Poverty of the earth, poverty of the soul

In 25 days of walking through Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas it has rained exactly half of one day. Though I am writing about human poverty, I’m realizing that so much of human poverty is related to the environment.

Just as the haves in this country take from the have-nots, we are taking too much from the earth. For the first time as I’ve been walking I find myself in places where the economy is booming. A restaurant manager in Sayre, Tx., complained that he had to pay a premium for graveyard shift wait staff because no one wanted to work for such low wages. Jobs with oil and gas companies are plentiful in parts of Oklahoma and Texas. There are so many jobs that many hotels have no vacancies as workers have flooded the area.

I never expected walking across the United States to make me more of an environmentalist. And yet, in the same way that we neglect the poorest in this country, we also neglect the world around us. We take resources and give pollution. We use water as if it is endless. Of what value is a job that puts food on your table if it robs you of clean air and water?

More than a few people I spoke with proclaimed: “global warming is real.” Yet I saw little inclination to take better care of the earth. I watched one woman take a bag of trash from her car and place it on the ground as easily as she took a breath. She put the trash back in her car after I protested, but I could not wrap my mind around how someone could care so little about the mark left on the world.

One man told me that he believed BP had paid too high a fine for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and was confident that the environment there was now clean and thriving. “Nature cleans itself,” he said. I didn’t know if he truly believed that oil and gas companies could do no wrong, or if he feared accepting the truth.

In some ways it seems as if people have simply given up. When Route 66 was replaced by the interstate so many towns were left to wither and die. Now many of those towns are booming, though one would ever guess from appearances. I asked someone why they didn’t rebuild and he told me it is because people don’t expect the boom to last so they don’t want to build anything new. It seems people can only see their own livelihood in front of them and are blind to the larger picture, the larger cost both to people to the planet.

By the time I arrived in Groom, Tx., I was depressed to see yet another sad crumbling little town; another remnant of better years. Just as the Rust Belt has failed to accept that times have changed, so too have the little towns that sit along old Route 66. But somehow Groom is different. One need only walk into The Grill along Route 66 to feel the energy of the town. The restaurant, once called the Golden Spring Grill, was reopened a few years ago and is now a place where the community comes together. When I entered the restaurant I was gloomy. Before long, as random people, and eventually the owner, came to chat, I couldn’t help but smile.

All it takes is for one person to start to care. One person has the power to make a difference. So on I walk…

–by Jennifer E. Cooper