I used to believe that getting between a momma bear and her bear cubs would play a much larger factor in my life than it has. As a child of the 90s, one who would eventually be labeled a millennial, I had the privilege of being one of the last children who grew up believing the earth was infinitely wild and untamed.
So it is with some sadness that I have to admit I have never confronted quicksand, found myself in the deathly squeeze of an anaconda, or had to escape the rapid assault of piranhas. I've never gotten lost in the woods or rubbed sticks together to make a fire. My childish imagination was fed with images of a vast world that was traversed by humans, but not yet tamed. Those images, it turns out, were delusions of a world that we lost not that long ago.
I was a Rush-baby (a child who grew up listening to his parents listen to Rush Limbaugh). Environmentalists were a frequent punching bag on that program and I am sure they still are today, though I have stopped listening. I came to think of environmentalists as people who chained themselves to trees, did drugs, lived depraved lifestyles, and hated to work. They were people motivated by anarchy and blind rage.
My opinion about environmentalists was staked to my belief that the world was wild, a belief I did not want to lose. I wanted to believe what Rush told me, that coral reefs were larger than they had ever been, that rainforests were overgrowing Brazilian villages, and that poachers were killing lions because there were so many that they were moving into nearby cities. I wanted to believe we were still guests in a world that was bigger than us.
And so I hated environmentalists because I loved nature so much. I hated them for saying it was in danger and that humans, including me, were the ones destroying it. That was an accusation that hit close to home, one that totally changed the narrative of my childhood.
My transition from Rush-baby to environmentalist actually began at a young age. It began when trails I used to hike just east of San Diego were bulldozed to make way for an interstate and housing developments. It was reinforced when those same houses sat empty a few years later when the housing market tanked.
My transition happened one baby step at a time. It happened when I realized how long it had been since a bee stung me, and then I had to rack my brain for the last time I saw a bee at all. It happened when I began to travel and saw trash-strewn Ha Long Bay, entire forests chopped down by loggers in Chile, and watched the State of California dry up in a drought that the right wing blamed on environmental policies.
But the biggest step in my conversion was the painful realization that global connectedness makes all of us responsible for the well-being of the world's wildest corners. Put climate change aside, our demand for coal and oil has devastated the Appalachian mountains. Our demand for cheap clothes and lots of them has converted quaint Chinese villages into major cities with booming factories that pollute rivers and drive out animals. Our demand for food is currently pushing agricultural development in emerging markets like Brazil, further intruding on some of the world's last untouched rain forests.
I had to acknowledge that the earth is not big enough for our appetites.
Those words are the same ones that Rush belittled and insulted in my childhood. But I became an environmentalist because I took the time to look at our environment, and it's hurting.
No one knows how to sustainably feed the planet's seven billion people and it seems unlikely that world leaders will arrive at any consensus on environmental protection any time soon. It is hard to change course this late in the game. And I think one of the unspoken casualties of our dying planet is that children today will not grow up with the same innocent wonder that I did. Today's kids don't memorize rhymes like, "Red on yellow kills a fellow. Red on black, venom lack," in the off chance they need to know the difference between a harmless milk snake and a dangerous coral snake. But I did, because I was certain that I lived in a wild world.