Terry Tempest Williams, a prolific writer and conservationist, addressed students last Wednesday in Griffin Hall on the importance of environmental activism in the modern world.
Williams, who has authored over a dozen published works, focuses her writings on ecology in the American West, wilderness preservation and women’s health, among many other fields. As a self-labeled naturalist and “citizen writer,” she has testified before Congress and been a guest in the Clinton White House, as well as received numerous awards for her contributions towards ecological studies of the West
The core theme of Williams’s talk was an open-ended prompt she handed to the audience at the onset of her lecture: “At what cost?”
“We can avoid these types of questions until someone asks us. Then, we have to be accountable,” Williams declared. “At what cost do our actions leave others behind, or eliminate other stories? At what cost do we sacrifice humanity for the sake of profit?”
Williams’s prompt, and the discomfort she says envelops it, is an indication that “although conversation is a vehicle for change, we rarely have the hard conversations.” She praised environmental activists on campus who have advocated for the divestment of the College’s endowment from all fossil fuel investments, explaining that “radical disruption” is the only way to a clean and sustainable future. She then recounted her participation in numerous protests and marches supporting environmentalism over the years, but conceded that mere protests are not enough.
Various members of the audience echoed Williams’s claim that compassion and discomfort are inseparable and disturbances are necessary. One audience member vehemently offered that he would gladly spend the rest of his life in jail if it meant keeping all fossil fuels in the ground. Williams agreed, declaring that if the movement were to prove successful in doing so, they “must turn anger into sacred rage.”
“We are in the midst of not an ecological, not an economic, not a political, but a spiritual crisis,” Williams preached. She chastised the Oxford Junior Dictionary for dropping words such as “gooseberry” and “acorn” in lieu of “download” and “broadband,” hinting that the modernization and industrialization of the world is attributing to “nature becoming a forgotten language.”
Williams lamented the growth of the oil and gas industries and their various sites and practices in the West. “Our public lands are being sold from right out from under us. How can we not respond?” she said.
Williams has indeed responded, as she explains in an op-ed in the New York Times last March. She attended a public land auction conducted by the Bureau of Land Management that saw the selling of hundreds of millions of acres across the West. Williams and her husband, Brooke, purchased the leasing rights of over 1000 acres to prevent companies from drilling for oil. “The energy we hope to produce is not the kind that will destroy our planet, but the kind that will fuel moral imagination. We need to harness this spiritual and political energy to sustain the planet we call home.”
Ironically, the location of Williams’s parcel of land makes her eligible to receive royalties from oil and gas companies. If she chooses to decline these royalties, she will risk forfeiting her leasing rights. She said that she is considering accepting the royalties and donating them to charitable organizations or using the funds to finance the purchasing of additional leasing rights.
Williams’s advice to student activists was clear: “Cultivate community, and then we will flourish.” She also encouraged students to do what they love, and that they needn’t have a path through life as long as they followed their interests.
At the end of her talk, Williams played a rendition of Italian composer Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” and told the audience of a time when she listened to the song alongside a herd of buffalo. She also told stories of wolves, eagles, coyotes and ravens, and reminded the audience, “we must remember that we are not the only species on this Earth.”
Williams’s reminder that we are not the only species on this earth echoes the sentiment on her personal website, on which she asks readers what the world would look like if power were “redistributed equitably even beyond our own species.”
Williams insisted that she would do everything in her power to keep oil in the ground, though she acknowledged that it is a feat that she alone cannot accomplish. “What is it going to take?” she asked the audience. “Honestly, I don’t know.”
The Gaudino Fund sponsored Williams’s talk as part of Earth Week at the College.