On September 15, 2015, author Paul Fleischman accepted his Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award for his young adult book Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines. Before an audience of all ages, he gave the following acceptance speech. 

“Writers learn as much from their books as readers do,” he began. . . . Researching Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines taught me more than the state of our environmental bind. I learned how not to talk about the environment, how to deal with the issue of morale, and much more that’s not in the book.  Here are a few bonus tracks.

Fear is both good and bad. You’re floating gently down the stream, hear the roar of a waterfall in the distance, and suddenly snap out of your daydream. A little fear can stimulate a correction and save your life. But too much fear can paralyze rather than energize.  Describing environmental problems as overwhelmingly large, with no mention of possible solutions, will instill hopelessness and passivity. It’s also only half the story. The same problem-solving skills that wove fossil fuels throughout our lives are now being used to replace them.

Hope inspires. Martin Luther King said “I have a dream,” not “I see a nightmare we need to avoid.” Hope and positive goals fuel action. Consider these lines from the opening of Al Gore’s “The Turning Point” in Rolling Stone in 2014: “The forward journey for human civilization will be difficult and dangerous, but it is now clear that we will ultimately prevail. The only question is how quickly we can accelerate and complete the transition to a low-carbon civilization.” After that start, readers are ready to tackle the challenges described later rather than run from them.

The big picture is powerful. When you learn that we need to leave 80% of fossil fuels buried rather than burned to avoid disaster, murky issues get clear. Will the Keystone pipeline bring jobs?  Is fracking a danger to groundwater?  Suddenly the answers are unimportant.  All that really matters is keeping those fuels in the ground. Politicians usually point to the small picture; the here and now is an easy platform to run on. It takes a far-sighted public to demand they look at the long-term destination of all those short-term decisions.

Adults need the facts of life as much as teens. When I ask a classroom where the water or electricity in the room comes from, I now know what I’ll see: kids making wild guesses and teachers in the back trying to find the answers on their phones. I’ve had adults assure me that all must be well because their town has curbside recycling. I’ve been asked by intelligent adults whether or not water is a fossil fuel. The spread of environmental education in the schools is improving awareness–but not for adults. Churches, service organizations, city water and emergency response departments and other groups could all help fill this gap.

Look locally and globally. When the national news is too dispiriting, remember that there’s more than one country on the map. Exciting developments are happening elsewhere.  They’re also happening on the local level here, where leaders have more scope for action. The U.S. may never have ratified the Kyoto Protocol, but hundreds of U.S. cities have and have put in place climate action plans.

Individuals do indeed have a role. Scaled-up action usually means governments changing laws.  But that doesn’t mean individual acts aren’t important. Just the opposite. It’s those individual acts, over years and in many places, that give new ideas legitimacy and pave the way for governments to adopt them.  Change nearly always begins from below.

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