Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Empathic Civilization

Happy Earth Day! I was 17 when the first Earth Day was celebrated. It was a tender age at which to receive the shocking news that the way we lived was extremely destructive to plants and animals. I knew war was not healthy for children and other living things, but my basic belief at the time was that sex, drugs and rock 'n roll would save the world. I had never considered the impact of the gluttonous, wasteful American lifestyle on all the other species we share space with here on this beautiful planet.

When my mother, and so many other early feminists, bought piles of war is not healthy medallions, bumper stickers, posters, pins, tote bags and t-shirts, I'm sure they were - at that moment in time - completely unaware of the truth that the production of all that junk was equally unhealthy for children and other living things, such as animals and plants, rivers, forests and oceans. I'm sure she only thought about how important it was to make the statement.

Until the 1970's, we drove around in gas guzzlin', super charged cars without giving that practice a second thought. In fact, taking a "Sunday drive" was thought to be a lovely idea.

The food we ate? Oh. My. God. The late '60's was a truly hideous time in terms of consciousness about food. Hamburger Helper. Canned veggies. Old, withered looking iceberg lettuce with transfat filled "creme" salad dressing, high fructose corn syrup in everything, margarine, TV dinners, "soft serve" ice cream, Cool Whip, instant coffee with "cremer" - an awful powder made from god knows what. "Instant potatoes?" What the hell is that? Fake food and fast food were all the rage. No one I knew tried to figure out where their food came from, or how wholesome it might be.

According to, the term endangered species was not part of the American lexicon until 1965 and did not come into common use until at least ten years later. Though organic farming was coined in a book in 1940, no one I knew used that term or thought about the impact of pouring pesticides on food until after the first Earth Day. I know there were earth saavy people before that, but I didn't know any of them. Now I don't know anyone who isn't aware of these issues.

I love watching films from the early 1960's. When someone is ill or faints, a caring person will inevitably pour brandy down their throats. When they wake up, someone will hand them a cigarette. People in 1960's movies smoked cigarettes while in the hospital. Wow. Hmmm ... unclear on the concept, eh? When a film character is experiencing grief or sadness, inevitably a caring someone will say, "Stop crying. Here. Have a martini and a cigarette." Wow.

So many things have changed since the first Earth Day. I think Jeremy Rifkin is correct when he says that our species is capable of great empathy. It was from our kind hearts that Earth Day was created. It's true that we were so naive then. But we started waking up at that time, and have been in the process of becoming more empathic every year, to children, animals, plants, rivers, bays, oceans and the land, too. American consciousness is much more evolved than in the "good old days." It is! Believe me.

Hug a tree today, yes? I say yes. Happy Earth Day! And many more.


Paul C said...

First the picture of the iris takes my breath away! I appreciate the link to Rifkin's book about developing a global consciousness.

Barbara said...

Unfortunately much of the destruction (to ourselves and to the world) was already put into play before we woke up and figured out that we had multiple problems. Anything we do now is just like applying Bandaids to wounds that will never heal. Am I a pessimist or a realist?

Linda Sue said...

Hamburger helper, instant mashed potatoes, cool I am REALLY hungry...actually we never did eat those things- too expensive- garden stuff was cheaper.We could buy cornish game hens for super cheap because they were tiny and well, you know, that is just not the American ideal.
I do remember being 15, my friend was in hospital having her leg removed - the cancer raged throughout her little body, nothing could be done except remove her bit by bit- I wept uncontrollably- someone said- settle her down , give her a beer...I wonder if that is the equivalent of the Dog Whisperer saying "tshht" and giving the dog a boot to the back.

Linda Sue said...

Oh yeah, and I could certainly munch on that iris- it does look yummy!

willow said...

Oh, yes, that horrible fake food from our childhoods. Gosh, we loved it and gobbled it up, too. And all the old films with the smoking of Kools for their health. Sheesh.

Excellent post, Reya. Happy Earth Day.

(actually, that's me and my current little Canon in a mirror on my sidebar :)

thisamericantourist said...

My elementary school used to celebrate Earth Day by sending every student home with a tree sapling to plant. I remember trying to plant the first one in our backyard, and crying when it died because I hadn't dug the hole deep enough for the roots to take hold.

And I know you weren't asking me, Barbara, but I don't think there's anything pessimistic about recognizing the state of things. Generations before ours abused our planet (even if they didn't mean to), and there has been damage done that can't be undone.

That being said, I'd rather walk around with a Band-aid than an open wound. Make of that what you will ;).

Reya Mellicker said...

The history of the earth includes several periods of time when 95% or more of the species living at the time were wiped out. We are part of the cycle of life on earth, no more, no less. The earth will live on long after we and all other species we know about have disappeared. It is a self healing, living entity whose lifespan is far longer than that of our species.

This is not to say I believe our wastefulness is OK. Waking up, learning to live more harmoniously with natural rhythms, feeling empathy for the endangered species, etc. is an evolutionary act.

I believe it's hubris to believe we can destroy the planet, also hubris to believe we can "save the planet."

What we can do is wake up and live responsibly, with compassion. I leave all the rest of it up to Mama Gaia. Oh yeah.

Reya Mellicker said...

I also believe a current challenge we must face and deal with is our tendency towards self-loathing. We aren't a "bad" species. There are too many of us. We're clever and have opposable thumbs.

If crows had opposable thumbs, they would rule the world.

Yes, mistakes have been made, but we're a very sweet, curious, ambitious species. We need to learn compassion for ourselves. We do!

Reya Mellicker said...

Thanks, Willow!

Meri said...

The photos make me think of souls, washed clean.

Barry said...

I'm very interested in Rifkin's book and intend to read it.

I didn't actually hug a tree today, but I did photograph a whole bunch of them for tomorrows FSO series on Honoring Trees.

They posed very well for the camera.

Cyndy said...

It's a miracle we aren't all dead after eating all that bad "food" growing up! But as we take better care of ourselves we realize we need to take better care of our planet as well.

I still remember the very first Earth Day. My school suspended normal classes and had a special day filled with all kinds of Earth Day relevent classes and clinics. I remember the wonderful spirit in which those things were presented and really learning for the first time how important it is to protect and take care of our planet as much as it is humanly possible.

Minka said...

Great pics!

I was lucky, so to say. We were behind time, in a way and some of the nonsense things you mention only came here when they were already accompanied with all the information you have now. Not liquor and cigarettes, though, but canned and ready prepared food.

Again - the photos on your blog are gorgeous!

ellen abbott said...

I did an earth day post too but it took me awhile to get it up. You are so sweet and loving Reya, excusing us all while we selfishly putter on our way. My own post is not so sweet.

I must have been in the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind. I have been hugging this beautiful place being conscious of it since the very early 70s.

Reya Mellicker said...

Barry I agree with you - trees are very photogenic! And Cyndy oh my yes, I should have called "food" - not food. Ha.

Minka thanks and yes you were, in a way, lucky not to wolf down "shake 'n bake" every other night.

Meri what a cool thought.

Ellen I'm actually not sweet. I like my species and don't think we are any more selfish than any other species. I'll have to check out your blog.

Mary Ellen said...

This is a wonderfully hopeful post - thanks, Reya!

Ronda Laveen said...

What about the powdered Kraft mac & cheese stuff! Wasn't a lot of that type of food inspired by the space programs need for non-perishable, easily prepared food stuffs? Or am I making stuff up again. In my mind, that is how I imagine it.

I haven't hugged a tree yet, but I did kiss the ground as I tiptoed out to the back of our property to get a picture of the mallards floating on the rain water ponds. I slipped in the mud about 10 minutes after my shower and smeared my clothes. Today was definitely Earth day.

Reya Mellicker said...

Ronda - earth day literally, eh?

All that fake food was supposed to make our lives easier. I remember the marketing campaign for Tang. They insisted astronauts drank Tang. YUCK. No wonder they had so many hallucinations in space!

Reya Mellicker said...

Ingredients of Tang:


Reya Mellicker said...

Tang: many different kinds of sugars, synthetic vitamins and carcinogens. Yikes!

John Hayes said...

Interesting about the origin of those terms--& really beautiful images! Happy Earth Day (slightly belated).

Lizzy Frizzfrock said...

Very nice and positive post. I hope you had a happy Earth Day.