March 02, 2022

A Pep Talk (Mostly to Myself)

Posted on March 2, 2022 by Andy Fitz

Author’s daughter, Wild Iris, Wyoming, 2021.
Photo by author.

Twenty years ago, a long-time friend and I were driving home from a fine day of rock climbing.  After our usual climber talk—debating which route ratings were soft or sandbagged, and re-living crux sequences with excited pantomimes—my friend shifted track and asked whether I had misgivings about bringing children into a flawed world.  After a pause, I gave him the best answer I could: that the best thing I thought I could do for the world is to raise children who are inquisitive, think critically, are courageous, and have empathy and compassion—to counter-balance and counter-act the bad in the world.

I’ve been thinking back on that conversation of late.  I suspect I’m not alone in being despondent recently, sometimes wallowing in my own sense of powerlessness.  My whole adult life, I’ve held firm to a number of ideals: that the arc of history bends toward truth and justice; that reason ultimately prevails over rhetoric; that we can treat each other with mutual respect and civility; that government can serve the collective good; and that, at its best, what separates our nation from others is adherence to the principle and rule of law over partisanship, tribalism, and short-term self-interest. 

These ideals have taken a beating the past two years.  There is every reason to think that our nation and our world are in a downward spiral.  The very hour I sat down to begin this post, Russia launched its attack on Ukraine.  Closer to home, our democracy is also under attack and faces existential threat.  Anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers defy reason and the very premise of social good.  Systemic racism is insulated and perpetuated by perverse claims that objective facts are “divisive.”  Climate change seems utterly beyond our institutional capability—and even human capability—to address; it’s like watching a slow-moving train wreck we all see coming, but are powerless to stop.  What isn’t moving slowly is the Supreme Court in its apparent zeal to reshape and limit environmental law in the West Virginia and Sackett cases. 

To be clear, our nation has never fully matched the ideals I mention, sometimes to abhorrent effect.  What’s been shaken in me, however, is the underlying belief that despite continued imperfection, we’re still making progress toward those ideals.  I fear for the future of our nation and the world in a way I haven’t since the Cold War days when I was a teenager, but for different, and maybe even more disturbing, reasons.

This is where the conversation with my friend comes in.  Does the constant pummeling mean that I give up on ideals and resign myself to cynicism and fatalism?  I’ve sunk to that low a few times.  But giving up or giving in is the worst thing I, or any of us, can do.  We are leaders in our field.  Most of us are in positions of influence.  In times like these, we should be even more resolute in adhering to, modeling, and holding others to the ideals of reason, truth, justice, civility, collective goodwill, and the rule of law.  It is perhaps the thing most firmly within our control to do. 

Part of modeling ideals is taking the opportunity to welcome and mentor the next generation of environmental lawyers.  As I conclude this post, I’m only hours removed from my first meeting with a law student through ACOEL’s Mentorship Program.  I had very few expectations going into the Zoom.  But I came out of it energized, inspired, and even a little optimistic.

There is still hope for an arc of history toward the ideal, so long as we ourselves insist on it.