May 25, 1991, was a beautiful day in London, with an uncharacteristically clear blue sky. Looking back, my eight-year-old son Tim and I, if we were at all superstitious, might have taken such a beautiful day as a sign that our lives were about to change. Forever. But that kind of prescience only happens in fairy stories. The reality of our day was that we were heading to a “Save the Whales” rally in Trafalgar Square—something we’d never done before. Greenpeace had asked me to be a “celebrity speaker,” to read a piece about how some whales communicate across thousands of miles of deep ocean with sounds that can also travel through the mantle of the Earth. That astonished me. Even though I had grown up in New Zealand where whales were once abundant, I knew nothing about these mysterious animals. The only whale I’d ever seen had been lying dead on the beach.
We stood at the back of a large crowd and watched the opening speech delivered by one Roger Payne, heralded for his work on whale song. That too was a surprise to me. I’d never heard of such a thing. He was an impassioned speaker, but I was much more focused on my nerves than on what he was saying. This was the first time I had ever addressed a large crowd without the carapace of a play, a character, and weeks of rehearsal to protect me.
Roger was at the foot of the stairs when I finished my piece. “Have you ever seen a whale from close quarters?” The voice was warm and humorous, matching the eyes. I said I hadn’t, and as we talked, we began making plans to do so in the summer, and I found myself thinking of all the adventures we could share with this extraordinarily charming man who was so full of amazing stories. My complex life as a working actress and a single mother suddenly seemed so simple in comparison. Three hours later we were still talking. Ten weeks later we were married.
Meeting Roger was transformational. Standing there exchanging words and ideas with him, enfolding large chunks of our lives into passionate abbreviations—as one does upon instantly falling in love with someone—I felt as if I were at the edge of an ocean, ankle-deep in the incoming waves, staring out at the vast expanse of sunlit possibilities. We were married in Woodstock, Vermont, that summer and the adventures began. Tim and I started spending time with whales and experiencing their awesome size and sheer beauty. Off the coast of California we watched dolphins riding on the bow waves of incomprehensibly huge blue whales. At Peninsula Valdez in Argentina we were lulled to sleep by the sound of right whales breathing in the bay. In Alaska we heard the piercing cries of humpbacks right through our boat as they corralled fish in their nets made from bubbles, and we watched amazed as they erupted out of the depths, mouths gaping wide to engulf the fish. Sitting in a small open boat in Laguna San Ignacio we stroked the head of a grey whale that came alongside for a visit. With the adventures came a growing understanding of Roger’s world, and through that understanding, a gradual awakening to the environmental problems Earth faces.
We learned that everything in nature is connected. Human beings are not separate from the rest of life on Earth but an integral part of it. Thus everything we do has consequences: seemingly pristine lakes in the far north have fish that are heavily polluted with industrial chemicals produced thousands of miles away, deposited there by circulating air currents. The relentless development of new ways to harvest more and more fish from the ocean is resulting in fewer and fewer fish to catch. The worthy pursuit of cheap food is destroying soils and wildlife, and filling our bodies with toxins that disrupt hormones and diminish the ability of our children to learn. Access to fresh water is becoming a serious problem worldwide.
Two years ago, Roger conceived the idea of Lessons from Copernicus, a performance involving us both, which uses science and poetry to highlight both the problems and the exciting solutions that humanity is inventing to solve those problems. After our first performance I saw that many of the audience were overwhelmed by the enormity of the environmental stresses we face. It was clear they wanted to do something but didn’t know where to start. I realized we needed to give them a tool to help them gain a deeper understanding of what is going wrong, and what they can do to become part of the solution. So I put together a small book full of useful Internet sites, to be given away free to everyone who came to the performance.
That first little book very quickly grew into this one and I hope it finds a home by your computer as a useful guide into the future. I think the Internet is one of humanity’s greatest inventions. It allows us access to the information we need to make good decisions about how we live. It empowers us, it joins us together in common causes, and together we can have more effect in fighting for those causes than many Washington lobbyists, who seldom represent our best interests.
For years I had gone about my life aware somewhere on the periphery of my concerns that fish were becoming a scarce resource, that the rainforests were being destroyed, that modern agricultural and industrial practices were debilitating our world and us, but not really paying much attention. Life with Roger changed my focus. I began to think about the consequences of each action. I began to change the way I lived. I recycled. I filled our house with energy-efficient machines and compact fluorescent bulbs. I bought a hybrid car. I became aware of what we were eating and how it arrived on our plates. I became passionate about the possibility of transforming lakes of manure into electricity, thus solving the awful problems of groundwater pollution and appalling smell created by such manure lagoons. I began to carry around lists of which fish are healthy to eat and to share those lists with my friends and the waiters in restaurants. I started noticing wind farms wherever I was in the world, marveling at their silent beauty and at all the clean electricity they are producing. I started buying plastic bags made from corn. And most of all, I began to get very assertive about not wasting water.
Changing the way we live requires that we first understand what the problems are, their causes, and how to solve them. This book will introduce you to simple but revolutionary choices that can profoundly affect your health and the health of the rest of life on Earth. If we follow the laws of nature when producing energy, dealing with wastes, growing food, and manufacturing things, the destruction will stop. Life on Earth will continue into an unimagined future where, generations hence, our children’s children will bless us and thank us for our heedfulness. And we can be proud that we are part of the twenty-first century revolution, where ordinary people are dreaming of, demanding, and achieving solutions beyond anything previously thought possible.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Meade