Sustainability is about ecology, economy and equity.- Ralph Bicknese

Treading Lightly on the Earth


“She walks lightly upon the earth. She knows the truth: We’re as likely to hurt the universe as we are to help it” The Fault in Our Stars, John Green.

images (5)John Green’s newest book takes an intriguing stance on nobility. Like many authors, he explores what makes a hero. But while his contemporaries advocate for obtusely noble qualities like bravery and self-sacrifice, The Fault in Our Stars impresses the heroism of treading lightly upon the earth. 

This memorable statement can be read in many ways. Though the novel explores gentle living vision in mainly social terms, it’s environmental message isn’t too far of a stretch. Just by living, we interact and change our environment. And Green’s message of living gently for the least impact resonates with audiences, partially because he examples such living by two cancer-ridden teenagers.

Green  draws readers into this theme by contrasting the motivations of his two main characters. Augustus’ brash, optimistic drive to leave a great mark upon the world seems heroic at first, but as the plot develops readers see the flaws in this view. Striving for greatness often leaves a wake of destruction. And The Fault in Our Stars explores our capacity for such ruin: “The marks humans leave are too often scars.”

Humanity has definitely left its scars upon the earth. Pollution, animal extinction, and resource depletion are only some of our distinguishing marks. Even if our motives are to improve the world, Green’s novel argues that we must diligently watch our actions to prevent careless ruin.

But Augustus’ drive juxtaposes Hazel’s gentle caution. She, at least, recognizes that everyone can and must affect their environment just by living and dying. Hazel images herself as a grenade — a powerful metaphor that expresses the potential each human contains.

As the author said in a Q&A, “Hazel’s conception of a well-lived life is all about walking lightly upon the earth while she’s here.” Instead of making great strides like other protagonists, Green’s heroine Hazel tiptoes around to lessen her impact on the world. All of Hazels actions are bent on causing the least amount of damage possible. Hazel doesn’t remain passive, but neither does she seek action.

As a university bent on “Changing the World,” I think that we could learn a lot from Hazel’s lifestyle. We push students to go out and leave their mark upon the world without asking if they should. True, our abundant energy and enthusiasm makes us the prime group to do make a real change, but we [often ignorantly] assume that our marks will be beneficial to the world. The idea of greatness is seductive enough to overlook potential consequences.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t aim high or shouldn’t act to help others. But before we act, we should ask ourselves: “Will this create more harm than good?” Sometimes you must approach the earth like it is a fragile excavation site and only leave gentle footprints.

“People will say it’s sad that she leaves a lesser scar, that fewer remember her, that she was loved deeply but not widely. But it’s not sad. It’s triumphant. It’s heroic. Isn’t that the real heroism?”

Author: Sara Kenning

Sustainability Assistant at Seattle Pacific University's Office of Facility and Project Management

2 thoughts on “Treading Lightly on the Earth

  1. this is an author I need to become acquainted with; I’ve seen and heard his name enough times in the right contexts, that it’s clear he has something important to say to us today and says it well. Thanks for this post