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January 28, 2009

Eagle and Thicket

Chief Seattle

When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone.

-- Seattle, Chief of the Suquamish, Duwamish, and Allied Native American Tribes

The Dalai Lama

The creatures that inhabit this earth -- be they human beings or animals -- are here to contribute, each in its own particular way, to the beauty and prosperity of the world.

-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama

Good Morning,

Brian Glanz and Mohini Glanz

Just ten and even five years ago, it was considered unusual to be concerned about the health of our planet, or to worry about the health of plants and animals with whom we share it. It was considered strange to suggest that we should all change the way we were living to be more sustainable. As recently as 2003 in the United States, conservatives wrote that the word ''environmentalist'' has the ''connotation of extremism.''

100 years before the modern environmentalist movement began in the 1950s, and longer still before the availability of our current science and technology, a relative few compassionate, wise people foretold the onset of our environmental problems. These few included Chief Seattle and other Native Americans, and John Muir and other naturalists. Conservationist movements had contemporary success in preserving national parks and other land, but the wisest few understood we needed not only to set aside parks, but to change the way in which we live every day.

Many extend the compassion they feel for other people to animals or to all living things. Those people may, for example, eat only vegetarian or vegan foods. Some people do not -- the ethic is not universally held and is the subject of significant debate. The words considered today from Chief Seattle and the Dalai Lama point to practical environmental concerns more than ethics. Environmentalism is not only rooted in concern for other living things, but in concern for ourselves.

The direct and selfish reasons we should be concerned for the health of plants, animals, and our environment include: stability of our ecosystem, maintenance of food sources, and the genetic variation we need for development of medicines. Our greater understanding of climate change, especially global warming, and people's impact on our environment has made it clear that our immediate, physical safety is also a concern in a warmer, then more volatile climate.

Holistic, systems thinking and complexity were once only understood by academics and professional scientists, but these fundamental concepts are now better understood by people with little or no formal education all around the world. Themes that once were limited to films like 1991's wonderful but under-appreciated Mindwalk now get global rock star treatment like 2006's An Inconvenient Truth. To continue improving general understanding of interdependence, compassion must expand its role within science education.

About today's sources:

There is some disagreement about whether Chief Seattle either wrote or spoke the words quoted here, or even if they were his words. They are credited to him by many academic sources online such as the Journal of Pesticide Reform, and by at least two books I recommend from my own shelves, Al Gore's Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit from 1992, and The Wisdom of the Native Americans by Kent Nerburn. Based on more historically certain words spoken by Seattle and positions he took, we can at least conclude that he would agree with these words. In fact, I have also been unable to locate the original source of today's quote from the Dalai Lama, a step I usually require before attribution. These words are credited to him thousands of times online however, including by some who have known him personally, and I have no reason to doubt the attribution.