March 24, 2016: By Bob Deans
Our son Robby was about two years old when Disney made its animated classic, beauty and the beast. Robby hadn’t yet learned to read, but he had one of those children’s books with buttons you could push to get a quick audio snippet of key passages, which Robby could then follow along in the book and memorize.
One of those, naturally, was the moral of the story – cast down by Disney as if from on high in a voice of towering strength and rectitude: do not be deceived by appearances.
And, one evening while he was leafing through the pages and mimicking the audio himself, we heard Robby recite with all the force of conscience his own small voice might muster: do not be deceived by your parents.
If we’re paying attention, we learn far more from our children than we might ever hope to teach them. We learn how to become parents. Who will tell our children the truth? The truth about the wonders of this magnificent world. About the boundless universe of potential that exists within each child. About the need to be good stewards of all creation and the common home we share.
One way we convey these eternal truths, from our children’s earliest years, is through stories and the people who tell them. That’s why, we celebrate the storytellers who pass on wisdom to our children, teach us to care for all we hold dear, usher us into the world of imagination . . . and set us free to dream.
Our imaginations were fired and our minds lit with dreams by stories of the discovery in a narrow cave of the fossilized remains of a group of very early humans – thought to have lived more than 2 million years ago in what we now call South Africa. We know that, sometime around then, our distant ancestors began to cook their food. That meant more calories to support a growing brain. It meant fire, preparation and planning; the beginnings of community and cooperation. And it meant the flowering of human communication – early symbols, gestures, pictures and words.
And over the broad sweep of many millennia, over many hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved into communal people, connected and bound through villages and tribes.
Story telling has been central to that journey. Telling stories is how we survive. In telling stories around the communal fire, elders passed on to children the wisdom and knowledge of their time. Hunters warned of hazard and risk in tales of disaster and loss. Mothers advanced understanding of health and home and healing through the memories and experiences they shared. Explorers painted vivid portraits of promise by describing what lay beyond the river bend.
And so we learned from stories of experience how each generation might live better than the one before. And we learned that we could go beyond what we experienced – as individuals and as a group – by listening to stories about things we hadn’t seen and even things that hadn’t yet happened, and then imagining a better way. A safer way to travel great distances; how to build better villages and homes; how to fashion a way to carry an infant while we foraged for food in the fields. We learned how to solve problems, face challenges and move, as a group, to higher ground.
And we learned something even more important than all that. We learned, through stories, who we are, what we do and why it matters. We developed a human identity, as a communal people who depend on the tribe for our shelter, our food and our families. For security in a dangerous world. From the earliest stirrings of human consciousness, we feel that dependence on the tribe, very deeply, even today.
We feel our human frailty. We fear being left alone. Because deep in the innermost recesses of our being we know we’re dependent upon the tribe and that if we’re banished or left behind we will not survive. That’s why stories are so important. To help us to understand who we are, what we do and why it matters.
That is our identity. That’s how we know we belong to the tribe. That’s what we rely on to make sure we’re not left behind. Storytelling helps to shape that identity, to give it clarity and meaning and form. To remind us that we have, each of us, a special place in the great tribe of all humanity. And that we have, each of us, our own unique story to tell.
The young boy who struggles to survive on the streets in Gabon, develops an unlikely friendship with a professor and together they peer into the plight of a complicated animal driven to the brink of extinction. (Threatened, by Eliot Schrefer, 2015 Green Earth Book Awards winner for Young Adult Fiction)
We have our own story to tell.
The wise sage who takes us behind the headlines to tell us what we need to know about the
central environmental issues of our time. (Eyes Wide Open, by Paul Fleischman, 2015 Green Earth Book Awards winner for Young Adult Nonfiction)
The mermaid heroine, the writer and the photographer who tell the stories of the threats to our oceans, then set out to save the waters and the wonders of our deepest seas and all that they support. (Deep Blue, by Jennifer Donnelly, 2015 Green Earth Book Award winner in Children’s Nonfiction; and Plastics Ahoy: Investigating the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, by Patricia Newman and Annie Crawley, 2015 Green Earth Book Awards winner for Children’s nonfiction.)
The poet and the painter who take us into the equally unfathomable depths of the human spirit through a character who testifies, “I held a forest in my arms and my heart was changed.” (The Promise, by Nicola Davis, 2015 Green Earth Book Awards winner for Picture Book.)
Green Earth Book Award winning authors take their place in the long line of great storytellers, telling the great stories of our time. Passing on knowledge to our children. Teaching us to be good stewards of all creation. Ushering us into the world of imagination . . . and setting us free to dream.
Because when we build on the wisdom of others; when we care for all we hold dear; when we are fully free to dream of things we cannot yet see; that is when we know we are truly and wholly human, part of the great global human tribe.
That’s how we find our place in the village that’s been entrusted to our care. Our village today is threatened. The world we leave to our children is at risk. 2014 was the hottest summer since global record-keeping began 136 years ago. Fourteen of the hottest years on record have all occurred in this century. Here’s who says that’s a problem:
The National Academy of Sciences – created by Congress during the Civil War to tell us the bedrock truth about what’s happening in our world, as the best of our science might tell us that truth; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association – the gold standard for climate and weather information worldwide; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – the guys who put a man on the moon; the White House; the State Department; the Department of Commerce; the Pentagon; General Motors Corporation; Google; the Bank of America; and Pope Paul – the Bishop of Rome, the Vicar of Christ, traveled from the Vatican to come to the seat of American governance to say we have a moral obligation to protect future generations from the dangers of widening climate change.
The pope has put before us one of the most profound spiritual questions of this or any other time: are we going to rise to our moral obligation to protect future generations, or will we be the ones to sit back and preside over the steady degradation and decline of the planet and all it supports?
Our answer will help determine the kind of future we leave for our children. And it will tell them everything they need to know about our willingness to live out our beliefs and to imbue our convictions with purpose and meaning by putting our beliefs into action.
And here’s how we know that matters: seas are rising; deserts are widening; ice is melting; storms, wildfires and floods are raging. The Earth, our home, is telling us every way it can that it’s time to cut the dangerous fossil fuel pollution that’s driving global climate change.
The Earth, our common home, is telling us every way it can that it’s time to stop poisoning our waters and air and seas with plastic and toxic chemicals.
The Earth, our one and only home, is telling us every way it can that we cannot go on with reckless drilling and exploding oil trains that put the perils of the oil patch in the American backyard; that we cannot go on blasting mountains to rubble in the pursuit of the last lump of coal; that we cannot go on to the ends of the earth in search of more oil and gas than we can afford to burn without firing climate catastrophe; and that we cannot keep turning vital habitat into industrial wastelands boreal forest of Canada, the sage grass prairies of the American west, the rain forests of Brazil, and all around the world – while we take species that evolved over hundreds of millions of years and wipe them off the face of the planet forever.
This earth, our solitary common home, is telling us every way it can: we have to learn the wisdom of our elders, care for all we hold dear and imagine a better way to do things – or we will not survive.
Because for all the great distance we’ve traveled, and all we have learned to do, our lives remain, as our Green Earth Book Award authors and artists remind us, wedded to the complex yet fragile natural systems upon which all life depends. And the remarkable story we have to tell, the truth we must tell to our children, is that we can find that better way.
We can turn from the dirty fossil fuels of the past and create clean energy to power our future – and don’t let anyone tell you we can’t. We can invest in efficiency so we do more with less waste – and don’t let anyone tell you we can’t.
We can get more power from the wind and sun; safeguard our waters, wildlife, and lands; and we can build, right here in this country, the best all-electric and hybrid cars anywhere in the world; and don’t you ever let anyone tell you we can’t.
Failure is not who we are as a species. Failure is not what we do best. We are an animal that learns from the past, imagines the future and rises to meet it, to shape it, to create it, with the power and spirit of ideas, innovation, enterprise and hope. That’s who we are as a species. That’s why we’re still here today. That’s what’s been handed down to our village, one generation to the next, since the dawn of humankind.
That’s the great story that guides us as much tomorrow as today. We’re still telling it to our children. Still setting them free to dream. and we’ll keep finding new ways to do it, so long as stories, and storytellers, survive.
Bob Deans was keynote speaker at our 2015 Green Earth Book Award Ceremony. He is the director of strategic engagement at Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Bob joined NRDC as director of federal communications in 2009, following a 30-year long career as a newspaper journalist, starting with the Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina; moving to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution; and then becoming the chief Asia correspondent, based in Tokyo, for the paper’s parent company, Cox. In 1992, Deans moved to Washington to cover foreign policy, national security, economic affairs and the White House. Deans was president of the White House Correspondents Association from 2002-2003. He is co-author of the 2014 book, “The World We Create: A Message of Hope for a Planet in Peril” with former NRDC President Frances Beinecke. He is the author of the 2012 book, “Reckless: The Political Assault on the American Environment”; co-author of the 2009 book, “Clean Energy Common Sense” with former NRDC President Frances Beinecke; and co-author, with former NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner, of the 2010 book “In Deep Water: Anatomy of a Disaster, the Fate of the Gulf and Ending our Oil Addiction.” He is the author of The River Where America Began: A Journey Along the James, published in 2007. Deans has a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism.