, which seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood. It’s that we lose track of that fact or deny it, and so shut ourselves off from a large part of our humanity” (p. 85).
Is it possible, I wonder, that a large part of our human race has lost such a large part of our humanity?
I thought about my friend yesterday and about Kathleen’s neighbor as I rode my bike in the ʻEwa sun. What kind of world are we living in when the moral argument is not enough, when people cannot just care to care, when they have to see how it’s impacting their wealth, their success, or their material possessions to give a damn?
What kind of world are we living in when we are so numbed that we cannot even respond to the world, the natural world, that “seeps in our pores and rushes through our blood,” seeing the world and our selves as interconnected, as one, always?
What kind of world are we living in when seeing the earth as mother is laughed at, mocked, pushed aside as “myth” even while humans all over the planet create actual myths: false notions of caring, false motivations, false connections, false support?
This is what’s happening at Pōhakuloa today.
Today, the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa Training Area is celebrating Earth Day.
Brief advertisements state that the day will feature everything from recycling and upcycling, to garden tours, to petroglyph activities, to a “showcase” of the USAG-P’s “management of threatened and endangered species” (Hawaiʻi Tribune Herald).
When we express our concerns about the earth, not just on a designated “Earth Day,” but every day, our moral arguments—our arguments saying, “This is just the right thing to do!”—are pushed aside. Last month I wrote to the USAG-P. I submitted a poetic letter about “noise” (as they had invited expressions of concern about noise, as if that would be our main complaint).
With complete respect for the person who responded to me, and who has continued to have open communication with me, he didn’t know what to do with my letter. “Your email articulated thoughts and ideas very well,” he said, “but didn’t seem to leave any room…for compromise.”
The life of the earth is not a compromise I’m willing to make. There should be no discussion when it comes to our mother, when it comes to our future.
But, apparently, not everyone feels this way.
And I can’t blame them.
Disconnection is the tragedy of our times.
Yesterday, though, I met with passionate people, people wanting to raise their voice for our ʻāina, wanting to use music and poetry, picture and film, political analysis and scientific knowledge to fight for the earth, knowing that we must make noise for her, even if and when people are not willing to listen.
Because we must show our children, and their children, and their grandchildren, that the moral argument is important, that the moral argument is enough, that standing up for the earth is just the right thing to do. Period.
A few weeks ago another friend of mine posted a picture on Facebook. It was a photo of trash that she had picked up at a beach in Kohala, a place that links the two of us, a place that nurtured our ancestors on the Big Island. She could not believe the disrespect, the disregard, the inability to simply pick something up, to look after the earth, to care. Her long, delicate fingers held out a bag of trash she collected, her wrist adorned with gentle tattooed reminders of connection: to the earth, to earth’s creatures, to the elements.
It made me think of the indigenous wisdom that she lives her life by: caring for the earth as our ancestors would. Native American environmentalist and activist Winona LaDuke (1999) argues that there is “a direct relationship between the loss of cultural diversity and the loss of biodiversity. Wherever Indigenous peoples still remain, there is a corresponding enclave of biodiversity” (p. 1). In other words, if we could just tap into the knowledge of our indigenous ancestors, we could remember ourselves, remember our connection, remember our ability to care for the earth as mother, to not strip her of diversity and beauty for our own sake, but to nurture her for the sake of the earth.
Of course, none of us are perfect and we do slip up and do cause harm, often in our daily actions: driving cars; purchasing foods that were farmed in unethical ways on land that has been destroyed; contributing to food waste; using too much plastic, etc. But, I see people like my friend and am reminded that we can make efforts to live more consciously, to be aware of the impacts of our actions, and to live by example.
My friend gives me reminders, ethnical and moral arguments, to care, and to care genuinely.
Of course, when she posted her photo, I noticed my other friend give it a big thumbs-up, an official Facebook “Like.” This was the same friend who would throw cigarette butts onto the ground, smashing them into Papa’s skin. Why did he like her photo, I wondered?
And that’s when it hit me: Sometimes it’s cool to care, or it’s cool to appear to care. So many of our youth are caught up in worrying about what others think of them. They are insecure, trying to find acceptance, trying to find themselves. The same goes for the not-so-young, like my friend. And the same goes for the powerful. Yes, the same even goes for entities like the U.S. Army Garrison-Pōhakuloa.
Celebrate Earth Day on a military training ground?
Celebrate Earth Day where destruction is a daily occurrence, where desecration is a daily occurrence, where pollution is a daily occurrence, where training for and advocating death is a daily occurrence?
Perhaps, just as it was cool for my friend to show his support of a “pick up trash” picture on social media—even while it was perhaps not cool enough to act upon that plea, to pick up his own trash, to pick up someone else’s, or better yet, to not throw any on the ground, ever—it’s “cool” for the USAG-P to appear to care.
While they “celebrate” Earth Day, they simultaneously attempt to cover-up the fact that they are Earth’s Doomsday. They appear to care, appear to accept the moral argument that loving the land is right, appear to be genuine in their attempts.
But I can’t accept that, not while they simultaneously abuse her, pounding her day after day, year after year!
They are like the insecure teen (or the once-was teen) who loves to “like” everything moral on Facebook, while not actually wanting to do anything about it, or not being able to.
And I for one think that our youth need far better role models, as do the not-so young and disconnected, as do all of us.
For a real earth day, we can start now. Start with picking up trash because it’s just right to do so. Period. Maybe once we buy into one moral argument about something my friend once thought was insignificant, then we can encourage people to buy into more moral and ethical arguments.
And who knows, when these arguments become to norm and are no longer laughed at or pushed aside with eye rolls or dismissive email responses, maybe something like “Let’s stop bombing the land because it’s the right thing to do” will be so commonsense, so widely accepted, that we can’t help but do it.
Protect the earth. It’s just a good idea, right? I hope for the day when that’s not seen as overly optimistic, dreamy, or even fantastical, the day when the USAG-P not only recognizes the absurdity of celebrating “Earth Day” on a piece of earth they actively and purposefully destroy, but stops altogether.
I hope for the day we can all see just how cool it is to care. And more than that, just how super cool it is to care genuinely.
Not for appearances.
Not for the ego.
Not for a social prank, or a “let’s -soften-the-‘blow’-of-our-bombs-with-garden-tours” initiative.
Not even for us, really, but for the earth.
I have faith that even my friend will get there one day for he comes from far too great a heritage of kaitiakitanga not to.
We all do, even those at Pōhakuloa.
We are all born attentive and curious of the earth. We are all born as innocent creatures connected to the earth. We are born to be protectors of our mother. And although we may lose that as we grow, it’s about time we remember who we are.
Who we were born to be.
LaDuke, W. (1999). All Our Relations. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Moore, K. D. (2016). great tide rising. Berkeley: Counterpoint.