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Tree huggers

08/01/07 7:55AM By Olin Robison

(HOST) Lately, commentator Olin Robison has been giving quite a bit of thought to hopeless campaigns, unpopular causes and the people who dedicate their lives to them.

(ROBISON) A "tree hugger" in today's American culture is seen to be as impractical a person as you are likely to find; generally a person who makes a fool of himself or herself on behalf of a lost cause - especially in environmental matters.

Well, dearly beloved, I am here to say that we need more of them. Not just people who hug trees, of course, but people who seriously devote themselves to apparently lost causes.

We need more people who see themselves as the opposites of the fictional Gordon Gekko in the movie "Wall Street." Remember him - played by Michael Douglas? He was the one who proclaimed shamelessly that "Greed is Good."

Most "tree huggers" are single issue people, which is to say that they tend to espouse one view and one cause. Their politics are usually unencumbered by complexity. They tend to subscribe to the questionable belief that all good things are compatible. Frequently their views simply block out any other view which might make their cause seem impractical or improbable.

Years ago when I was on the alumni dinner circuit for Middlebury College I met a woman, an alumna of the College, who was devoted to hippos. She knew which zoos in the United States had hippos and the circumstances in which they were kept in each place. She had very clear ideas about how the hippos should be housed and cared for. I am sure that there were many zoo directors around the country who found this woman to be an irritant or even a nuisance. But so what? They probably treated their hippos better because of her.

I do not remember the woman's name, but I do remember her devotion to this unlikely cause. More power to her - wherever she is now.

When I first started to write this commentary there was a temptation to call it, "Tree Huggers of the World, Unite." But that would have been truly silly. The world's tree huggers are not going to "unite." They are basically anarchists at heart.

But some have united. The rise of international non-profit organizations as advocacy groups has been extraordinary over the last few years. Good examples are Greenpeace and Amnesty International. Such groups attract donations from individuals who believe that governments generally do a lousy job of looking after the public interest in so many of these areas.

Many of us are dismissive about neighbors who pursue such things. But, in my opinion, we ought not to be. If you want to save the whales, or speak up for hippos, or hug a tree, go ahead, do it! And the chances are that the world will be a slightly better place because you did.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.

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