When I was seven, I released a candy wrapper out of an open car window to see it take flight. My father caught me in the act and pulled over, and then patiently waited for traffic to pass. He then turned the car around to look for the trash I had so gleefully deposited in space. It was easy to spot the crumpled neon orange plastic on the highway shoulder, and he asked me to pick it up. When we got back in the car my father simply said: “Never live your life assuming that others will pick up after you; littering is not only illegal but it also signals disdain for your planet. ” And he left it at that. I didn’t understand what disdain meant but I knew it was bad. I was mortified and in tears, but his simple declaration never left me. “Small’ actions can have serious consequences, and when I forget about this simple construct, and our connectivity, I falter.
Few have delivered this message better than Sir David Attenborough. My daughter and I share a crush on the legendary naturalist with the mellifluous voice, and he continues to inspire millions of people with his legendary films. It’s no coincidence that our daughter now wants to study environmental science. Over the holidays we watched his sobering film My Life on Earth. It's part memoir, part crusade, and one hundred percent "witness statement.” Above all it's a love sonnet to our planet. If you haven't seen the film, or any of his films, take the time to do so. Most of us know what a witness statement is, but Sir David’s sleight of phrase transformed a hackneyed detective show term into motivation for the rest of us.
Sir David’s films show a planet in peril, but he offers a shred of hope by threading in solutions along with his own ample supply of wonder and play. Implementing vast institutional change is the key to salvaging our planet, but the smaller gestures of nurturing our globe also matter — not in terms of quantifiable results, but in giving more of us a sense of agency by shifting our ethos from apathy to action.
While the pandemic reinforced a collective feeling of helplessness, our planet got a temporary windfall. Overuse of public lands aside, our stay at home year gave the earth a break from our feverish human pace. The past year also gave us time to commit to lower-impact behavior like gardening, composting, biking and walking. Nurturing our smaller spaces invites us to be better educated —and to stay curious. My fanatical gardening and composting may not be sequestering carbon in any measurable way, but it does further bind me to the land, bring me joy, and motivate me to give as much as I can to our life on earth. We love our wild spaces in Colorado, but we can no longer recreate with impunity — we all need to be advocates— from the high desert wildflower stalker, to the backyard bird watcher to the high alpine bow-hunter. It all adds up.
So Happy Earth Day, and what would your witness statement look like?