Moral Code

Give back to what you love

by Elaine J. Lambert, special assistant to the president for creative development and public relations

Author and Penn College colloquium speaker Rick Bass. Photo courtesy of Lowry Bass

If, as a Native American proverb suggests, we borrow the earth from our children (rather than inherit it from our ancestors), what are we leaving for future generations?

Activist and author Rick Bass believes it is not enough to tell young people that we care about the environment.

“Apologizing for the fix we put them in, that doesn’t go over very well,” Bass said.

Instead, we must actively protect natural resources, defend endangered lands and encourage the next generation to do the same – despite what our forebears “borrowed” from us.

“Everybody gets handed something bad,” Bass said. “But what you do about it is what separates individuals.”

Individuals who have a desire to do something good for the environment are encouraged to consider “green career” options in the latest episode of the “Working Class” public television series, produced by Pennsylvania College of Technology and WVIA Public Media.

“Working Class: Build and Grow Green” features an appearance by Bass, who was described in a New York Times book review as “one of this country’s most intelligent and sensitive short-story writers.” He visited Penn College as a featured speaker in its Technology and Society Colloquia Series in 2016.

Not only did he borrow my personal copy of his most recent work, “For a Little While: New and Selected Stories,” for his reading in the Klump Academic Center, but Bass took time to talk with “Working Class” director Chris Leigh and me about his passion for the environment.

As children, Bass says, we feel an affinity for nature, but often, other priorities crowd out our devotion to preserving it.

“Children have the innate awareness of what’s just and what’s unjust,” Bass explained. “It gets expensive to carry that into adolescence and adulthood. It’s a lot easier just to look away from injustice.”

Author and activist Rick Bass offers a thoughtful exploration of individual environmental responsibility during Penn College’s Technology and Society Colloquia Series. Photo by Cindy Davis Meixel

“The best thing we can give young people is the reminder: There is glory and honor ... in protecting what you love.”

“The best thing we can give young people,” he continued, “is the reminder: There is glory and honor, when the cause is great, in protecting what you love. Don’t sugarcoat it; it’s not going to be easy. It’s not always going to be fun, but it is a responsibility of life. If you love something, you should give back to it. It’s a moral code.”

Bass speaks from real-life experience. He is a former oil and gas geologist who was arrested at the White House for protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. He feels compelled to write and talk about – and to protest against – the energy industry’s impact on nature and the environment.

“A lot of times, these folks are bullies. They’ll say, ‘You’re not American; you’re not patriotic,’ if you don’t support liquidation, and fracking, and liquidation of resources,” he said.

He encourages individuals to do their own, independent research about environmental and economic issues facing their communities and to keep in mind the importance of weighing short-term gains against long-term consequences.

“The math of the short-term economy is not complicated. It’s not rocket science,” he said. “A little bit of digging on our part will reveal with great simplicity what’s really at stake here. … When the discussions go to jobs and economics, what are the economics of restoration for a Superfund site? … What are the ramifications of, and economics of, health care when 30 percent of a population is going to have pleural thickening from the residue of mining asbestos?”

Audience members sit rapt by the speaker’s storytelling in the Klump Academic Center.

Bass grew up in Texas, which he describes as “an oil and gas culture … wonderful in the ’50s and ’60s and even into the ’70s. It was patriotic work, finding domestic oil.”

After working as a geologist in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Bass moved to Montana and fell in love with the Yaak Valley, an area near the Canadian border that inspired his activism.

“Having the insider’s scientific knowledge of the oil and gas industry has enabled me – not enabled – I think it’s authorized me to speak up. … It felt immoral to know what I knew and not speak out about it.”

Activism is only one piece of the author’s impressive resume. He is “one of the best writers of his generation,” according to the late George Plimpton, who served as editor of The Paris Review for 50 years. Novelist Carl Hiaasen, whose Newbery Honor winner, “Hoot,” was made into a major motion picture, said, “Rick Bass is a national treasure.”

The nation’s history – and how future generations might judge the actions we take today – help to define Bass’ commitment to stand up against powerful political and industry pressures.

“Any reading of history will show that the industries take what’s there and then leave, and leave a wreck behind,” Bass said. “There’s always regret. In the civil rights era, there was regret by people who did not advocate for civil rights enough. You know what’s right in your heart, and you don’t want to be someone who lives with regret, or having been quiet, while the monster ravaged something beloved – whether landscape or community or whatever.”

“Simple conversations with neighbors,” Bass suggested. “Not just with the ‘choir,’ but speaking up in public. I don’t mean in public forums. I mean not being afraid – if you’re in a temporarily oil- and gas-dominated economy or in the proverbial café or barbershop, wherever. Say, ‘You know what? I don’t like what this is doing here. I don’t like it.’

“Just have the courage to speak your heart,” he concluded. “Otherwise, you’re being censored. You’re being imprisoned. You’re being a hostage. We think of these great American values, such as democracy and freedom of speech. If you don’t have the comfort zone – or you can’t build in you the comfort zone – to say, ‘I don’t like what’s going on here’ … then, we’re not going to win.”

Winning political and public relations battles related to environmental issues is one way to secure a legacy for future generations. Another way is to choose a career that will allow you to positively impact the planet.

Penn College faculty featured in “Working Class: Build and Grow Green” describe a wide range of green careers, from horticulture; forestry; and building science and sustainable design; to electrical technologies; heating, ventilation and air conditioning technologies; building automation; and renewable energy.

“Working Class: Build and Grow Green” is available for viewing on the Working Class website,, which presents links to free resources that can assist educators who wish to use the film in their classrooms. The website also features “Working Class: Dream and Do,” the first episode in the public television series, which earned a 2016 Telly Award.


Nature Lesson

“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
- Chief Seattle

“I think, if you’re excited – as a grownup – if you’re excited about something, you’re going to pass that on. If you’re blasé about something, that’s going to come through.”

So says children’s book author and illustrator Henry Cole – who was featured in “Working Class: Build and Grow Green.” Cole gets excited about nature. The former elementary school teacher created and collaborated on more than 20 books, including “On Meadowview Street,” which he shared with youngsters during a 2016 event at Longwood Gardens.

While in line to have my own books signed at Longwood Gardens, I asked the author to suggest ways adults can nurture children’s love and respect for the natural world. He responded – as you might expect from a creative writer – with a story.

A selection of books by author and illustrator Henry Coles. Photo by Elaine J. Lambert

“If you’re afraid of spiders, your kids will be afraid of spiders,” Cole began. “This truly happened to me. I was at a large box store, and there was a woman in the aisle – this wide aisle at the store – and she had her hand gripping her little daughter.

“There was a little spider that was going across the aisle on the floor. I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God, what a terrifying place for a spider to be – at this giant store with all the feet and everything.’ Well, the mother went absolutely nutsy crazy, and she screamed, and she stepped on that spider and turned it into molecular particles in no time. I was thinking, ‘OK, there’s a lesson for that kid about spiders.’”

Cole contrasted the big-box store experience with his own upbringing, influenced by his “wonderful” Aunt Marian.

“I was probably 4 or 6 years old. … Aunt Marian was in the kitchen talking to my mom, and they were just talking – ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah.’

“Aunt Marian sees a spider on the kitchen floor. Instead of screaming and stomping on the spider, she picked up an envelope – a letter off the kitchen table. Still talking to Mom, she scoops the little spider up, takes it down the hall, out the front door, tosses it on the bush out in the front, comes back in, they keep talking.

“And that registered with me so powerfully. That spider – OK, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’ll help him out. I’ll take him outside and put him in the bushes. He’ll be fine. … Instead of doing the crazy step-on, step-on, smush, smush thing.”

Elaine J. Lambert