We all know that there is lots of injustice in the world but most of us don’t step up. We might buy a keep cup. We might sign a petition or post something on social media but, in our professional lives, most of us are sadly lacking. I’m speaking from experience here. I’m not an environmental lawyer, but, as a corporate lawyer, I acted for companies whose values were completely out of sync with my own. I heard the word “greenies” used on several conference calls – a derogatory comment about people who are opposed to fracking, and who care about nature. I didn’t say anything at the time and rationalised that I was just doing my job, as most of us do. My silence conveyed my tacit agreement. Afterwards, I remember feeling ashamed of myself. Repeat a behaviour often enough though and we stop feeling so ashamed. It starts to feel normal.
I am interested in understanding what motivates people like Robert Bilott, an environmental lawyer portrayed in the film Dark Waters, who defended large chemical companies before he was approached for help in 1998 by Wilbur Tennant, a West Virginian farmer whose land was contaminated by chemical giant DuPont. Over the course of 20 years, at great personal cost, Bilott took a courageous stand against one of the most powerful corporations in the United States eventually winning a multi-million dollar settlement on behalf of thousands of plaintiffs who had been affected by DuPont’s actions.
Here is a thought experiment which might help provide an answer to why people like Bilott do what they do. You might like to try it?
Can you think of a place in nature that you know really well? Close your eyes for a moment and see what comes up.
Can you visualise the place in exquisite detail? The sounds, the colours, the smells, the subtleties that only you know.
Do memories surface? Perhaps you have known this place for a long time. Maybe you spent golden moments from your childhood here? There might be happy memories tinged with sadness or regret?
How does it feel when you bring this place to mind now?
Please don’t rush. Take a moment to connect. Now, another question.
How would you feel if this same place was under imminent threat? Imagine someone is destroying it right now. What do you feel? Anger? Sadness? Shock? Resignation? Nothing at all?
Can you imagine that you might actually do something immediate and tangible to help protect this place?
So what did you notice? Be honest with yourself.
If you really have a deep connection with this place, it is likely that you might feel moved to do something. That’s obvious, right? We naturally and instinctively act to protect that which we care very deeply about.
But what if that deep connection with a place is absent? How would that affect your response? It’s a beautiful place but it’s not your place. Are you still likely to do something about it?
Let me paint two scenarios for you…
You are walking through town at night and you see your best friend looking dishevelled, sleeping rough on the street. You haven’t seen him for six months. There is probably an initial shock: “Oh my God, what happened?!!” You instinctively reach out for him. Before you know it your arm is on his shoulder: “Come home with me. Let me take care of you”.
Now another night. This time you see a random stranger looking dishevelled, sleeping rough on the street. Be honest. What do you do? Is it someone else’s problem? If your heart is big enough you might give him some money or buy him a sandwich but is he coming home to sleep on your couch? Perhaps you rationalise your inaction by reminding yourself that you donate to the local homeless charity. You might remind yourself to vote for a politician who appears committed to doing something. But most of the time most of us don’t do anything at all.
Why the difference? In the first scenario, you obviously have a deep emotional connection with your best friend and you have to act. In the second scenario, you might feel sad and, on an intellectual level, you might recognise the tragedy of the situation but there is no emotional connection between the two of you, so more often than not you don’t act.
John Steinbeck put it very well when he commented on the Great Chinese Famine of 1959-61: “It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.”
It makes sense then that Robert Bilott had an emotional connection with the community he stood up and acted for. Wilbur Tennant, the farmer who asked for his help, was a neighbour of his grandmother. Bilott loved his grandmother. He spent summers staying with her when he was a boy. When he is first contacted by Tennant it is the fact that he has been referred by Robert’s grandmother that moves him to agree to visit the farm where he then sees the devastation there with his own eyes – poisoned water and sickened, dying cattle. The impact of the experience, and the way it compelled him to act because of his own love of nature, is movingly described in Bilott’s book.
What can you do?
The first and most important step in my opinion is to simply rekindle our love of nature.
Do you regularly spend time outside, with no phone or other distraction – ‘being’ instead of ‘doing’?
It’s a rare thing in this day and age.
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh expressed it beautifully: “To know fully one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of woody meadows, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as any man can fully experience.”
Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue a deeper nature experience. For many, it is width that counts, not depth. We are addicted to new experiences, consuming new places in a very shallow and meaningless way. Rushing to the next moment. A nice photograph for Instagram, and another place ticked off the list.
What about the places where we live and work? The lane we pass on our way to the office. The horse chestnut tree in the field overlooking the car park. The park where we walk the dog. The canal where we eat our lunch everyday.
Do you sometimes stop and listen to the trees stirring in the breeze? Do you notice the first leaves of spring, and the very last leaves of winter? Do you know the call of each songbird? Have you noticed how the character of a place changes day by day and even moment by moment?
Can you slow down and pay attention in these moments?
It might seem like a drop in the ocean but it counts. It’s where we all need to start.
Widening the circle of compassion
I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should only care about the things which are happening on our doorsteps and wash our hands of the rest. My experience as a practitioner and a teacher suggests that when you start to practice mindfulness and compassion, there is a natural opening of the heart. Albert Einstein speaks to this process in his famous quote:
“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
One of the practices I really enjoy is simply paying attention to trees. There are a number of lovely trees around Dublin. My favourite tree was an old horse chestnut that overlooked my granny’s back garden. When she died, my parents moved in. That tree had been there my whole life. I knew that some squirrels lived there. I remember picking up leaves for my granny in the autumn. I enjoyed the feeling of leaves crunching underfoot. As an adult, I would sit in the shade or just watch the branches swaying in the breeze. A tree is never perfectly still. I would sometimes notice my breath, and feel grateful that this tree had spent its whole life making clean air for me to breath. With each out breath, I was giving back.
One day it was gone. A new family had moved into the adjoining house. They decided that that the tree was too big and was blocking the light, so they cut it down. I remember feeling so angry at the time: “How could they do this?!” Of course, they were well within their rights to cut it down. It was their land and they had just moved in. They are nice people. They hadn’t spent years getting to know this particular tree like I had. How could they know?
After the anger subsided, I just felt sad. I wondered what had happened to the family of squirrels and all the birds who lived in the tree. What would my granny have said? As I write this sentence there is a lump in my throat.
I am grateful for the experience because it helped me to really get in touch with my sadness about what is happening on a much bigger scale. What is happening right now in the Amazon and many other parts of the world is so sad. The lungs of our planet are being burned. Thousands of trees (just like the tree overlooking my granny’s back garden) have been cut down since you started reading this article. Do you feel as sad as I do when you visualise that?
It’s very easy to feel overwhelmed when you consider the scale of the problem. If you do care, my advice would be to start small.
Spend even five minutes appreciating nature?
Perhaps Robert Biliott’s work can be an inspiration for you (as it has been for me).
It shows what one person is capable of when they really care.
BARRY LEE: I worked as a corporate and commercial lawyer for over ten years. I learned about mindfulness and meditation early on in my career when I experienced burn-out. The practice of medita- tion completely changed my life for the better. Four years ago, I stopped practicing law in order to teach meditation full-time. In 2017, I founded MINDFULNESS FOR LAW and over the last three years I have facilitated many courses and workshops for some of the biggest law firms in Ireland and the UK. I teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindful Self Compassion. I have also facilitated workshops ‘outside’ in nature called “Connecting To Care”. We use a mindfulness based approach to cultivate a deeper connection with the natural world. My hope is that it will inspire more people to take action.