More Than Saving Seals

WITH SOME truth Rosemary Radford Ruether, as quoted by Aaron Gallegos, suggests environmentalists ignore the issues of race and class ("A Partnership for the Earth," March-April 1997). Yet much to the contrary of Ruether’s assumption, the environmental movement, fallen though it is like every movement, has always been about more than "saving seals and defending public parks from lumber companies." Indeed, if an ecological conscience is not acquired by rich and poor, black and white alike, an environmental catastrophe may eclipse our work toward racial reconciliation and the distribution of wealth. (Paradoxically, such a catastrophe might erase binaries and bring people together.)

As a naturalist in the Great Smoky Mountains, I lead children—rural and inner-city, poor and privileged, black and white—on backpacking trips and dayhikes into the wilderness. Perhaps in the wilderness only, and nowhere else in human society (except, ideally, the church), are race and class meaningless. Nature gives not a whit about people’s ideologies and prejudices, and wilderness affords no one privileges; out in the middle of nowhere a human being’s identity is questioned and renewed like in no other place. This is hardly a mere "escapism for hikers" that environmentalists fight for, but rather, as Thoreau put it, "the preservation of the world."

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