Deep Ecology and the Maine Earth Institute

Spring 2006

By Joyce White

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

My deepest, most enduring sadness has come from the destruction of indigenous cultures by “civilized” invaders. Since I began some 55 years ago to understand Native attitudes of respect for and intimacy with the land and all its inhabitants, I have known – not believed but known at a deep, intuitive level – that theirs was the more genuinely civilized way of being on the earth.

The other part of that sadness is my deep sense of personal loss that I don’t have that intimate interconnectedness and earth knowingness that indigenous people have had. I continue to try to learn the names, habits and habitats of plants and animals, but it’s a head knowing – and not very complete, at that. And I still get lost if I get off the trail.

Even such an accomplished naturalist and woodsman as Henry David Thoreau marveled that his Penobscot Indian guide could take off through the uncharted North Woods without a compass and come out exactly where and when he said he’d meet Thoreau. With all his acquired knowledge of the woods, Thoreau still lacked the innate sense that would allow him to navigate strange territory without a compass. It appears that growing up in a culture that nurtures intimate knowledge of and reverence for Nature is necessary to develop this intuitive connection to the land. Only with sincerity and diligence may the rest of us acquire a working knowledge of and reverence for this Earth, I think.

So when the Lakes Environmental Association (LEA) in Bridgton, Maine, offered a discussion series entitled “Exploring Deep Ecology,” I enrolled, intrigued with the possibility of understanding ecology more deeply. I thought discussions of deep ecology might get at the deep interconnectedness of all beings and aspects of Nature and the ways our present attitudes have created an environmental crisis.

Coleen O’Connell

Coleen O’Connell, organizer of the Maine Earth Institute, which sponsors the Deep Ecology discussions around the state, drove up from Belfast for the first session. Explaining that she would facilitate the first discussion and volunteers from the group would facilitate the remaining seven, she turned the job of signing up volunteers over to LEA’s education director and group member, Bridie McGreavy.

The text, a compilation of pithy selections from several philosophers, activists, poets and environmentalists, states that the course addresses the central issue of our time: “What is the appropriate relationship of the human being to the earth?” One underlying assumption of the course is that individual humans can control the way we live our lives, especially our level of consumption. Further, our attitude toward consumption reflects the way we relate to the earth. For example, do we see the earth mainly as a provider of natural resources to satisfy human wants and needs, or do we value and revere the earth as an intricately balanced support for all species? The course aims to help us become conscious of our beliefs and attitudes; out of that conscious awareness change can occur.

Political Divide Limits Discussion

During that first discussion, several people expressed variations on a central theme that the entire ecology of the earth is in more serious danger because the present Bush administration is systematically undermining many environmental laws. In the ensuing discussion about what we might do about the destruction, the role of corporations and the need to find some way of reining in their power was broached. One woman I’ll call Helen disagreed, saying that corporations are just people who are mostly decent, well-meaning people.

After more discussion of the difficulty in getting legal intervention to wrest some power away from the most destructive corporations in an effort to save some of the last wild places, Helen made a declaration that seemed to put a damper on that and following discussions. “I’m a Republican,” she said, “and I like George Bush. I think he’s doing a great job. And you shouldn’t think a Republican can’t be an environmentalist.”

Apparently the rest of us were polite Democrats imbued with respect for the right to disagree: No further comments were made connecting our president with environmental disasters.

Subsequent discussions were based on the seven chapters in the text, which used excerpts from several sources to explicate aspects of deep ecology: The Gaia Hypothesis, Spirituality and the Earth, A New Story from Science, Native American Wisdom, Ecopsychology, Simplicity and Bioregionalism.

In one discussion, a member suggested that we examine the implications of our clothes buying habits. Though we might be tempted to buy inexpensive clothes at WalMart, she said, they are frequently made in sweat shops by people, often children, who get paid very little. That makes some powerful corporations richer while further undermining the few remaining local garment industries and clothing stores.

Helen countered that it’s better for people in poor countries to work for pennies than not at all, that the small amount her family paid their maid when they lived in Mexico made it possible for the maid’s family to eat. As a group, we lacked the skill to take that discussion to a deeper level.

While discussing “Native American Wisdom,” one person suggested that if our European ancestors had respected the Native inhabitants and their values and attitudes toward the land, our present environment – indeed our lives in general – would be much healthier. Helen admonished, “We have to be careful not to romanticize the Indians” – which is true, of course, but again we were unable to explore the issue in depth.

Helen is a likeable woman with a sincere love of nature, but she refuses to believe that the policies of the president she supports are in any way responsible for massive problems in the environment. Discussion had no discernible effect on her opinions, and her comments had no effect on mine. Each of us believes we are seeing reality truly.

So how does a group create meaningful discussion when basic philosophical differences exist? Even though discussions were less satisfying to me than I had expected, I still found the course valuable. Only three other people weren’t quite satisfied with the discussions. One left after the second group, explaining later that discussions were “too head-centered when what we need is heart-centered discussion if we expect to effect healthy change.” I now know that if any one of us had contacted O’Connell and expressed discontent, she could have come to a meeting and helped us develop skills that could lead to better discussions. Each of us was encouraged to complete an evaluation form.

Ending with a Plan

The “Deep Ecology” curriculum is an excellent starting point for discussion, and Earth Institute programs have very good ratings. A study by a research firm in Portland, Oregon, Ciliberti & Associates, from March to September 2002, concluded that the work done by people in Earth Institute is significant, that the discussion courses bring increased awareness of the need to protect the earth and produce high levels of motivation and commitment that allow participants to make and maintain change.

The group was smaller at our last session and Helen had gone to Bermuda. Discussion had more depth and we even agreed upon a plan of action! We agreed to take turns writing a column called “Earth Notes” for the local weekly, The Bridgton News. The editor accepted the idea enthusiastically, and we had another meeting to work out details. The first column ran in June 2005, about wild strawberries and the conversion into house lots of old farms where strawberries grow. Subsequent columns have dealt with issues of water extraction rights with regard to corporations such as Nestle, noise pollution, invasive species and alternative ways of creating electricity, for example.

About the Earth Institute

The deep ecology discussions are part of a series spawned by the vision and commitment of two people in Oregon, Jean and Dick Roy, who wanted to make earth-centered discussions available to everybody. With three start-up grants after Dick left his law practice in 1993, they founded Northwest Earth Institute with a mission to motivate individuals to examine and transform personal values and habits while accepting responsibility for the earth.

In addition to Exploring Deep Ecology, the series they developed includes Voluntary Simplicity, Discovering a Sense of Place, Choices for Sustainable Living, and Globalization and Its Critics. The discussions have become very popular, and many course “graduates” continue the work as volunteers.

O’Connell, is one of those volunteers. I spoke with her at her farm home near Belfast. The founders, she said, believed that the way to get these ideas into the mainstream is to have ordinary people sit in small circles discussing them. “I was so delighted to have this tool accessible,” she said of the courses.

She had been introduced to the Northwest Earth Institute in 1997 at a conference in New Hampshire. By then, people from all parts of the country wanted to be a part of the program, but the founders didn’t want to take on a national status. They were willing to share their information, though, and O’Connell’s was in the first group in New England trained to bring these courses to the public. The New England Earth Institute was formed, and one person from each state who wanted to promote the discussions took on the responsibility of ordering books and making themselves available to organize discussions.

An activist since her 20s, O’Connell’s background more than qualified her to be the volunteer from Maine. “I can recall going to Washington, D.C., to lobby for preservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge around 1977 or ‘78. I was living in Black Hills, South Dakota, and very active in the Sierra Club. The Sierra Club trained us in lobbying and sent us to Capitol Hill [then], and again in the ’80s. Every time we won, people would say, ‘It’s not going to be the end of it.'”

O’Connell is on the faculty of Audubon Expedition Institute (AEI) in conjunction with Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With an M.S. in Environmental Education, she has been teaching for 20 years. The AEI is “a traveling, camping program – to the Southwest, Northwest, Maritimes, Newfoundland, Southeast and Northeast. The program is so exciting I’m still with them. I want to make sure it continues.”

She has lived in Maine since 1990, working from an office in Belfast. Audubon Expedition had had many requests from teachers for a program that wouldn’t interfere with their regular teaching jobs. So O’Connell met with people from Lesley and Audubon and designed a Masters’ in Ecological Teaching and Learning for teachers, now is in its seventh year. She now runs that “hybrid” program, as she calls it.

“In the first summer, we take [students] to a field station in Cobscook Bay for three weeks, then students follow up online. The second summer, students spend three weeks in Boston doing urban ecology.”

In addition to providing a rich educational and experiential background for Earth Institute work, her work with AIE pays a salary, which makes unpaid volunteer work with Earth Institute possible.

After the New England Earth Institute was formed, O’Connell mentored the first courses in the fall of 1997 in Belfast, and a friend offered one in Kittery through the adult education program. O’Connell ran them spring and fall, one after the other, with essentially the same core group. “At the end of the last course, after two and a half years, we said, ‘Now what are we going to do?’ I suggested founding Maine Earth Institute.”

From its starting point in Belfast, the courses have spread around the state. New mentors are being trained this year, heralding a new layer of growth. “What I love most is that people sit around in a circle and share their knowledge and concerns with each other. I think it’s the only way we have a chance to combat industrialization and its accompanying problems. What I’ve learned from teachers of ecology is that we need time to slow down, reflect, and plan what we’re really going to do.”

O’Connell said that Earth Institute programs have now been offered in all 50 states and Canada, so thousands and thousands of people have discussed these issues. “It’s so heartening that all these people really care, that they’re trying to figure out how to live their lives in ways that don’t destroy the earth.”

Northwest Earth Institute can be contacted through

About the author: Joyce White is a freelance writer and a gardener who lives in Stoneham, Maine. She is a frequent contributor to The MOF&G.

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