Gurdjieff International Review

A Field Report on Life
on the Edge of the Swamp

God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.   –John Muir

James Elder

You may read this article and think, “Where is the Work? Why doesn’t the author, a senior environmental educator and lobbyist, mention the Work?” Then an interesting reflection can begin. This is the interim report of a veteran member of the Council of the Gurdjieff Society of Massachusetts who set out more than a decade ago to influence government at several levels toward responsible environmental policy, especially where education is concerned. The Fourth Way points in that direction—toward fundamental, not trivial service. Of course, he knew the odds; they wouldn’t be favorable, but something might be possible all the same. The three stories he tells show that the values and practices of the Work guided his understanding of people and events, and reveal that on occasion he fought back despair and continued. Work in life is not only work on myself, it is work with others and in situations—best lived with the Work held in a secret place in oneself as a source of insight and courage.   –Roger Lipsey


s experienced by many on a daily basis and reported by trusted experts, the state of our common climate is one of increasing chaos. Ecological and human stress from our destabilized climate is truly everywhere: the seas rising, oceans are becoming more acidic and reefs are dying, tundra is thawing, animal migrations are shifting, farming is disrupted, storms are increasing in intensity and frequency, ice sheets and glaciers are melting. Even insect pollinator populations, upon which agriculture depends, are rapidly diminishing. The list of planetary degradations is long.

In short, more than two thirds of the world’s ecosystems, the very essence of life on earth, are degraded or being used unsustainably, a trend intensified by the changing climate. New reports on climate chaos stream in daily, but few if any are as dire as the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,[1] which asserts that we may have fewer than twelve years left to reverse these trends and avoid the worst of the catastrophe.

Climate change is not another environmental issue, it’s the mother of all environmental issues. It is truly an existential issue for all of us, for humankind. Either we embrace radical change or radical changes will be visited upon us by our physical world.

Why is there not a collective sense of urgency to face this? There seem to be many barriers to understanding our true predicament: greed, preoccupation with the concerns of daily life, complacency, deeply held values that prevent seeing more objectively. The low priority given climate change is also due, at least in part, to our human tendency to prioritize immediate risks and discount future threats.

As a result, despite the heroic efforts of many scientists, activists, politicians, and other advocates, across the globe “policies are lagging very, very far—miles, miles, miles behind the science and what needs to be done,” according to Nobel prize-winning economist William D. Nordhaus. [2] This, at a time when governments, whose leadership is necessary to reverse these trends, seem deeply bruised if not broken.

One barrier to a sense of urgency which has felt to me particularly important (and largely ignored) is the barrier of ignorance. Surely many of us would not have allowed such degradation of our life-support system to take place, had we better understood the infinite interactions and mutual dependencies among the forms of life on this planet.

How is it that we think we can pass this world on to our children without equipping them with the knowledge, understanding, and skills to address the problems we’re leaving them? Our country’s environmental illiteracy is disheartening—on climate alone, for example, large majorities incorrectly think that the hole in the ozone layer and aerosol spray cans contribute to global warming.

A vintage photo of a city

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A decade ago, I began trying to encourage new government policies that would support more environmental and climate education. I knew little about politics or politicians, but I also knew that no one else was engaged in this endeavor.

The realities of both environmental degradation and environmental illiteracy can be overwhelming, and many times over these years I have begun to lose hope. At times, I have even found myself in a state of desperation, in both my inner life and my profession. Time is not our friend. The terror of the situation becomes unavoidably evident. Then I remember that a certain kind of vanity is involved in thinking I know how things are likely to turn out. I again face the fact that I don’t know, that the future is both new and truly unknowable. Perhaps there are forces I don’t understand at play here, forces that may lead to a more promising future that I can’t anticipate.

One of the more promising things I have found in these years on Capitol Hill is that many Members of Congress, while influenced by money and power, are also more or less receptive to a good idea. Their idealism, which must have played a part in their initial decision to run for Congress, may be undermined by cynicism but it’s not gone. I have also found that Members of Congress are accessible; I can get a hearing in most Congressional offices with just a good idea as a calling card. More reasons for hope.

Several stories to illustrate a few of the lessons learned:

Finding common ground. Shortly after I began this work, I joined a colleague in a meeting with staff of a long-serving Republican Senator, widely known as the “most notorious climate change denier” and “most important anti-environmentalist” in office. The one existing piece of federal environmental education legislation had recently expired, and we needed a Senator to lead the effort to introduce a new version of the law. Since the Republicans controlled the Senate at the time, ideally, we wanted a Republican. We were well into our pitch, with no apparent interest shown by the staffer, when my colleague mentioned that research had shown that most people learn about environmental issues from the media. We all agreed that the media often demonstrate some degree of bias towards one end of the political spectrum or another. Did the good Senator want the public to take in this biased information and buy into it wholesale because they didn’t understand the fundamental facts behind the issue? Or did he prefer them to draw informed conclusions because they had learned in school the basics of how the environment works? Now the staffer was engaged; he saw the opportunity. The Senator introduced the National Environmental Education Act later that year and in two subsequent Congressional sessions (alas, the bill never passed despite his efforts).

Messaging can be everything. I have spent many years trying to help ensure that Congress continues to fund the environmental education grant program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which includes funding for climate education. NOAA staff called one day to inform me that NOAA had received a letter from a Republican Congressman taking NOAA to task for not including funding for this important program in the recent President’s Budget. We had a Republican President at the time, and I found this letter intriguing. I went to see the Congressman’s staff to find out why they so strongly supported this program. A young staffer explained that their district had recently experienced a 100-year flood, two tornadoes, and various other abnormal and catastrophic weather events; and she stressed how important it was to her boss that members of the district better understand weather and how it works. She kept talking about weather education (not a term we use in the environmental education world) without mentioning climate education. It took some time for it to dawn on me that, as a Republican, she couldn’t use the term ‘climate education,’ so she had invented a new one to mean the same thing. Thereafter all my appeals to Members of Congress included whenever possible the term ‘weather education’ rather than ‘climate education.’

One’s efforts do not always pay off in intended or even anticipated ways. I was meeting with a few colleagues to draft a new environmental education bill which would create a new K-12 grant program at the Department of Education for environmental education. We were considering the necessary criteria for applying for and receiving one of these grants. Among other things, I suggested that a state should have a qualified “environmental literacy plan” in place before a school from that state could apply for a grant. My colleagues were understandably skeptical that such plans would be anything more than bookends on a shelf, but I managed somehow to prevail. Our draft was more or less accepted and then introduced as a bill by a senior Senator and junior Congressman. We were able to generate only modest interest and support for the bill. In the end, much to our disappointment, the bill failed to pass. However, I was subsequently surprised to learn that nearly half of all states in the country had indeed chosen to create an environmental literacy plan, solely on the promise that federal funds might someday become available. □

James Elder is an expert on environmental and sustainability education policy. He founded and directs the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, where he initiated and led the effort to create the Green Ribbon Schools program at the U.S. Department of Education; helped restore over $100 million in federal environmental education funding cuts and increase this funding by an additional $135 million; and helped pass the Higher Education Sustainability Act. In 1980, Dr. Elder founded the School for Field Studies, building it into the nation’s leading environmental field program for undergraduates with a focus on sustainability education. He has served on many boards and committees, most recently the Norcross Wildlife Foundation and Ocean River Institute; authored numerous book chapters and papers; and is the recipient of the National Wildlife Federation’s 2009 National Conservation Achievement Award.

[1] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2018) A Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty.

[2] Interview with the 2018 Laureate in Economic Sciences William D. Nordhaus on December 6, 2018 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.


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Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020