THE BLOG

Heroes of the Planet

11/21/2012 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jan 21, 2013

Heroes of the planet are not brooding, judgmental voices of death and destruction. Quite the opposite, writers like "no impact man" Colin Beavan, biologist Janine Benyus, and environmental studies professor David Orr show how fascinating tree-hugging can be. Heroes of the planet are for sure wide-eyed about the range of eco disturbances caused by adherence to conventional economic models and must-have-the-latest cultural ideas. Still, they are hopeful and joyful. In their mission to return balance to the biosphere and help rescue humanity, they point us in the direction of a new politics and new economics, since problems of mass pollution and destabilization of the climate are systemic, and individual actions apart from muscled institutional change are inadequate to the scale and scope of our situation.

Typically industrial and consumerist approaches to profits and jobs -- whether capitalist or communist -- presume the normalcy, even legitimacy, of human control over forests, soils, and waters. Without humble attention to the intelligence of nature, we have outstripped the "carrying capacity" or naturally restorative processes of the biosphere, and are now paying the price in a grinding slow-down of world economic growth. As modern or "western" economics have long disconnected itself from the evolutionary patterns of the biosphere we have failed to develop resilient, restorative economic systems. A new sense of appreciation in humbled relationship with nature can spread like wildfire, and help us build an ecological foundation for life and prosperity, hundreds, even thousands of years into the future. (We have to be honest, too, and note that die-offs are likely and already happening, due to famine, disease, disaster, or "resource wars." Therefore, as we all have to die someday, and since we are all in this together, we should see that our purpose is fully manifested in compassion, helping each other and providing a rich biosphere for all posterity.)

Whatever the damage, this ship can be turned. Love for nature and progeny are powerful drivers, and nature and our descendants are on the same team! In cultivating our affection and gratitude for our bodies and families, rivers and oceans, trees and gardens -- more than the thanks we muster toward our gadgets and playrooms and cars -- we give deep praise and glory to the source of all life.

Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle Conlin show how much they value their daughter, Isabelle. The documentary and book No Impact Man follows their one year experiment (2009) in living without any fossil-powered electricity. It was not an overnight transformation. Harmony and ease just did not click into place. Yet, the vitality, joy and connection that developed in their relationships, within, around, and beyond their family and friends, is indescribable. Whether through wiring a solar heater or trying alternative refrigeration, walking or biking to farmers' markets, hosting intimate discussions with neighbors by candlelight, or through many other innovative ways of adapting and simplifying their lives, this New York family enchanted the dickens out of me. Of course, Colin and Michelle are the first to say that as cool as experiments in eco-lifestyle and consciousness are, they're not nearly sufficient to save humanity from the ravages of bio loss and climate change.

Two other deep transformations are needed: industrial and political. The former is championed by a great many green architects, engineers, and entrepreneurs, perhaps none more so than Janine Benyus. Janine's biological-commercial consulting work, enshrined in her masterpiece, Biomimicry-Innovation Inspired by Nature, has garnered increasing attention in mainstream media and manufacturing industries. In 2010, Newsweek highlighted the growing adoption of her research and ideas in several industries, as varied as solar designs to textiles. Business has always shown great interest in the material "goods" of nature, but too often this drive has been focused exclusively on profit, sacrificing environmental and human health. Only recently have various segments in business discovered the financial value of learning from nature the exact 'design specs' in creating products and eliminating waste. As designer William McDonough often says, in nature waste equals food!

Successes in the greening of business notwithstanding, the profit motive can only take commerce so far in approximating genuine respect for the environment. We need a political revolution that truly holds business accountable to its approach of the natural world, for all its disturbances and toxins and depletions. This must begin with energy, the linchpin of design. Along with myriad visionaries like eco-business writer and entrepreneur Peter Barnes, and eco-education writer and naturalist Richard Louv, ecological writer and Professor David Orr is not just talking the talk. He is spearheading collaborate leadership in Oberlin, Ohio. He writes lucidly about the need for new legal frameworks and constitutional adaptation to account for the rights and liberties of future generations and other non-human life forms. But he is also helping design campuses and cities that are "no impact" campuses and cities! Places like Oberlin College and Oberlin, Ohio are exciting and fascinating places to learn, enjoy community, and experience 21st century designs.

As Louv and Orr explain in their books, we absolutely need a revolution in our educational institutions, affirming the moral and intellectual primacy of eco-literacy. Such learning, already underway in New Jersey with schools like the Willow School and the Barack Obama Green Charter School, is providing the know-how and infrastructure for healing and transformation in the longstanding human-nature rift.

Heroes of the planet are exercising leadership roles in many places. Each of us can, in our own way and place, too!