Heroes of Sustainability: Thom Hartmann

No one could accuse Thom Hartmann of not pursuing his interests. Probably best known as a radio talk show host, Hartmann has also co-founded an herbal products company, started international relief programs in a variety of countries, written more than 20 books, worked as a psychotherapist, developed a widely known theory on attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and inspired a web movie from Leonardo DiCaprio on the environment.

Hartmann is, to be certain, a man of many talents. As actor DiCaprio has said: “Thom Hartmann seeks out interesting subjects from such disparate outposts of curiosity that you have to wonder whether or not he uncovered them or they selected him.”

However, just because his interests are varied doesn’t mean he’s a jack of all trades and a master of none. Hartmann has more than 2.5 million listeners a week and was named the eighth most important talk show host in America last year by Talkers Magazine, making him the top progressive host on the list. Many of his books have been best-sellers, and he counts legions of influential people as fans of his multidisciplinary work.

Waking Up
His latest book, The Thom Hartmann Reader, covers a wide range of topics, from his opposition to the corporatization of America to solar energy in cloudy Germany to the problem with schools treating children like they’re products on an assembly line. Of the book, fellow Hero of Sustainability John Perkins says: “Thom Hartmann is a literary descendent of Ben Franklin and Tom Paine. His unflinching observations and deep passion inspire us to explore contemporary culture, politics, and economics; challenge us to face the facts of the societies we are creating; and empower us to demand a better world for our children and grandchildren.”

Building a better world for those future generations will take a shift in consciousness, Hartmann says, but he believes we can do it. “I’m very hopeful, and I think that people are waking up,” he said in a video interview with The Nation. “Americans are waking up. They know that their way of life has been destroyed.”

One of our most pressing issues as Hartmann sees it is the corporate capture of government. “It’s our job, not just as progressives, not just as Democrats or greens, but as Americans … to help people realize that this unholy alliance of corporations and government is every bit as dangerous and destructive as the alliance of church and state was perceived to be 200 years ago, and frankly today far more destructive,” he said.

Movement Politics
Although talk radio hosts are known for getting into battles of who can shout the loudest, Hartmann takes a different approach — less shrieking, more calm, reasoned debate. That doesn’t mean, though, that’s he’s not passionate about his beliefs. If we’re going find solutions to the global warming crisis and the lack of clean water worldwide, that’s going to take action to change the way we live, find alternative energy sources, and organize our communities in a different way.

“Every time there’s been a significant change in the history of America, it’s been a result of movement politics — local movements, local people,” Hartmann said. “Get active in the political process, show up, volunteer … run for political office or support somebody who is, and get out there and get active. Really, the bottom line: Tag, you’re it.”

For more information on Hartmann, visit www.thomhartmann.com.


Heroes of Sustainability: Rachel Carson

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

There is perhaps no book that’s made a greater impact on the environmental movement than Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the groundbreaking work brought to the forefront of American public consciousness the impact of pesticides on the earth, making the New York Times best-seller list for more than 80 weeks. A decade after the book was published (and due to its influence), DDT was banned in the U.S.

Hard at Work
Who was the woman who wrote a book that spurred such action? Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in rural Springdale, Pennsylvania, where she developed a love of nature and reading from a young age. At the Pennsylvania College for Women, she first studied English but then changed her major to biology, and went on to earn a master’s at Johns Hopkins University in zoology. After the death of her father and needing to contribute to the family income, Carson took on a job that melded her two loves of science and writing, penning weekly radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries that were intended to get the public interested in aquatic life and the bureau’s work.

From there, she went on to become only the second woman hired full-time for a professional position by the bureau, and in her role, she wrote pamphlets and other educational materials for the public. On the side, she contributed articles to newspapers and magazines, with an Atlantic Monthly piece eventually turning into her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. It was well reviewed and today is considered one of the classics in nature writing.

Her next book, The Sea Around Us, garnered the financial security she needed, along with much recognition and a slew of awards. It was turned into a documentary that won an Oscar, although Carson was never happy with the script that was written for the project. She followed up her enormously successful sophomore effort with a third book about the sea, this one titled The Edge of the Sea. It was also quite popular, and completed her look at the oceans from deep under to the shores.

The Environmental Movement
The inspiration behind the work that would come to most define her to popular audiences, Silent Spring, started with a letter her friend published in The Boston Herald, about birds dying on her property because of the DDT sprayed to get rid of mosquitoes. After becoming aware of this, Carson largely focused her scientific research efforts on pesticides, spending the rest of her career examining and writing about their effects.

Silent Spring came as a cry in the wilderness, a deeply felt, thoroughly researched, and brilliantly written argument that changed the course of history,” wrote Al Gore in an introduction to the book’s 25th-anniversary edition. “Without this book, the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”

Carson died of cancer less than two years after Silent Spring was published, and as such, never fully took in the legacy she left behind. Jimmy Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously, and countless academics and citizens alike were influenced by her work.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less traveled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

For more information on Carson, visit www.rachelcarson.org.


Heroes of Sustainability: Edward Abbey

Many environmentalists have sterling reputations: They’ve used peaceful tactics to preserve nature, written beautiful prose to celebrate it, and inspired others to defend it. Edward Abbey is not one of those environmentalists.

Sure, he fiercely loved nature, wrote awe-inspiring accounts of it, and garnered a huge following — but he also threw beer cans out car windows, penned stories about blowing up dams, and married five times, earning quite the reputation as a womanizer.

He was one-of-a-kind, a conservationist of his own making, described by The American Spectator contributor Bill Croke as “equal parts Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, with an added dash of Mikhail Bakunin.”

Cactus Ed
The Pennsylvania native was born to a schoolteacher mother who played the organ in church, and a farmer father who was a socialist, an anarchist, and an atheist. Shortly before Abbey’s 18th birthday in the mid-1940s, when he would face the draft, he set out to explore the American West, getting there through a mix of hitchhiking, walking, freight train hopping, and bus riding. When he saw the desert landscape of the Four Corners (where New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet), he’d found his home.

After returning from World War II, graduating from the University of New Mexico (his master’s thesis topic: “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence”), and working as a park ranger, he rose to prominence with the 1968 publication of Desert Solitaire, a nonfiction book melding nature writing, philosophy, and political observations about the management of national parks. In it, he wrote:

“Beyond the side canyon the walls rise again, slick and monolithic, in color a blend of pink, buff, yellow, orange, overlaid in part with a glaze of ‘desert varnish’ (iron oxide) or streaked in certain places with vertical draperies of black organic stains, the residue from plant life beyond the rim and from the hanging gardens that flourish in the deep grottoes high on the walls. Some of those alcoves are like great amphitheatres, large as the Hollywood Bowl, big enough for God’s own symphony orchestra.”

Seven years later, he followed that book with one even more popular, The Monkey Wrench Gang. A novel centered around a group of anarchic environmentalists who conspire to blow up Glen Canyon Dam and sabotage builders’ efforts to develop in the desert, it inspired the founding of Earth First!, a radical green group.

Solace in the Desert
Abbey believed that humans would never know true freedom until they spent some time in wild, unexplored lands, and so he spent his life doing — and writing about — just that.

“Edward Abbey is one of our foremost Western essayists and novelists,” read an article in The Denver Post. “A militant conservationist, he has attracted a large following — not only within the ranks of Sierra Club enthusiasts and dedicated backpackers, but also among armchair appreciators of good writing. What always made his work doubly interesting is the sense of a true maverick spirit at large, within it — a kind of spirit not imitable, limited only to the highest class of literary outlaws.”

When he died in 1989, friends and family fulfilled Abbey’s burial wish by taking his body in a sleeping bag in the back of a pickup truck and laying him to rest in the wilderness as soon as possible, without embalming fluid or a casket (or regard for the law).

“I want my body to help fertilize the growth of a cactus or cliff rose or sagebrush or tree,” he wrote. Somewhere in the dusty Arizona desert, it’s doing just that.


Heroes of Sustainability: Christopher Swain

Christopher Swain. Photo by Carrie Branovan.

The world is watching this week as the best swimmers go for the gold, but there’s a significant swimmer they won’t see: Christopher Swain.

He isn’t the fastest — in fact, he’s not that fast at all — but he is just as dedicated to his cause as Olympians are to pursuing their sports.

His first monumental swim came in 2003, when he became the first person to swim the length of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River, all 1,243 miles of it. While a good workout was clearly a byproduct of the long swim, the purpose was to raise awareness about the people and ecosystems that have been disrupted in the Columbia River Basin. A documentary, Source to Sea: The Columbia River Swim, was produced about the effort, and it went on to win the Environmental Activism and Social Justice Award at the EarthVision Film Festival, and the Most Inspiring Adventure Film Award at the Wild and Scenic Environmental Film Festival.

“I seek to plead the Columbia’s case,” Swain told Smokebox.net. “I chose swimming because I didn’t want to put anything between me and the water. Advocating for the River required my getting wet. When I swim, I offer myself to the river somehow. In the end then, I suppose I answer to the Columbia.”

Just Keep Swimming
He didn’t stop his swimming career there. A year later, he took on the 315-mile Hudson River in New York, calling for a river with drinkable water and becoming the subject of another documentary, this one called Swim for the River. Since then, he’s taken on Lake Champlain, the Charles River near Boston, and the Mystic River in Massachusetts.

Back on land, Swain — who grew up on the water and sailed competitively as a youngster — has talked to more than 60,000 students about clean water, produced a major event for the United Nations Water Decade at U.N. Headquarters, and was chosen as a Person of the Week on ABC World News Tonight.

According to his website, www.swimforcleanwater.org, he’s “survived collisions with boats, 12-foot waves, lightning storms, class IV+ rapids, toxic blue-green algae, Lamprey Eel attacks, and water contaminated with everything from human waste to nuclear waste.” And still, he pushed on, determined to do whatever he could to ensure that future generations would have clean, drinkable, swimmable water.

If commitment to a good cause were an Olympic sport, Swain might just find himself on the podium.