In 1867, a 29-year-old Scottish immigrant and University of Wisconsin at Madison dropout named John Muir, an employee at a wagon wheel factory in Indianapolis, had an accident that almost blinded him. Struck in the eye by a tool that slipped out of his hand and nicked his cornea, he was confined to a dark room for over six weeks, unsure if he would ever again see the light of day. Recovering, he hit upon a plan that a lot of people in their 20s dream about, but few carry out. He would walk 1000 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, board a steamer in New Orleans for South American, then hike to the top of the Andes.
Muir’s plan was daring in more ways than one. He had little money or support. What’s more the United States in 1867, especially that part of the United States between Indianapolis and New Orleans was a dangerous place. The country had just been through a brutal Civil War that not only killed a million Americans, but left over 3 million veterans, all trained killers, very much alive, and more often than not, heavily armed. Food was scarce. Jobs were in short supply. Federal troops still occupied most of the south. But John Muir had a secret weapon that made him almost invulnerable. He was poor. He had nothing worth stealing.
I had climbed but a short distance when I was overtaken by a young man on horse-back, who soon showed that he intended to rob me if he should find the job worth while. After he had inquired where I came from, and where I was going, he offered to carry my bag. I told him that it was so light that I did not feel it at all a burden; but he insisted and coaxed until I allowed him to carry it. As soon as he had gained possession I noticed that he gradually increased his speed, evidently trying to get far enough ahead of me to examine the contents without being observed. But I was too good a walker and runner for him to get far. At a turn of the road, after trotting his horse for about half an hour, and when he thought he was out of sight, I caught him rummaging my poor bag. Finding there only a comb, brush, towel, soap, a change of underclothing, a copy of Burns’s poems, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and a small New Testament, he waited for me, handed back my bag, and returned down the hill, saying that he had forgotten something.
This morning, as I read the news on Yahoo, I thought about John Muir’s vignette. There is a group called Extinction Rebellion, an organization led by a 16-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg. While they made a good first impression, propaganda from the corporate media and the fossil fuel industry reversed it in a matter of weeks. These days pretty much everybody, both on the right and the left, hates them. Social media cheers on attacks against climate change protesters. On the left, they’re widely regarded as a ruling class plot to impoverish the global south for the benefit of the rich global north. On the right they’re seen as a conspiracy by the “new world order” to enrich China at the expense of the United States. Unlike John Muir, Americans these days not only have something to steal. They live their lives in constant terror of someone taking what’s rightfully theirs. Yes, my fellow Americans in the Bible Belt. Greta Thunberg is coming for your Ford F-150s and your gun racks.
Unlike our inbred cousins in the Bible Belt, we liberal Americans in the “blue states” don’t come right out and deny global warming. In fact, we pay it a good deal of lip service. Yet the way we live our lives it might as well be a “new world order” conspiracy cooked up by the Illuminati on Al Gore’s private jet. Like our inbred cousins in the Bible Belt, it’s not high on our list of priorities, probably not even in the top ten. “Climate change, oh yeah. It’s bad. Sorry. I have to take the kids to soccer practice.” Liberal Americans care about their children’s future. They will spend no end of money on SAT preparation courses to get them into the right colleges. They will spare no expense to hire the right lawyers to set up the right kinds of trust funds, but in the end they will not act to insure that in 50 years their grandchildren still have a livable planet. That’s someone else’s problem. All Americans are part of the same capitalist death cult. Some of us drive Ford F-150s with gun racks. Some of us drive hybrids. Some of us take New Jersey Transit and the New York City subway, but we’re all enthusiastically running the same rat race, and woe be it to anybody who gets in the way, especially one of those damned hippies from Extinction Rebellion.
So I thought back to John Muir and the young man in Kentucky who tried to rob him. I suppose he had hoped to find a few gold coins or a roll of good Union currency, but unlike Muir, he had no idea what he had right in front of him, the opportunity to chat about John Milton, Robert Burns, and the Gospels with one of the greatest environmentalists and romantic poets who ever lived. Imagine if someone in Silicon Valley gave a TED Talk in front of a group of tech billionaires and announced the one time only opportunity to climb aboard a time machine, and go back to 1867 to hike with the young John Muir through Kentucky. How much money would that fetch in an auction? Tens of thousands? Hundreds of thousands? Millions? Similarly, Americans today have no idea of the value of what they’re currently in the process of destroying. While there may be life on other planets, there may not be. The earth we live on may be the only place in the galaxy capable of sustaining intelligent life, and this little experiment in human consciousness may well be only a brief few moments in the history of the universe before it’s all snuffed out.
Isn’t it worth taking genuinely radical action to preserve?