Waking up in the Galápagos

By HELEN RIESS

COURTESY PHOTO BY HELEN REISS

Sometimes we think we’re awake when we’re merely sleep-walking. I was taught to recycle and compost kitchen waste in my youth and have since considered myself fairly environmentally conscious. “Waste is bad,” and “Conservation is good,” are mantras that I grew up with and have passed on to my children (both Midd grads).

On a recent visit to the Galápagos, I woke up to some startling discoveries. However environmentally conscious I might consider myself, when I was invited this past summer to join a group of students from Planet Forward, a George Washington University-based environmental communication and storytelling program, I was in for an eye opener.

Frank Sesno, Middlebury ’77, trustee emeritus and founder of Planet Forward, introduced their mission “to inform, engage and inspire people to take action to move our planet forward.” This program, which has involved Middlebury students over the years, brought 10 undergraduate students to the Galápagos to experience a life changing adventure. As a mentor, I was with them every step of the way as we explored this incredible place, teeming with life: the place Charles Darwin called “a little world within itself.”

I was immediately struck by each student’s concerns about the global environmental crisis. Despite the polarizing debate about the reality of the climate crisis, all 10 students from colleges around the country were determined, focused and hopeful about the future. Last April, their prize-winning journalism had been celebrated at the annual Planet Forward Summit in Washington D.C. The prize-winning StoryFest topics ranged from energy conserving electric buses and algae that digest plastic, to programs to reduce food waste and meditation practices to enhance environmental awareness.

COURTESY PHOTO BY HELEN REISS

CEO of Lindblad-National Geographic Expeditions Sven Lindbland announced the StoryFest winners. Each of these winners chose a topic relevant to the Galápagos that they investigated by conducting interviews with naturalists aboard the ship and at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. Their videos, photo essays and journalism focused on invasive species, ocean plastics, the balance between conservation and tourism, among other topics.

 The wildlife taught us about a world of interactions without fear (but with respectful boundaries). We learned that, historically, the most serious invasive species in the Galápagos is human beings. We came within a few feet of sea lions who were not the least bit perturbed by our presence. 

My own big “aha” moment came when students talked about the massive threat plastic poses to our environment. We sit in judgment of those who hunted tortoises, quietly condemning their brutality while the world drinks from an estimated 500 billion plastic cups each year. We then toss those cups into bins when we could be carrying reusable bottles or cups instead, thereby reducing the megatons of waste that choke our landfills and desecrate our oceans.

My experience with the Planet Forward students galvanized my commitment and imagination. I saw how these 10 students inspired an entire ship full of vacationers and explorers to think about the life lessons contained in this pristine environment. Observing the tenderness of a mother sea lion feeding her pup made us realize how interconnected all life is in the quest for survival. Each one of us felt compelled to think about what we can do to move from anxiety and dismay to action.

As stewards of our planet, we bear the responsibility to examine our own values and actions and assess whether they correspond to a genuine concern for the environment. Every product we buy casts a vote for what we value. Agreeing to buy food packaged in plastic or styrofoam is a vote for continuing to package products this way. We shouldn’t vote this way anymore.  Each of us needs to share stories to inform and inspire others, write to our senators and representatives, and get involved in efforts to reduce energy consumption. We must all ask ourselves what personal changes we will make, which environmental groups we could join and how we will galvanize others to move our planet forward.

Middlebury students are invited to submit their own stories and podcasts, along with college students from around the country, to Planet Forward’s StoryFest.  The next trip is this summer in Iceland. 

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