Earth Day With Gary Machlis

by Da Quanisha Parks

To commemorate Earth Day 2024 we’re highlighting Gary Machlis, author of Sustainability for the Forgotten. We’ve asked him asked him some questions about what Earth Day is and what Sustainability for the Forgotten adds to it’s legacy. Please enjoy this short question–and–answer interview with Dr. Machlis. For more information about scheduled events for Sustainability for the Forgotten, visit Gary Machlis’s webpage. Stay tuned for 75th Anniversary events planned for the autumn at the University of Utah Press events page!

Check out this review of Sustainability for the Forgotten from Science Magazine!

What has “Earth Day” come to mean for you as an individual?

“The full story of Earth Day is not what is commonly heard. In the revelatory book Blood Cries Out: Pentecostals, Ecology, and the Groans of Creation (edited by A. J. Swoboda, Pickwick Publications, 2014), authors Darrin Rogers and Nicole Sparks tell the largely forgotten history of Earth Day as it was originally conceived. The original Earth Day was founded by a Pentecostal activist named John McConnell, Jr. (1915-2012) as a celebration of the need to care for God’s creation. He named the celebration “Earth Day” in 1968 and chose the spring equinox (in mid-March) as symbolic, and celebrations began to appear in cities throughout the US, led by evangelicals and others. Around then, Senator Gaylord Nelson had a program he sponsored called Environmental Teach-in Day, on 22 April.  As Rogers and Sparks document, Nelson “stole” the name of “Earth Day” for his event; prompting several powerful evangelicals to urge McConnell to sue. Given his Pentecostal background, he declined. The secular Earth Day continued, and evangelicals turned away from the environmental movement. We see how this hidden history has impacted everything from climate denialism to anti-environmental policies.”

As an Academic, what advice do you have for the public regarding “the forgotten”?

“Whether we live in a small and struggling rural town, a private gated community, a dense urban neighborhood, or elsewhere there are forgotten persons all around us. The homeless are sometimes invisible; the desolate family torn by trauma, they are with us. Forgotten means they do not have a political or economic voice in their own affairs and futures. And no community can be truly sustainable without caring for the forgotten amongst it. In Sustainability for the Forgotten, I borrow from liberation theology’s strategy of “see, judge, act”. That strategy can guide us forward.”

Opening with the extraordinary story of a young French priest working in 1968 amongst impoverished villages of northeast Brazil, struggling to bring sustenance, sustainability, and hope to these disregarded and willfully ignored communities, this book asks a broad and far-reaching question that challenges the contemporary sustainability movement: What about sustainability for the forgotten?

Sustainability for the Forgotten is an incendiary book that confronts the history, policies, and practices of sustainability. It interrogates the usefulness of current sustainability approaches for the poorest of the poor, the chronic underclass, victims of natural disasters, refugees, the oppressed, and asks, how can we do better? With examples that range from the coffeelands of El Salvador to the coal country of American Appalachia, from the streets of Detroit to refugee camps in Greece and toupscale metro centers of the affluent, sustainability is examined with a critical eye and with an emphasis on insuring that the forgotten are heard.

At once well-researched and passionate, wide-ranging and sharply focused, Sustainability for the Forgotten is unlike any other book on the sustainability movement. Written with a distinctive voice that is reasoned, unflinching, and often poetic, the book challenges the sustainability movement to follow “a just and necessary path.” The result is a provocative statement on the future of sustainability and a call to action that is ultimately hopeful.

Book cover of sunflower whose petals are beginning to shrink

 Personal experiences that contributed to writing Sustainability for the Forgotten?

“Growing up, my parents encouraged me to volunteer in organizations that served those most forgotten at the time–in my case it was working with institutionalized children and giving them outdoor experiences. Later, my professional work took me to places of devastation–Haiti right after the 2010 earthquake was searing, and un-forgettable.”

“But most directly, is the story of how I came to start to write Sustainability for the Forgotten. I was in a used bookstore in a small town headed back home. I picked up a tattered paperback–it had an interesting cover, and intriguing title, and cost less than US$2.00. I tossed it in my backpack, and later that morning boarded the plane. The book was titled Freedom to Starve, and it was written in the late 1960s by a young French priest about his experiences working in the most impoverished part of northeast Brazil. The book hit me like a lightning bolt. I finished it on the plane ride home. By the time I landed, I had decided to switch my research focus and began the writing of Sustainability for the Forgotten.”

Favorite part of research throughout the Sustainability for the Forgotten writing experience?

“The researching of Sustainability for the Forgotten took me to many places, and I was so fortunate to have those experiences as the book was being written. I spent days in the opulent Vatican Archives in Rome and in the devastation of Haiti after its earthquake. I wrote portions of the book in Nicaragua and on the island of Vieques (bombed by the US Navy until 2003) in Puerto Rico. For me, it was being a slow learner (thank you Thomas Pynchon) that helped me write this book.”

If you could rewrite the tenets of “Earth Day” what would you change and why?

“As I mentioned earlier, Earth Day has a hidden history that should be revealed, if not revisited. More importantly, there is a key tenet of a “just and necessary sustainability”–described in Sustainability for the Forgotten–that should be integrated into Earth Day reflections and actions. It comes from liberation theology, and was a “baked-in” ingredient of original definitions of sustainable development. It is–and it is right there in the founded documents of sustainability–an overriding “priority for the poor”. Imagine the change of perspective and policy if the Earth Day aspiration of clean water for all is replaced with “clean water for all, with priority for the poor”. Now there is not just aspiration, but strategy for action. Much of the second portion of Sustainability for the Forgotten is how this strategy can be acted on effectively. It’s the hopeful part of the book.”

Gary E. Machlis is University Professor of Environmental Sustainability at Clemson University. He is an elected Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and member of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s Roundtable on Science and Technology for Sustainability and its Board on Environmental Change and Society. He has written widely on issues of conservation, science policy, and sustainability.

For more information on Sustainability for the Forgotten, visit Dr. Machlis’s website!

Want to read more about the writing process? Check out the first blog in our series “What Does it Take to Make a Book?

Da Quanisha Parks currently works for the University of Utah Press as a graduate research assistant for marketing while earning an MS in Environmental Humanities.

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