Great Tide Rising: Toward Clarity and Moral Courage in a Time of Planetary Change
By Kathleen Dean Moore; Counterpoint Press; 2016; 340 pages. $26 hardcover.
Disclaimer: This reviewer is a big fan of the writing and activism of author Kathleen Dean Moore. Moore's other books include several of personal, philosophical essays (most recently "Wild Comfort: The Solace of Nature") and the anthology "Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril."
Those of us concerned about climate change and other environmental threats (extinctions, pollution, habitat loss, etc.) often find ourselves sinking into despair — or, at least, struggling to find useful responses. In "Great Tide Rising," Moore, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University, who taught critical thinking and environment ethics for many years, offers some openhearted ways of facing global change. This is a book to shake loose our doom-and-gloom attitudes and encourage us to ponder, positively, the questions she poses.
Why is it wrong to wreck the world? What are our obligations to our children and grandchildren? How can clear thinking dispel misinformation and illogic? What can anyone do? And, how can stories inspire us to move forward with clarity and moral courage?
At heart, Moore is a storyteller, and the strength here lies not in didactic preaching or even her presentation of ideas, but in the collective questioning and innovative thinking she invites readers into through stories.
The book begins with a simple story that takes place in Southeast Alaska, where Moore lives for part of each year. She's exploring a beach at low tide with her 3-year-old grandson, noting the exposed anemones and limpets, the bed of eelgrass and the sea stars. But the sea stars (also known as starfish) are few and sick, victims of a wasting disease that struck the West Coast three years ago, caused by a virus enabled by a warmer-than-usual ocean. (The disease is still with us, but the pace of the die-off has slowed.)
Moore asks: What does all this dying mean for the next generations? And, what does it mean for the people of the present who desperately care about the world?
Moore holds nothing back in telling us how she reached a state of moral outrage, and she calls upon us to join the "great rising tide" of her title, a phrase taken from the teachings of the Buddhist spiritual leader Thich Nhat Hanh. Together, she insists, we can stop the final plunder and wreck of the world.
In subsequent chapters of the book, much of the material drawn from her experience as a philosopher and activist and presented previously in a variety of formats and publications, are divided into four parts: It's Wrong to Wreck the World, A Call to Care, A Call to Witness and A Call to Act. In addition to her own stories, list-making, humorous quizzes, imagined interviews and thought experiments, she draws upon the work of many others — including ecotheologian Thomas Berry, conservationist Aldo Leopold, the Dalai Lama, Edward Abbey, various scientists and ethicists, Bob Dylan and Anchorage songwriter Libby Roderick.
Throughout, Moore's descriptions of the natural world are beautiful and evocative. She describes one winter morning, after camping under the stars, when she awoke to a meteor shower: "I woke up in a silver haze. Clouds ringed the mountainsides. As tundra swans whooped on the lake, a skein of geese slowly untangled over our heads. The soil was a cathedral of crystals growing upward, pushing little roofs of dirt. Brilliant hoarfrost covered the entire world, sparkling on our sleeping bags, our hats, each branch of every tree, every bent reed. It was as if all those white twinkling stars that fell out of the sky, all that bright 6-billion-year-old interstellar dust, had fallen glittering on the branches while we were sleeping, dusted our hats, drifted into the folds of our blankets, as if fallen stars had stuck to spiderwebs and outlined every blade of grass."
Journeys to Denali
What can seem like a miracle, she says, is the everyday working of the world. We love that world and have a moral obligation to protect it.
Several sections take readers to Denali National Park and Preserve, where Moore had a writing residency and composed, among other things, an instructional flier for park visitors traveling by bus. "The Art of Watching" is included in the chapter "On Joyous Attention." (No. 10 on her list: Watch to appreciate the world.)
Elsewhere, she describes a trip to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and that nation's granting of constitutional rights to the natural world, the first nation to do so (in 2010). Ecuador's constitution grants species, ecosystems and natural cycles legal standing and prohibits actions that disrespect and damage the natural world.
Toward the end, she gathers the three "really hard questions" that are asked of her whenever she gives public presentations. First, "We have met the enemy, and is he us?" This implies we're all part of the problem, hypocrites, and therefore unfit to criticize the status quo. Second, "What can one person do?" The third is, "Is there reason to hope?"
She examines each question, digging into their sources, telling stories, bringing the wisdom of others to the deep thinking she's done for years. She speaks to the turning that is possible: imagination creating more imagination, good creating more good, respect creating more respect, "in a swirling whirlwind of change that sweeps away business-as-usual and upends the culture of reckless exploitation."
What can one person do?
We don't have to be a Martin Luther King Jr., she says, "but we have to find his capacity to dream, to envision a different world." We don't have to be a Rachel Carson, "but we have to find her raw courage and her stubborn refusal to shut the hell up."
What can one person do? "Stop being one person," she urges. Join up with other people to help save the future by sharing whatever gifts you have.
And hope? Moore would have us seek out what she calls "active hope," a concept borrowed from ecophilosopher Joanna Macy. This involves focusing on what we would like to have happen and then doing our small parts to make it more likely. Our options are not limited to hope or despair but fall into a middle ground Moore defines as acting with integrity — that is, matching what one does with what one believes.
Moore's audience, one might say, is "the choir," those of us who join her in being troubled by the losses all around us. In "Great Tide Rising" she's given us encouragement and fresh ways to think about essential questions. Those who deny we have a problem or who believe we'll adapt our way out might be prompted to consider what it means to love the world — because who doesn't? — and what responsibilities follow from that.