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At the Intersection of Avatar and Earth Day

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What do Gaylord Nelson and James Cameron have in common?

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, and on the surface the two men couldn't be much different. Nelson was an elder statesman, Cameron a sci-fi junkie-turned-Hollywood mega-success.

The founding father of Earth Day, Gaylord Nelson spoke words in the 1960s that sound hauntingly prescient today. During his tenures as Wisconsin's Governor and U.S. Senator, he created a "green jobs" corps in his home state. He called for sweeping, immediate government regulation--including bans on pesticides, the end of the internal combustion engine, and even a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that "every person has the right to a decent environment."

Emerging as the voice of a new kind of environmentalism in the 1960s, Nelson must have felt a lot like Dr. Grace in Avatar, trying to use reason and science to combat a seemingly insatiable human-corporate drive for consumption. But, in August of 1969, after surveying the devastating oil spill in Santa Barbara, Nelson hatched a plan. What if, Nelson wondered, students used the same tactics that had been stirring up media attention around the Vietnam war to raise environmental awareness?

Seven months later, Nelson's idea resulted in the largest coordinated demonstration in U.S. history and the first Earth Day, the anniversary of which we will celebrate this weekend.
James Cameron is a different kind of pioneer. One of the highest grossing filmmakers in history, he's probably not usually discussed in the same conversation as Gaylord Nelson. And I'm not going to suggest that portraying a utopianish planet with blue people is going to save the environment.

What I'm interested in is this: here are two people who exemplify success, achievement, and the American Dream. They're both leaders who came from humble beginnings, quintessential self-made men. And when asked about their childhood, the landscapes of their stories are green and wild.

Gaylord Nelson grew up near the shore of Clear Lake, Wisconsin. He spent his youth steeped in the woods, water, and natural environment of the area. James Cameron, in a time before video, projected his fantasy worlds on the screen of his mind as a result of his explorations and "scientific" wanderings.

Cameron says "insatiable curiosity manifested itself in the fact that whenever I wasn't in school I was in the woods, hiking and taking "samples" of frogs and snakes and bugs and pond water."

Addressing the Earth Day 1970 audience in Denver, Nelson proclaimed, "Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all living creatures."

This week news crews followed along as Cameron visited a gathering of thirteen indigenous tribes who were meeting to try to stop the construction of the immensely destructive Belo Monte dam in the Brazilian rainforest.

"It's not like there is any pressure on me or anything," he said, half-joking, moments before boarding the boat to leave. "These people really are looking for me to do something about their situation. We have to try to stop this dam. Their whole way of life, their society as they know it, depends on it."

If Cameron, known for making eco-friendly lifestyle choices, leverages his high visibility by becoming an environmental activist and leader, he'll have one more thing in common with Gaylord Nelson. And that would be good.

I can't help but think that their "green roots" helped grow these men into the (not so blue) giants they became. There is no doubt that the curiosity, sense of peace, and perspective that arise from a childhood spent in nature are formative.

Last week's Santa Barbara Independent includes the summer camp listings for that fair city, the origin of Earth Day, the current residence of Cameron, and many other Hollywood success stories. Before you read on, go ahead and take a guess. How many camps do you think we have?

The answer: 132. One hundred and thirty-two different summer camps for Santa Barbara kids. I resolved to avoid reading the entire listing, recognizing that I am susceptible to that strain of parental guilt that arises when I peruse the list of intriguing, enriching, life-changing camps that my daughter won't attend.

Today somebody e-mailed me a link to yet another parent-resource website. This one calls itself an "enrichment concierge." Enrichment Concierge!

These vast resources invested in offering a dizzying array of "enrichment options" for our kids represent much more than a need to shuffle the kids off somewhere to be kept quiet while we go to work. Plenty of families with a stay-at-home parent send their kids to camp. Sending your kid to day camp is just part of the new normal. Everybody's doing it. Just imagine what your kids will be missing if they don't get to go.

The parents of James Cameron and Gaylord Nelson did not have to choose from among 132 camp options. I'm guessing that all they had to do for those young boys was open the door in the morning and remind them to come home before dark.

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