Guestwords: Listen to Your Mother

By Howard E. Friend

    As a resident of greater Philadelphia, a summer resident of Montauk, I sat in horror as I watched the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. It was my wake-up call and I knew I had to do something, so I headed to Staten Island.
    Kissam Avenue may be the single most devastated street that bore Sandy’s savage assault. Eight houses redeemable — I have worked with a circle of friends on Bob’s house and Nancy’s house, watching their pained faces as we dismantled the interior of their homes prior to rebuilding. In addition to those eight houses, there were eight more clearly beyond repair and 17 that are gone. Gone! The 12-foot surge pulverized them and the churning waves that followed scoured what remained.
    With Mother’s Day approaching, I am reminded of those warnings we got as young boys and girls, “Listen to your mother.” It might have been over something quite minor, but if my father said, “Listen to your mother,” there was likely some trouble ahead if I didn’t.
    What about these messages that Mother Earth is sending us? Who is listening to her? Who is heeding her cries?
    “The 12 hottest years on record have all come in the last 15,” President Obama said in his State of the Union speech. “Heat waves, droughts, wildfires, and floods — all are now more frequent and intense. We can choose to believe that Superstorm Sandy, and the most severe drought in decades, and the worst wildfires some states have ever seen were all just a freak coincidence. Or we can choose to believe in the overwhelming judgment of science — and act before it’s too late.”
    Perhaps we should not only be listening to our mother but also to our scientists. Are we at a tipping point, or, more starkly, a “point of no return”?
    Mother Earth has spoken beautifully and powerfully over the eons of deep global history, graciously giving us “spacious skies and amber waves of grain.” She has been a voice of bounty, beauty, and balance, and her story brims with instructions that we ignore at our peril.
    The evidence is overwhelming: catastrophic global storms and alarming melting of the Arctic sea ice. A mass of dead water debris the size of Massachusetts floats at the mouth of the Mississippi, and a similar island the size of Texas drifts in the North Atlantic. Snowmelt, a primary source of water supply in the Northwest, is rapidly diminishing. Aquifers across the country and the lakes and rivers in the Northeast are being steadily compromised.
    The statistics are daunting, but discouragement disables listening . . . and acting. Thankfully, there are inspiring stories of individuals and communities taking action, along with promising legislative options.
    Maria Aguinda, an elder of the Quechua indigenous people of Ecuador, succeeded as lead plaintiff in a $9.5 billion lawsuit against an oil-producing giant.
    May Boeve and a dozen others challenged their alma mater, Middlebury College, to reduce carbon emissions — and formed one of the world’s largest action networks, Step It Up, in the process.
    The city of Chicago gathered the creativity and courage to take on stiff corporate resistance and establish more than 200 rooftop gardens, including at City Hall — 2.5 million square feet of green that purify and store water and reduce summer temperatures.
    Waterloo, Ontario, distributed 40,000 rain barrels that have reduced public water depletion by 12.7 million gallons each year.
    Legislative action must accompany individual and community action. A bill introduced this year by Senators Barbara Boxer (Democrat of California) and Bernie Sanders (a Vermont independent) is promising. It calls for a fee on carbon with a portion of that revenue returned to the public.
    Those demolished houses on Staten Island told me that it is time that I listen to my mother, and not just on Mother’s Day. Yes, listen to your mother . . . and act!

    Howard E. Friend, a former pastor of the Montauk Community Church, is an organizational consultant, teacher, and writer. He is active in the Pachamama Alliance, which helps indigenous people in the Amazon rain forest preserve their land and culture.