David Gessner, My Green Manifesto

I first came across David Gessner's work when I was trying to put together something of a shit-disturbing panel for ASLE '09 in Victoria: his book Sick of Nature suggested he'd be a good match with Terry Glavin and Brian Fawcett, since all three of them push environmentalists to do more and better work than they've done so far. Neither Fawcett nor Gessner attended, in the end, though I gather that Glavin enjoyed winding some people up.

Gessner's new book pushes some of the same buttons that he was after with Sick of Nature, but for quite a different effect, and not just because it's a focused book rather than a collection. Instead of working as a sniper this go-round, he's on a good old-timey sort of mission in My Green Manifesto: Down the Charles River in Pursuit of a New Environmentalism. He wants to change the culture - actually two cultures, both the consumerist and the environmentalist - so this book really is a manifesto. A funny, satiric, personable manifesto, if that's imaginable.

The world needs saving, as we greenies all know, and we're all wondering how to get it done. Well, Gessner has some firm ideas about that:
"You may find yourself wishing that, even if the doomsday predictions are entirely accurate (down to the last minute and extinction), even if our fate is sealed (or, almost sealed as they always like to say, giving us a last second chance at reform), even if it is all true (and I, for one, will admit it is true, more or less), even if this is all the case could we just SHUT THE FUCK UP ABOUT IT FOR A MINUTE?... I don't want to bury my head; I just want a short fucking break to remember that there are good parts to being alive." (p.29)
Climate change is underway and worsening. Extinctions are legion, inexorable, and permanent. Oil supplies are disappearing before we figure out how to replace them. But you know, the world is a pretty great place to spend a few years, and some parts of the world really deserve some celebration: let's do that, in amongst the small task of turning around human civilization from the momentum generated by the whole force of almost all of human history.

Remember the small stuff, one might say. Learn something specific, pick a fight about it, and stay in the fight (expanding its terms or changing its ground as needed) until you've won.

Don't think about climate change. Think about the creek that your street's gutter drains into, or the hummingbirds you see for a month or two every summer, or the Vancouver ground-cone that you might sometimes see in late June or early July under salal bushes by the bus stop. Figure out how to make things better for whatever it is you're thinking of, and don't stop fighting for it.

But also, and this is key, you need to drink beer outdoors, maybe something stronger on occasion. You need to get your hands and feet muddy, your muscles the good kind of sore, and your skin burned. You need to be gobsmacked by the weirdness of insects, or the miracle of bird flight, or the size of either a tree or a bit of moss. You need to be okay with not knowing stuff. Above all, you need to be capable of taking a slackjawed pleasure in the world, because if you can't do that, then you're living in your head first, and that's where we worry. Love something, and fight for your love. It's that easy, and that hard.

Mind you, I'm not entirely on Gessner's wavelength. At a few different spots, he says that the book is what he'd wished his 16-year-old self might've read, and hence something that might work for 16-year-olds now. I don't see it that way, since I'm only a decade younger than he is and yet it feels almost immeasurably closer to the annoying 1960s than I'm comfortable with - but then again, I regularly forget how important the spirit of the 60s still is for those tending toward environmentalism. You can keep your Che t-shirts and unkempt John Lennon haircuts to yourselves, and I'm happier with recent riverboat-gambler Dylan than with acoustic Dylan: but we do all march together, and I have to keep reminding myself of that.

In sum, this is an important little book, and also one that's fun and biting and pleasing. We do have to shut the fuck up about the bad stuff sometimes, even while we work to overcome or reverse it: there's something good to save, not just something bad from which to save the good stuff.

Don't want to read it? Want more than the book has to offer? Try listening to him, or maybe even watch the handsome bugger.


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