By Gregory Smith, Associate Professor of Education
Lewis and Clark College, Portland OR

June 10, 2010

As conditions globally and in the Pacific Northwest worsen, it seems increasingly imperative that individuals and organizations concerned about environmental and social health find ways to achieve a higher level of collaboration than they have so far been able to demonstrate. The difficulties faced by British Petroleum and the federal government as they attempt to deal with the Gulf oil spill foreshadow the inability of large, centralized institutions to deal with the crises of climate change and the peaking of oil production. In addition, the long period of economic growth humankind has enjoyed for the previous century could well be coming to an end—in fact may need to come to an end if we hope to lay the foundation for more sustainable societies.

This will mean the resources—albeit often meager–that have been available to environmental, educational, and social justice organizations over the past few decades may no longer be as forthcoming at just the time when the work of such groups becomes more and more necessary.

What can we do to respond to this new reality? I’ve just finished reading Bill McKibben’s new book, Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. After two sobering opening chapters, McKibben concludes with two chapters that suggest that grappling with the challenges we—not our grandchildren—are now facing will demand collective problem-solving, mutual support, determination, and friendliness.

For many people currently striving to address these issues, however, our work lives impose a kind of isolation that is difficult to overcome. We focus so heavily on the activities of our own organizations and the ongoing need to find financial support for them that it’s difficult to look very far beyond our own range of focus.

Talking with Larry Beutler about the future of Clearing Magazine last week, it struck both of us that this publication Larry has tended so lovingly for more than 20 years could help with this challenge. There is no one place to turn to quickly learn what others in this three-state region are doing to advance sustainability and social justice. YES! Magazine does this for a national and sometimes international audience, but it would be helpful to know what activists in our own backyard are doing so that we can both know what’s happening but also maintain the fire of inspiration and belief that underlie that ability to persist when the going gets rough—as it is and will. What if Clearing were to set aside its previous mission with regard to environmental education and take up now the telling of stories from a wide range of organizations that ought to be interacting more than they are, organizations like Ecotrust, Sustainable Northwest, the Northwest Earth Institute, the Freshwater Trust, Our United Villages, Sisters of the Road, E3 Washington (Education for Sustainable Communities), City Repair, the Portland area’s METRO and Coalition for a Livable Future, Seattle’s Sightline, and many more?

Clearing could become the vehicle through which these groups could tell their story to a broader audience of like-minded activists, potentially extending their contributor base as well as the range of allies they could tap to effect positive changes. With a way to communicate with one another, it might also then be possible to hold periodic regional gatherings like the U.S. Social Forum that will be taking place in Detroit later this June, gatherings that would bring together the people in our part of the world who need to be talking with one another about how we can make a transition to the “tough” conditions McKibben lays out in his book. Are other people interested in exploring this possibility? If so, please share your ideas on-line. Let’s see what we can develop.

Greg Smith, Associate Professor of Education
Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Oregon