Diary of a Midlife Tree-Hugger

In the middle (I hope) of my life, in the middle of a dark wood (the unexpected and abrupt end of a lifelong career as a magazine editor), I started down a new path: environmental activism.

by Dominique Browning


Why, of all things, become an activist? Advocacy for any cause, particularly a large one where jobs, money, and lives are at stake, is frustrating, nerve-racking, difficult, occasionally depressing, and bewildering work. And it is the most satisfying work I have ever done.It all started when I got a call from a higher-up at the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) -- one of those friend-of-a-friend connections that can change a life. Cynthia Hampton had been a reader of House & Garden, where I served as editor in chief for more than a decade.

“We’ve been thinking about how we need to reach people who don’t consider themselves environmentalists with the news of the work we’re doing,” Cynthia said to me. “We want to help people understand why they should care about the environment.”

“Great idea,” I said, not for a moment stopping to think about the fact that ocean acidification and smart grids, subjects about which I knew nothing, bore absolutely no resemblance to chintz and sinks. (Also subjects about which I once knew nothing -- but they’re a little easier to understand, being closer to home, if you know what I mean.)

While editing the magazine, I’d been aware of environmental issues; you can’t spend too much time in a garden without becoming sensitive to major changes in the natural order of things. And I knew there had to have been a reason why the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map had been redrawn in 2003 (and again this January), to take into account warming temperature trends. But writing my column for EDF marked the beginning in earnest of my education as an environmentalist. I had never really stopped to think about where, exactly, electricity came from, beyond the fuse box; now I was learning about coal power, sun, wind, and geothermal power. I learned about the changing chemistry of the oceans because of their absorption of CO2. I began to understand the science underlying global warming.

Do your eyes glaze over? My friends’ started to, I noticed, as I went on and on about all the new things I was learning. And worrying about. My children began making honking, sad trombone noises whenever I butted into conversations about, say, whether the ice cream would melt on the way home from the supermarket, to go on about glacial melt and what might become of the polar bears -- “Waa-waah ... Debbie Downer alert!” And there you have it, the first sign of the political activist: obsession. The more I learned, the more alarmed I became over the state of the planet.

Global warming -- what I now refer to as “climate disruption,” that’s how severe it has become -- is the issue that really gets to me. I would sit up late into the night, peering at my computer screen, trying to understand. We puny humans have poured so much pollution into our air that we are perverting our climate, melting icebergs and glaciers, thawing the permafrost, altering ocean currents, changing the patterns of floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes.

How could we be so powerful as to be capable of creating such huge trouble -- and be so small-minded when it comes to fixing it? As with so many issues, we know what to do -- cut carbon pollution -- we just can’t muster the national, or global, willpower and clarity to do the right thing. Politics and polluters’ millions keep getting in the way. I began to feel overwhelmed. I wanted to do more than just write about the problem. But what? Mine was just one small voice.

I hadn’t counted on my kids to galvanize me -- in spite of their bleating Debbie Downer trombones. Children, and the prospect of grandchildren, have a way of focusing the heart on the future. My children grew up and left my home to make their own homes. And that did it. At once, I realized that the only way I could continue to take care of them was to broaden my nest, so to speak -- to take care of the planet we inhabit. Hitting my fifties had something to do with it, too -- that, and winning a battle with kidney cancer. Suddenly, I wasn’t thinking about my whole life ahead of me. I was thinking about the rest of my life. And I was thinking, hard, about what I would be leaving behind.

Before too long, I was leaving the detached, agnostic state of journalism behind, waving goodbye as it stood on the far shore of what now looked to me like a dear, but quaint, island. I was heading for another large land mass. A veritable continent of problems. I was crossing the longitude into activism. As so often happens, I found the solution to my feelings of hopelessness about the planet while chatting with a couple of women friends: Cynthia, Hanne Grantham, and Sue Mandel, whom I’d met at EDF meetings. We were talking about the amazing, vibrant “mom energy” out there in the blogosphere -- the conversation about nontoxic products, air filters, cleaners, you name it. Moms want to do the right thing for their kids. We try to buy green and clean. But what happens when we open the windows? Good intentions go flying out, and air pollution comes in. We have to act -- as citizens.

We started an organization -- I’m now the senior director -- under EDF’s capacious umbrella, called Moms Clean Air Force; we are tackling air pollution as a children’s health issue. We’re reaching out to mothers, who tend not to have much time for political activism, by focusing attention on the effects of poisonous pollutants on their children.

Take mercury, for starters. There’s a reason doctors tell pregnant women not to eat tuna and swordfish -- but most of us don’t realize that it is directly connected to air pollution. The mercury released by coal-plant smokestacks drifts through the air, falls into water, converts to methylmercury, and is eaten by fish, accumulating in their flesh, and on up the food chain, and becoming ever more toxic in larger fish -- which we then eat. Mercury crosses into the placenta and penetrates the fetal blood-brain barrier, where it can alter the architecture of developing brains. Fetuses, babies, and toddlers are the most severely impacted by this poison.

Mercury is seriously terrible stuff. You wouldn’t think there would be any controversy about getting rid of it. But there is. Polluters don’t want to change their ways. They hide behind excuses -- jobs, costs -- but none of those hold up. We know we can filter mercury, because many power plants have already installed scrubbers, with no ill effects to their profits or to citizens’ electric bills. Polluters have power and money. But moms have love. Motherhood is powerful. We have to make our voices heard in Washington. We have to let our representatives know that we want a strong Clean Air Act. Sometimes, being a good mother means being an engaged citizen. It takes less time to sign a petition than it does to change a diaper. At Moms Clean Air Force, we talk a lot about “nap-time activism” -- doing something to make the world a better place while your baby is sleeping, and doing it fast enough to give yourself a rest, as well.

We have been petitioning senators to support the Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which would penalize polluters whose bad air blows downwind to other states, and the White House to support strong mercury regulations. (Last December, President Obama did the right thing by adopting tough new limits on mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants; not surprisingly, the opposition has already vowed to challenge him.) We’re opening offices in Ohio, Michigan, and New Hampshire to help mothers meet with their elected officials so that they can express their support for clean air regulations.

See what I mean about the obsession? An activist tries to make a contagion of her passions. She wants company. You may realize, by now, that I long ago broke the no-politics-at-the-dinner-party barrier! (Another sign of the activist: I now think in exclamation points!) I’ve become the kind of person who grabs people by their lapels, and makes them listen and want to sign petitions and send postcards to senators. Heck! Get the White House on the phone!

For a while, I considered this transformation a sign of new maturity on my part. I was evolving into the sort of citizen who understands that she must play a vital role in a community, a person who not only tends her own garden, as Voltaire suggested, but who wants to make the entire world a better garden. Then I remembered the last time I had been an activist. It was during high school, in the early 1970s. My current passion may actually be a throwback to being 15 years old -- when I believed I could change the world by staging a sit-in, or a strike, or a march.

In the early ’70s, girls, or rather, "wimmin," as we feminists preferred to be called, were not allowed to wear pants to school. I never wore pants anyway, but suddenly, confronted by this rule, I decided that trousers looked highly desirable. I was outraged that only men wore the pants! Wearing pants became the symbol of all the ways in which women were controlled, put down, relegated to second-class status! (Note obsession! And exclamation points!) May I remind you that this was the era of long hair, leather headbands, hoop earrings, and bell-bottoms? We may as well have been agitating on behalf of a fashion statement. Nevertheless, my friends and I lobbied the principal. We held a sit-in, right there in his office, explaining why his policy was unfair. We were allowed to wear pants one day a week. And before too long, one day became all week. Victory!

Getting permission to wear pants is one thing. Getting the world to tackle climate change is, well, a bit trickier. That’s why I broke off a small piece of the fight: air pollution and children’s health, from a mom’s point of view. For it seems to me that we are now confronting a problem unlike any in human history. We are tampering -- on as large a scale as humanly possible -- with the place we call home, our earth. “Mother Nature” doesn’t care about whether humans inhabit her earth. Only we do. Only human nature can fix this. It is hard to believe that we live in times when politicians will fight for a polluter’s right to pollute. We are arguing about rolling back the protections established by Republican President Richard Nixon when he signed the Clean Air Act, in 1970 -- a bipartisan effort that was then strengthened, in 1990, by Republican President George Bush. So why isn’t everyone demanding change? Thus the third earmark of the obsessed, exclaiming activist: the Cassandra complex. Is it possible that people can’t hear us? Would it help if we yelled louder?

Being an activist -- about anything -- is an uphill battle. If it weren’t, there would be no urgency to the fight. I cushion myself against feeling hopeless in several ways. I (still) laugh at myself -- and let others (like my kids) laugh at the Debbie Downer in me. I “go where the love is.” (My new motto in life, and it applies in many situations.) I find like-minded people who are equally passionate about my cause. I learn from them and contribute to their efforts by joining my energy to theirs. I nurture a community of activists not because misery loves company (it does) but because there is strength in numbers. Individually, we can’t do much. Collectively, we can be heard. I train myself in resilience. At times, I forcibly pick myself up, and make myself carry on. Mainly, I just try harder. And I try, as often as possible, to lose myself in the everyday and miraculous gorgeousness of this world. That is, after all, what I’m fighting for.

Surprisingly, though, the deeper I get into this activist work, the better I feel. Advocacy provides an outlet for the monologue that goes on in my head. Yes, activism makes me vulnerable. I open myself up to disappointment, even failure. But it also appeals to a sense of idealism that makes me feel whole. I am doing everything I can to make the world a better place. And this sense of purpose lightens my heart.

See the Four Organizations Dominique Admires

Dominique Browning is cofounder and senior director of Moms Clean Air Force. her book "Slow Love" was published in 2010.

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