The Beach

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Written by Tanya Dimitrova

Last weekend I went to Point Reyes National Seashore with a group of ERGies. The field trip was organized by John Harte – one of the most charismatic professors in ERG. There was supposed to be an education objective to it – something about bird watching and identification, coastal geomorphology or who-knows-what else. But of course the trip ultimately turned out to be a bonding long walk on the beach, where each of us ended up talking about our fears, formative experiences, aspirations and dreams.

John himself is a real inspiration. Not only is he a wealth of knowledge, but one usually finds uncommon wisdom in his words. You could pick any topic and he will have something to say about it. (Usually something along the lines of “Yes, I wrote a book about this…”) But as humbling as I find talking to him, he himself is a humble person. When I mentioned this to him, he played it down by saying “Whenever you are 73, you will probably have a similar amount of experience!”. (Nice to say, but unlikely!)

After hours of walking and chatting about life, the universe and everything else, I asked him for advice on one of my personal greatest struggles: how do you maintain a positive outlook for our future as a society while facing issues such as climate change, food insecurities, overpopulation and religious conflicts. How can one remain optimistic in the face of a sobering reality while maintaining intellectual integrity.

He sighted and said “Each of us has a moral imperative to keep a positive attitude. What would happen if all people despaired?...” Later on he added, that having a strong and meaningful family support helps “more than any number could express”, nodding towards his wife a few meters down the beach, who is frequently a co-author in his written work.

We went on asking him about which projects he found worth dedicating our time to and what does he regret not having done in his life. He replied (paraphrasing) “Pick a project where you could apply your skills most effectively, something that you feel passionate about. It doesn’t have to be the ‘most important issue’ out there. I used to work in ERG with John Holdren. I focused on ecosystems, biodiversity, macroecology, while he was dedicated to nuclear non-proliferation. From time to time I would feel bad about my chosen field: I could work all I wanted on understanding and protecting biodiversity when in just a single moment a nuclear war could wipe it all off the map! Put in that perspective, my work was meaningless. But then I realized that if we destroyed all of the natural world while focusing on ‘more important’ issues, in the end there wouldn’t be anything left worth living for with or without a nuclear war.”

I am not sure what it is about the sea. But on a beach people inevitably speak with more sincerity and candor than in any other setting. Thank you all for sharing an inspirational day!

1 comment:

  1. A thoughtful quote after a similarly insightful discussion among ERGies, from Howard Zinn: "We don't have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don't 'win,' there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

    "An optimist isn't necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something.

    "If we remember those times and places -- and there are so many -- where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don't have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory."


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