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Maine's Edward Myers: Cassandra Without Portfolio
Published on Tuesday, May 9, 2006 by the Providence Journal
Cassandra Without Portfolio
by William Morgan

Scientists say that global warming has reduced the height of Mount Everest by four feet, through melting snow and ice. This is an irony that Edward Myers, a Yankee curmudgeon and spokesman for the earth, would have relished.

Maine and the world lost a remarkable voice three years ago. Myers preached in the many community churches along the Mid-coast, and he wrote a column for The Working Waterfront, a newspaper published by the Island Institute. His immediate audience was local, but his outlook was global.

Some of Myers's writings are now available in a 160-page book entitled Turnaround: Musings on the Earth's Future (Tilbury House, $15). The book contains essays and sermons by this Princeton-trained philosopher and pioneer commercial mussel farmer, and tributes to him from half a dozen influential environmentalists.

Myers helped Tom Chappell start his socially responsible business, Tom's of Maine ("He gave me confidence, guidance, and money, all with a sense of good nature and humor," says Chappell). Richard Kennedy, of the environmental education group Kieve Affective Education, says that no one forgot Myers: "Who else do you know who rowed a dory on a mussel farm while wearing a Brooks Brothers shirt, a regimental striped bowtie, an old pair of mud-encrusted boots, and a ceaseless smile on his face?" Angus King, former governor of Maine, says that Turnaround ought to be "required reading for anybody in the public-policy business or, for that matter, anybody whose car gets less than 20 miles to the gallon."

Myers was the father of aquaculture in the Pine Tree State, but Ed Myers's true life's work was to save the earth from humankind's environmental folly. For example, Myers struggled to close the nuclear-power plant in Wiscasset (he wryly noted that he lived downwind of the plant, though none of the power company's officers did), and argued for replacing it with solar collectors. He drove an electric car with a vanity plate that made a Dickensian reference to foul air. His erudition was a combination of the Bible, history, and a fisherman's common sense.

Although he laced his pronouncements with humor, Myers always had grim statistics at hand: 50 million acres change from cropland to desert every year; rain forests disappear at a rate of 27 million acres a year . . . For those of us concerned about climate disruption, this little book makes such data conveniently if frighteningly handy.

Earth, we are reminded, was in balance until industrialization's exploitation of fossil fuels. Now we are "engaged in a giant chemistry experiment." How many tons of carbon particulates, dioxins, and other pollutants can we pump into the atmosphere "before entire living Creation is suffocated?"

The Brayton Point Power Station, in Somerset, Mass., is one of Myers's most egregious examples of our insatiable demand for energy. For starters, Brayton's toxic plume is larger than Rhode Island -- the health of whose citizens is at a higher risk because of their proximity to it. This coal-fired plant also discharges billions of gallons of chlorinated sea water into Mount Hope Bay.

Yet despite the author's calling himself a "Cassandra without portfolio," Turnaround is not all doom and gloom. There is hope if we turn to alternative energy sources -- solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, tidal -- and abandon our "perpetual dance with sheiks, warlords, lobbyists, and the grotesque subsidies to the military."

Oil companies and investment bankers' claims notwithstanding, green is profitable, as well as smart. In 1999, wind-power installations created 86,000 jobs, while wind farms on American Indian reservations could supply electricity to the whole country.

Big business and government may be slow to accept the challenge, but Myers believed that individuals can make a difference. In a prescient pre-9/11 sermon, Myers suggested a private "Marshall Plan" for Iraq. Noting the 100,000 Iraqi children who had died of waterborne diseases after the Gulf War, Myers proposed buying 666,000 water purifiers from L.L. Bean to provide Iraq with clean water. Sending people there who knew how to treat sewage, restore electricity, and improve agriculture would have been cheaper than sending aircraft carriers; it would also have made us safer. ("There really isn't much you can do about terrorism except make terrorists change from adversaries into friends.")

Myers describes a Wampanoag who wanted to know why white men need to own things. Having inherited traditional instructions for living, the Wampanoag asked, "What are your instructions?" Our instructions, according to Edward Myers, are to heal the sacred earth: "One shepherd. One shepherdess. Me. You."

William Morgan is a Providence-based architectural historian.

© 2006 The Providence Journal Co.


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