A few years after my wife Audrey and I had the eye-opening experiences that made us into advocates for the environment, I asked my mother:
“So Mom, what do you think about the environment and people working to protect it?” “Oh chile!” scoffed the 80-year-old community leader. “That’s just them people trying to get money from the government.”
Shocked, we sputtered, “Really? But what about nature? Don’t we have to protect nature?” “Oh Nature – that’s a whole n’other thing. We have to protect nature because you know, we can’t breathe concrete,” she said emphatically.
Mom has been gone six years now (a program at Delevoe Park in Fort Lauderdale this Saturday, Nov. 29 will honor her life) and I often think of her words when I observe the destruction of the environment around us, accepted so casually by the population even as scientists warn of imminent collapse. Could it be that a mere difference in words and perception stand in the way of the environmental revolution that is urgently needed?
I feel very lucky to have experienced South Florida from the 1940s as a boy growing up in Dania, pronounced “Danie” by us locals. The rich agricultural area teemed with an abundance of wild fruits and vegetables that we children picked and snacked on as we walked to school, and fields of tomatoes grew down to the Intracoastal. Dania was known as “The Tomato Capital of the World,” and our signature event was an annual parade and festival complete with the crowning of “The Tomato Festival Queen.” The outer limits of our community was SR 441, where the Everglades began. Everything beyond was practically wilderness.
The current state of urbanization makes it hard to imagine this very recent past, and perfectly illustrates how our environment can be dramatically altered in a short time. Worse, many current residents have no idea that the area was so recently rural and agricultural. Having seen the changes over the course of my lifetime, I am acutely aware and therefore more sensitive to the warnings of climate scientists who say our environment is undergoing a significant climactic shift.
Increasingly destructive weather events that happen more frequently, and rising seas that flood and displace communities are among the effects we are already seeing. On the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, South Florida is in the bull’s eye as the ocean rises. It’s hard to fathom, but many people remain detached from the issue as if it has nothing to do with them. The truth is, it has everything to do with everyone, and will affect us from our pocketbooks to our very lives.
By more Americans becoming engaged with these issues and communicating with each other and our Congress, we can make a positive difference in promoting respect for nature and restraint in its use. My long term experience with our local environment combined with the insight gained working on these issues over the past 20 years give me a unique perspective which I am delighted to share with you. Over this series I plan to share the story of how the draining of the Everglades coupled with the Great Flood of 1947 killed tomato farming; how commercial development of the Everglades changed our environment; and how the conservation movement saved large tracts of land and water that now form part of our national heritage.
Audrey and I will also strive to keep you abreast of national issues that affect our environment and natural resources, and suggest ways that you can choose to become involved. Finally, I will share some of the ways in which communities such as the Gullah Geechee people on the Low Country Sea Islands are already experiencing and adapting to climate change.
Whether you call it nature or the environment, the bottom line is that we shape it and it shapes our lives. The more plugged in we are, the greater the likelihood that we can influence a positive outcome.
Frank and Audrey Peterman are national award winning environmentalists, speakers and authors living in Fort Lauderdale. www.legacyontheland.com.