Opinion: What my mother’s death taught me about saving the planet. We can’t, and here’s why.

As I look back on 2018, the thing I’ll remember most is being with my mother for her final days. At 86, she was doing great until she had a stroke around Halloween. That began a cascade of events that put her in and out of the intensive care unit. She staged a remarkable rebound that allowed her to leave the ICU and have one last wonderful 24 hours talking with me, my siblings and my father. She died just before Thanksgiving.   It was a bittersweet experience that, paradoxically, shed light on something that’s been nagging me about my profession for some time. As environmentalists, we often refer to our work as “saving the planet.” This is unhelpful for a couple of reasons. The World Is Not Binary First, framing the challenge of living on a changing planet as a rescue mission is confrontational, which puts environmentalists in the role of “hero,” fighting those out to “harm” the planet. Of course, there are a lot of bad actors out there who willingly destroy our natural systems in the pursuit of profit. But we all impact the environment in some way. In my role as an executive at Environmental Defense Fund, where I mostly work on agricultural and coastal resilience issues, I encounter good, honorable men and women who are responding to a set of powerful economic incentives and social norms that influence their actions. If you think your job is to save the planet, it’s easy to slip into a binary world. It’s you against those people. A species exists or it’s extinct. A wetland is a wetland or it’s a parking lot. My mom is either alive or dead. Even if humans never emerged as a major planetary change agent, Earth would still change. And yet the pull is there. We want places (and people) that are special to us to never change. In those last weeks with my mom, we, as a family, were not making a binary decision. We cannot prevent death. What we faced were choices among equally compelling values — in our case, quality of … Continue reading Opinion: What my mother’s death taught me about saving the planet. We can’t, and here’s why.