In this writing, taken from ‘The Ohio River Speaks‘, Will Falk describes the urgency in which he seeks to protect the natural world. Through documenting the journey with the Ohio River he strengthens others fighting to protect what is left of the natural world. Read the first part of the journey here.

By Will Falk/The Ohio River Speaks

Can a River Save Your Life?

The first headwaters of my journey with the Ohio River are located in despair. Despair and I have a long-term, intimate relationship.

Seven years ago, I tried to kill myself. Twice.

Suicidal despair is a failure to envision a livable future. The future never comes, so the future is built with the only materials at hand – experience. At times, my experience is so painful, and the pain lasts so long that, when I peer into the future, I only see more pain. When this happens, I sometimes ask: If life is so painful, if life will only remain so painful, why go on living?

I cling to my reason. I live for my family. I have seen the pain my two suicide attempts have caused my mother, father, and sister. My family also includes the natural world. I have been enchanted by the stories the Colorado River tells. I have watched the stars next to ahinahina (silverswords) on the slopes of Mauna Kea. I have seen a great horned owl dance on setting sunlight filtered through pinyon-pine needles.

This doesn’t mean, however, that I do not experience despair anymore.

Sometime last year, a spark flew from our shared global experience to fall into a tinderbox of my recent personal experiences and ignited the strongest inferno of despair I’ve felt in a long time.

I ended a long-term romantic partnership with a woman who, at one time, I thought was the love of my life. I moved in to my parents’ basement in Castle Rock, CO. And, an environmental organization I love working for almost internally combusted.

These realities are personally painful. But, they’re not unique. It is a global reality – the intensifying destruction of the natural world – that is the deepest source of my despair.

The love I feel for my mother and father, for my sister, for rivers, mountains, and forests, for ahinahina, great-horned owls, and pinyon-pines makes me deeply vulnerable. It wasn’t until I noticed the way people have been obsessively tracking confirmed cases of COVID-19 that I realized most people do not pore over studies about rates of ecological collapse like I do.

While COVID-19 is very scary, I find reports like the one from Living Planet Index and the Zoological Society of London in 2018 documenting a gut-wrenching 60% decline in the size of mammal, bird, fish, reptile, and amphibian populations in just over 40 years to be even scarier.

I am cursed with a profound sense of urgency to stop the destruction of the planet.

If millions of people are killed every year by air pollution, then each passing year is, to me, a heinous disaster. If dozens of species are driven to extinction every day, then each passing day is an unspeakable tragedy. If thousands of acres of forest are cleared every hour, then each passing hour is a horrific loss.

If all these things are true, then each passing moment screams more loudly than the last for the destruction to stop.  I haven’t found many others who possess a similar sense of urgency. I haven’t even found many others who possess this sense of urgency among fellow environmentalists. The lack of urgency displayed by environmentalists is especially frustrating because environmentalists are aware of the problems we face. Despite this awareness, most environmentalists are still drinking a stale Kool-Aid brewed with the substanceless sugar of ineffective tactics.

For example, I am a practicing rights of nature attorney. In 2017, I helped to file a first-ever federal lawsuit seeking rights for a major ecosystem, the Colorado River. For the past few years, I’ve worked for a nonprofit law firm, the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), that has developed a strategy for enshrining rights of Nature in American law.

American law defines Nature merely as property. Property is an object that can be consumed and destroyed. CELDF’s strategy, specifically, and rights of Nature, generally, seek to transform the status of Nature from that of property to that of a rights-bearing entity. This is similar to how ending American slavery required transforming the legal definition of African Americans as property into African Americans as rights-bearing citizens. Those with rights have power over those without rights.

And, in a culture based on competition, those with rights oppress those without rights.

A key component of CELDF’s strategy involves helping communities affected by environmental destruction to use their local lawmaking functions to enact laws granting Nature the rights to exist, flourish, regenerate, and naturally evolve. These laws also give Nature legal “personhood” which empowers community members to bring lawsuits to enforce Nature’s rights. Currently, under American law, if community members want to sue to stop environmental destruction, they must frame the problem as violating their rights as citizens. It is often more difficult to prove that environmental destruction directly harms humans than it is to prove that an activity harms an ecosystem.

If Nature was recognized as a legal person and communities simply had to prove that an activity violated the rights of Nature, then many destructive activities would become illegal. On the surface this may seem like a great strategy. However, this strategy depends on convincing too many people in power, who directly benefit from the status quo, to embrace and enforce rights of Nature. The powerful derive their power by exploiting Nature. Enforcing Nature’s rights would undermine their power. This is why they react so violently whenever their power is truly threatened. Even if convincing all these people to give up their power is possible, it will likely take decades to change the legal system into one that respects rights of Nature.

In CELDF, we are working hard to reinvent our strategy to reflect the recognition that legal change, by itself, is taking far too long.

Nevertheless, most tactics employed by environmentalists are based on achieving a voluntary transition to a sane and Earth-based culture. But, do we really think this voluntary transition is possible? And, even if we do, don’t we have to admit that this voluntary transition is taking a long time? As time slips away – and so much is destroyed and so many are murdered – shouldn’t we be most concerned with stopping the dominant culture as quickly as possible? When I suggest that we have an open and frank conversation about what it will take to truly stop the destruction, I am often dismissed as being unrealistic and too extreme.

This causes me to despair. When I despair for too long I become depressed and anxious. When I am depressed and anxious I shake, tremble, fidget, and pace. Over the years, I’ve learned that when this happens, my body is telling me to move. Unsurprisingly, one of the best medicines I’ve found for mental illness is exercise. Lately, though, my typical regimen for managing despair hasn’t been working. No matter how much I exercise, no matter how much stress I shed from my day, no matter who I spend time with, the flames of despair keep on licking the edges of my consciousness. The lack of urgency I find reflected around me also causes me to question my perception of reality.

Are things really as bad as I think they are?

It is natural to seek validation from other humans. But, most humans I know would rather not join me in my despair. Psychologist R.D. Laing in The Politics of Experience was correct when he wrote:

If Jack succeeds in forgetting something, this is of little use if Jill continues to remind him of it. He must induce her not to do so. The safest way would be not just to make her keep quiet about it, but to induce her to forget it also.

Jack may act upon Jill in many ways. He may make her feel guilty for keeping on ‘bringing it up.’ He may invalidate her experience. This can be done more or less radically. He can indicate merely that it is unimportant or trivial, whereas it is important and significant to her. Going further, he can shift the modality of her experience from memory to imagination: ‘It’s all in your imagination.’ Further still, he can invalidate the content: ‘It never happened that way.’ Finally, he can invalidate not only the significance, modality, and content, but her very capacity to remember at all, and make her feel guilty for doing so into the bargain.

This is not unusual. People are doing such things to each other all the time. In order for such transpersonal invalidation to work, however, it is advisable to overlay it with a thick patina of mystification. For instance, by denying that this is what one is doing, and further invalidating any perception that it is being done by ascriptions such as ‘How can you think such a thing?’ ‘You must be paranoid.’ And so on…

Similarly, it is easy to seek answers from television and computer screens. The internet provides more access to certain forms of information – like graphs, statistics, and written reports – than ever before. However, answers provided by graphs, statistics, and written reports will always be secondhand. I do not want to risk the invalidation of the experience of others that many humans are so adept at. Neither do I want to settle for secondhand answers.

I want to see for myself.

Earth is vast. Ecocide is extensive. I have neither the time nor the resources to rely solely on firsthand knowledge. Fortunately, the Ohio River is vast enough to implicate global reality while remaining small enough for me to witness with my limited budget and finite time. Meanwhile, my body urges me to move. So, why not put that movement to good use? Instead of killing birds, I’ll kill two drones with one stone, by embarking on a journey with the Ohio River. I can write, with eyewitness testimony, about how bad ecocide has become in the Ohio River basin. At the same time, I can ask the Ohio River if her waters can quell this despair burning within me.
I know I am not alone in my despair.

William Styron wrote in his poignant exploration of despair, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness: “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it, and it kills in many in stances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is general awareness of the nature of this pain.”

As I travel with the Ohio River, witnessing her many wounds, I will describe my pain. If she will help me bear that pain, I hope my story will show how a river can save your life.

Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem. He is a practicing rights of Nature attorney and a member of DGR.


Photo by Melissa Troutman.