In celebration of Earth Day, we present Lauret Edith Savoy’s essay “The Geology of Us: To be a Responsible Citizen of Earth” from Issue No. 113 in its entirety:
The following is based on a February 20th talk given at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University, as part of the Institute’s “Facing the Anthropocene” project.
Like you, I am grappling with what it means to be a citizen of Earth. It goes without saying that we live in an unprecedented time. Human beings have become a dominant force in global environmental change, responsible for altering the world’s atmospheric, oceanic, and land systems. Each of us could make a long list: global climate change, an accelerating rate of extinction and losses to biodiversity, changes to global elemental cycles (such as nitrogen and carbon), and so much more.
In this country, though, disintegrated thinking and living—and a fragmented understanding of human experience—leave too many not realizing why any of this matters. Consider these words by biologist E. O. Wilson. He wrote, “Our troubles arise from the fact that we do not know what we are and cannot agree on what we want to be. The primary cause of this intellectual failure is ignorance of our origins.”
So let me offer a few thoughts that reflect on the Anthropocene in ways that may not often be considered—words that ask us to think about history and who “we” are. And to give you a sense of who I am, I’d like to tell you some of my own path to understanding, a path that began in childhood through an “alien land” and “land ethic” to my recent book Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. As a young child I imagined I was a horse, a wild Appaloosa full of speed. I’d run fast—up and down sidewalks, around playgrounds and our yard—just to feel wind rush with me. But when the world moved beyond sense, I began to run from what I feared. Riots near our home in Washington, D.C. left burned, gutted remains of buildings I knew. The “so-called” war in Vietnam joined us at dinner each night as our TV aired footage of wounded soldiers, of crying women and children, of places with names like Khe Sanh, My Lai. Assassinations of men my parents
called “good men” meant anyone—my parents, my friends, or I—could disappear at any time. I learned by the age of eight that hate could be spit dripping down the front of my favorite, homemade dress. Hate could be a classmate’s sing-song “never saw nothin’ as ugly as a nigger, never saw nothin’ as crummy as a nigger”; his eyes on me. I then ran, not just to feel wind, but in hope it would blow away whatever it was about me that was bad and hate-deserving. Safety lived in my room, in my mother’s arms, and outdoors in nature that never judged or spat. As an adolescent, trying to understand my place in America, I encountered two books that became orienting compasses for me decades after they were published. I met them question-to-question.
Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was a ninth-grade assignment. I knew nothing of the book being called “landmark,” or an “almost holy book in conservation circles.” What appealed to my fourteen-year-old sensibilities were intimate images of land and seasons in place, as well as the seeming openness of Leopold’s struggle to frame a personal truth.
In the chapter “The Land Ethic,” Leopold enlarged the human community’s boundaries “to include soil, water, plants, animals, or collectively: the Land.” Though I couldn’t find words then, his call for an extension of ethics to Earth relations writ large seemed to express a sense of responsibility and reciprocity not yet embraced by this country. These ideas forced new questions and suggested troubling possibilities. If, as Mr. Leopold wrote, “obligations have no meaning without conscience, and the problem we face is the extension of the social conscience from people to land,” then what part of this nation still lacked conscience broad enough to realize an internal change of mind and heart, to embrace what he called an “evolutionary possibility” and “ecological necessity”? Why was it that, in the United States I knew at age fourteen, human relations could be so cruel? What I most feared was that the “we” and “us” in Leopold’s book excluded me and other Americans with ancestral roots in Africa, Asia, or Native America.
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The other book found me by accident in the basement stacks of the library at my university, near the end of my first year there. The author: Willard Savoy. The title: Alien Land. This was my father, dead two years. This was a book he never told me about, written long before he met my mother and well more than a decade before my birth. It is an account of an embittered multiracial boy-becomes-man who wonders if he might escape hatred, and his own demons, by redefining himself as white.
The “alien land” my father wrote of grew from what he called the “hypocrisy which, in one breath, preached the doctrine that all men were created free and equal and, in the very next breath, denied to millions the simple respect which should naturally go with such a belief.”
I understood then that I, too, lived in an alien land. The questions I had as a fourteen-year-old became an eighteen-year-old’s need to understand why such hypocrisy and inhumanity continued.
A child born today enters a world of rapid and extensive change. Ecosystems around the world have never before been so degraded, resulting in great losses to the diversity of life. Fossil hydrocarbons literally fueled industrial revolutions and the mechanization of food production—and because of this fossil-fuel economy, greenhouse gas levels continue to climb, exceeding the highest atmospheric concentrations since our species evolved.
The current pace and degree of such environmental changes are unprecedented in human history. Yet the systems and norms behind them in the United States, the most energy-consumptive nation, are not; they have in fact become embedded over centuries and continue to amplify fragmented ways of seeing, valuing, and using nature, as well as human beings, as commodities.
Consider the “ecological footprint.” Often described as a “sustainability indicator,” this estimate can mask how exploitations of the environment and of people are intertwined. Quantifying the area of productive land and water needed to provide ecosystem “services” or resources such as clean water, food, and fuel, and the wastes then generated, gives only a partial measure of the biosphere’s regenerative capacity. And by this measure alone, humanity’s footprint far exceeds Earth’s ecological limits.
In the United States, national prosperity and progress have come at great human costs, too. Forced removals of the continent’s Indigenous peoples yielded land to newcomers from Europe and their descendants. The new republic’s economy grew upon a foundation of industrial agriculture built and powered by enslaved workers, North and South. Consuming other people’s labor, dispossessing other people of land and the life connected to it, devaluing human rights, and diminishing one’s community, autonomy, and health—these are not just events of the distant past. The health and lives of farmworkers in pesticide-laden fields are rarely recognized as a cost of producing cheap food. And in a still-globalizing world, American agribusiness giants like ConAgra have profited from the products of enslaved labor in Brazil at a seemingly safe moral distance.
A wiser measure of the ecological footprint would include people, or at least their labor. It might factor in the losses of relationships to land or home, losses of self-determination, and losses of health or life. What if the footprint measured, over time, on whom and what the nation’s foot has trod—that is, who has paid for prosperity?
Each of us, whether recent immigrant or native, whether descendant of colonists or descendant of those enslaved by colonists, is implicated in this country’s still unfolding history. The power to segregate memory and knowledge, and the power to segregate people have always worked in concert. What is left are fragmenting narratives of human experience and of the history of the land itself, all weighted by tangled ideas of “race” and of nature.
For example, did you know that the writings of some who escaped slavery in the early to mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Douglass among them, considered how the oppressive agricultural system of plantations—a system of industrial agriculture—distorted human relations to the land, degrading the soil as well as the enslaved and the enslaver? Or that, more than a century ago, Zitkala-Sa(of Lakota-Dakota heritage) and Sarah Winnemucca (of the Paiute) wrote of the close ties between the racism shown to their people by some Anglo-Americans and the environmental attitudes that led to degradation of the land?
My book Trace began in my struggle to face questions that long haunted me—questions about origins; about how this country’s history has marked the American Earth, this society, and me as a person; questions about what it means to be a responsible citizen of Earth.
Sand and stone are Earth’s memory. Yet each of us is also a landscape inscribed by memory and by loss.
The paths taken by ancestors from three continents converge in me—with free and enslaved Africans arriving in the Americas in the colonial period, with colonists from Europe, as well as with tribal peoples indigenous to this land. These familial origins lie largely eroded and nearly lost even though, as an educator and Earth historian, I’ve tracked the continent’s more distant past from rocks and fossils—those remnants of deep time.
I came to understand that the past I come from, the past we all emerge from—like the annals of Earth history—is broken and pitted with gaps. In my case these gaps were left by silences stretched across generations; by losses of language and voice; by human displacements due to dispossession and forced servitude; by immeasurable dimensions of lives compressed and deflated under the weight of ignorance and stereotype; and by dismembering narratives of who “we the people” are to each other in this land, on this Earth.
So my struggle to face haunting questions became a mosaic of journeys and historical inquiry that crossed a continent and time to grapple with a searing national history and the marks it has left—from twisted terrain within the San Andreas fault zone to a South Carolina plantation; from an island in Lake Superior to “Indian Territory” and Black towns in Oklahoma; from national parks and burial grounds to the names this land wears; and from the U.S.-Mexico border to the U.S. capital, and the origins of both.
Trace takes its title from this active search, but Trace also means to make one’s way, to follow, to pursue, to discern, to discover. Noun and verb. Each chapter is an “essay,” like individual spokes of a wheel converging at a point of understanding. By crossing borders of discipline, thinking, and voice, Trace tries to counter some of our oldest and most damaging public silences. (A case in point is the siting of the nation’s capital and the economic motives of slavery.)
Grounding all is the Earth. For me, Trace is a form of doing geology—that is, coming to understand how this continent’s human history owes much to the history of the land itself, to the land’s structure, materials, and texture. Geology also offers metaphors for considering the deposition and erosion of human memory, the dismemberment and displacement of human experience.
I agree with Wendell Berry and others who believe that “we”—the most recent biped hominid species, two-hundred-thousand years on Earth—now face a crisis of culture, a crisis of character. Especially now, a half-century this year beyond the assassinations that frightened the very small child I once was.
There are many things that undergird all positive efforts to live responsibly in the Anthropocene, whether working to eliminate threats to biodiversity, or to cut oil, gas, and coal consumption as well as the power of the fossil-fuel industry. Yet one of the hardest things to develop is a capacity to ask significant questions about our lives in the context of this nation over time as well as in the larger world—and about lives not our own. Still, our future, in the largest sense, depends upon it.
Lauret Edith Savoy is the David B. Truman Professor of Environmental Studies & Geology at Mount Holyoke College. She is at work on a new project on the place of race in the American land.