Learning How to See

Here’s an excellent speech, which was given by Rick Ridgeway at the well-attended Earth Day festivities on Friday at Patagonia in Ventura. Ridgeway connects a lot of divergent strands: the enormous changes our landscape has seen, the cruciality of the individual, and the vitality of hope. But in the end, it’s all about one thing — learning how to see.

One of the most difficult challenges we all face, even though most of us don’t realize it, is learning how to see.

Learning to see the real impact we humans have had on our planet is a particularly difficult challenge.  We’re here for 70, 80, for a lucky few 90 or a 100 years.  The changes in our environment, the degradation -­ even though, as we all know, accelerating quickly, still takes place over
decades, over centuries, over millennia.  The challenge we now face has been likened to the parable of the frog that stays in the frying pan too long as the temperature is slowly raised:  most frogs remain unaware of what’s happening until it’s too late.

They fail to take action, and what I want to talk about today is how action by individuals -­ activism by activists ­- is the most effective course of change, and consequently the greatest hope we have for reversing the degradation of our environment. 

But before we get into that, let’s go
back to this idea of learning how to see.

Let’s pause and go back and try to see in our mind’s eye what it was like here in the Ventura River estuary not a hundred years ago, or five hundred years ago, or a thousand -­ but let’s go back 11,000 years to the period just
before human beings arrived in any significant numbers. 

What was it like?  If any of you have been lucky to visit the wild parklands of East Africa, you’ll have a better chance of imagining the Ventura River bottom because there were three species of elephants, large herds of stripped
horses that looked very much like zebras, tigers, three kinds of bears, huge packs of wolves, cheetahs, lions­yes, maned lions that looked just like lions in Africa, only they Leo Americanas was 30% larger.

Then we arrived, and within 400 years 80% of all the large mammals were extinct.  Disease?  Most of the small mammals survived, and other than 2 of the 11 species of vultures that used to fill the sky over Ventura, so did the birds.  Climate change?  We’ve seen today, with the first affects of global warming, that the amphibians are the most susceptible order of animals that start to lose species. 

Yet 11,000 years ago not a single reptile went extinct, and the only insects that didn’t make it were the
dung beetles that depended on the feces of the large mammals to complete their birth-and-life cycles.

The evidence is circumstantial, but it’s weighted conclusively towards us as the guilty party.  Through hunting with the powerful spear throwers we had when we arrived, and especially with the knowledge of how to burn down the landscape, we killed them off. 

Now let’s go forward a few millennia to when the first Spaniards sailed along the coast of Southern California, to
1602 when Sebastian Vizcaino sailed right by the Ventura River here and then a little further north when he saw on the beach the gargantuan carcass of a dead whale with some kind of strange black dots all over it.  Looking
through his spyglass revealed the mystery:  the black dots were dozens of huge grizzly bears ripping great hunks of blubber out of the beached carcass.

Just after the mission was built here in Ventura, in 1787, a Spaniard left from close to where we now stand to walk to Matilija Canyon, just above Ojai.  He covered the distance in one day, and in that single day, on the game trails paralleling the Ventura River, he counted approximately 100
grizzly bears.  The grizzlies in California were the largest south of Alaska, the Sespe backcountry was one of their richest habitats, and the Ventura River was their corridor to the beach where they came to forage for
clams, and also to catch the steelhead on their annual runs up the river.  Even as late as 1887 another Spaniard still spotted six grizzlies in Matilija in a single sweep of the eye.  In 1922 the last wild grizzly in California was shot.

But the salmon were still here­maybe even more, without the bears.

Some of you have probably seen the old black and white photos in the history archives of Ventura, of the men fishing from Main Street bridge just behind us here, holding long strings of large salmon.  And then the Matilija dam and Lake Casitas and the diversion of water — water increasingly polluted by sewage — and in our little history of this area we now move forward to the early 1970’s, and the Ventura city council is meeting to discuss the further channeling of the Ventura River to make room to protect further development.  It was going to affect one of the best surf breaks in town.

Yvon [Chouinard] and his friends went to the meeting to hear the proposal.  All the city engineers got up and talked about how it was an ecologically dead
river, and this channeling wouldn’t affect anything.  Once they had finished, a 19 year old got up and did a slide show of all the living plants and animals in and along the banks of the river.  This was the Ventura River that he knew.  The last slide he showed was of a small steelhead smolt and it just brought the house down.  This one guy had a huge impact.  Patagonia gave him a desk and a mailbox, and that was the beginning of Friends of the Ventura River.

At Patagonia we learned two important lessons from this experience.  The first is the wisdom of localism- of knowing what’s going on in your backyard, and speaking up to protect it.  The second is the power of direct
Action — of being an activist, of the idea that YOU have the power the make change.  We have a program here at Patagonia where we take 1% of our revenue — not our profits, our revenue — and give it back.  We call it our
Earth Tax because the money goes mostly to grassroots groups of individuals who realize the power they have, groups that in the majority are Davids fighting Goliaths to save their backyard rivers and forests and mountains
and beaches.

Let me tell you about one small group called Nevada Wilderness Coalition.  We’re particularly proud of them because the group started with a small coalition of employees at our warehouse in Reno who decided they’d
had enough of urban sprawl in Las Vegas and Reno, of mining and nuclear waste dumping, and they decided to do something about it.  We gave them a small amount of money, and they started a lobbying effort to protect Nevada wildlands by winning Wilderness Designation.  The results?  Since 1999,
just under two million acres have received permanent protection as wilderness areas.

"Never doubt a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world, Margaret Meade said.  ”Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has."

And what does this have to do with you?  How can you make a difference?

By exercising the power you have as individuals.  By speaking up at those city council meetings, by writing your legislators, your Congress men and women. Those letters make a difference.  By supporting the small grassroots
groups fighting the fight to save our wildlands, to clean up our beaches, to keep the thousand-plus species on the Endangered Species List from being removed because they’ve been removed from existence.  By exercising your
right to vote, and voting for candidates who have voting records that support environmental legislation -­ and if you want to know how to do that we can show you.

Democrats, Republicans, Independents, more and more candidates of all political stripes are realizing this issue crosses political boundaries because at the root of it is whether or not you have a healthy planet to
bequeath to your kids and to their kids; liberals are realizing that when you push through the symptoms of nearly every social ill you get down to the core cause, and it’s environmental degradation; conservatives are remembering that the root of the word conservative is conserve, that it was their own patriarch Teddy Roosevelt who built the National Park system we have today, that it’s time for them to reclaim and champion the cause they started.

So go home today with an image in your mind of how this Ventura estuary has changed in the last 11,000 years.  In geological time, that’s nothing.  But when you build those images in your mind, resist the tendency to feel
despair.  Remember, YOU have the power to change it.

Remember what the outdoor writer David Quammon has to say about despair, that in addition to being useless, it’s not nearly as satisfying as hope.  Thank you.

And thanks to Paul Jenkin at Surfrider for sending it along.


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