A Love Story for My Country

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Tompkins Weekly      11-8-23

By Sargent Joey Diana Gates

Patriotism is defined as love, pride and devotion one feels towards one’s land and country. Environmentalism is to be concerned about and to work for the protection of the environment, i.e. the land, air and water, and hence the health of all beings, to include humans. There are strong historic links between these two concepts, notably in the birth of the conservation movement. I will discuss these below in tracing my own trajectory and looking at the origins of the conservation movement.  My journey as an environmentalist began as an exchange student in Sweden but was cemented in my experiences in the US Army in the late 80’s to mid-90’s and has led me on a life journey of love, care and protection of the environment, and by extension, my country.

In the spring of 1986, while living in Sweden, I witnessed the horror of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident unfolding. It was April 26, the world was waking up from winter and farmers were preparing for spring plantings and allowing their cows to pasture. This spring however, they were advised not to let the animals graze as radioactive fallout had gone up into the atmosphere in Ukraine, traversed manmade boundaries, and fallen on the land across Scandinavia. In Lapland, the Sami people were advised to butcher huge swaths of their reindeer population, and not consume the meat due to the bioaccumulation of radiation in their bodies for the same reason. On a recent, 2018 visit to Sweden, friends told of giving up a recently hunted elk as it had too many becquerels in its body. Environmental damage to the land severely impacted the livelihood of the farmers and nations’ abilities to feed themselves.

Sargent Joey Diana Gates, Sargent, US Army – Interrogator/Linguist, Psyops 1987-1995. Photo provided.

In 1989, as I relocated abroad to work as a military linguist, I moved to a city with a manmade island of garbage that could be seen from the plane. During my tour, the World Health Organization listed the city as the 3rd worst polluted city in the world for air quality. When I would come home on leave to Upstate, I would wheeze and cough up black phlegm as my lungs cleared out. A friend, listening to my laments, gave me a catalog from an environmental organization. I ordered my first canvas grocery bag and began a personal journey of striving to live a zero-waste, low-impact life. Saving one bag a week from the landfill was a small act, but I was determined to do what I could to not send trash into the neighboring communities that host our garbage dumps. Moments such as watching a garbage bag being filled with disposable plates, cups, and forks at a 4th of July party left me musing on the irony of how we celebrate our country, and deepening my commitment to not spoil the land.

Returning to the Finger Lakes Region, I found myself neighboring not just a landfill, but the tallest structure in the region. At 28 stories tall, and with plans on the table to fill it another seven more, Seneca Meadows is the largest of its kind in New York, bringing garbage from as far away as New York City. Air pollution and garbage have been heralded as signs of progress and prosperity; however, they’ve led to detrimental health effects on ourselves and those we share the land with, decreasing their capacity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” unalienable rights laid out in our Declaration of Independence. How can you have life if you cannot breathe the air, drink or fish the waters, or farm the land, much less liberty and happiness? As I have thought about this over the years, I have harkened back to the founding of the environmental conservation movement and found deeper thoughts on this subject. This lens of patriotism embodied in environmental stewardship, is the foundational philosophy put forth by former President Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot, founder of the Yale School of Forestry, and others.

The inspiration for this movement was a mix of beliefs in not squandering the Christians’ God given gifts of nature, and the realization that the natural resources under our care as a nation, were the products of millennia of accumulation without destructive disturbance. While not acknowledged in the writings I have seen, this accumulation was in large part due to the long view stewardship practices of the Native Americans. Care for the gifts of nature and their wise use would allow us to live well, now and into the future, and to do so was an expression of patriotism – the love of our fellow people and land. In Anne Marie Todd’s book, “Communicating Environmental Patriotism,” she quotes former California Governor George Pardee:

“We put on the uniform; we shoulder the musket; we follow the flag in times of war and do not hesitate to suffer and die for the benefit of our country. There are greater problems and crises than those of war… [This] is the crises of the greatest importance for the present and the future. It has to do with the salvation of the country through the salvation of its forests, and the salvation of those other great natural resources, which have made and are making now, and will, if we save them, continue to make us great.”

Waste or pollution, created as a byproduct of industry, was emblematic of an inefficient use of resources and was viewed as shameful. Calls to reduce inefficiencies drew parallels to patriotic or military service to the country. These early calls were in response to phenomena such as the drastic smoke and air pollution in Pittsburg, PA, created in the burning of coal for steel manufacturing. Dubbed the Smoky City, Pittsburgh’s pollution impacted health, the conditions of building materials and clothing (which was dried outside on clotheslines), the ability of vegetation to grow, and was costly to the coal burners and the public. Inefficient coal burning meant the need to purchase more coal, driving up the price. Controlling emissions from the smokestack came to be seen as a symbol of progress, stewardship of our shared resources, and civic patriotism.

Views linking environmentalism and patriotism have diminished over time, overridden by the ideas of consumption as a hallmark of belonging. This story is for another time. Progress made by early environmentalists, coupled with the movement of polluting industries elsewhere and the ability to throw things further away, makes it easy to think we have solved our problems. However, this displacement is coming back full circle as New York in particular looks ahead to future landfill closures and the need for new sites. Will we again choose vulnerable communities to bear the burden for all of us? Or will we take up the mantle of stewardship and pride in our shared treasure? As a veteran, I often hear the heartfelt, “thank you for your service,” an acknowledgement of the work of some on behalf of the rest. Environmental stewardship can be carried out by all of us and is the ultimate display of service to others, and a love for your country.

Joey, a local environmental entrepreneur and community volunteer, served for 8 years in the US Army as an interrogator/linguist and psyops specialist from 1987-1995, returning to the Ithaca area after her service. 

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