We’ve seen a lot of bad news lately from the dismaying results of our last local election and a slew of reactionary court decisions at the state and national level to the re-emergence of the chaos in Iraq and the seemingly daily news reports of growing evidence that our widening level of economic inequality is becoming an entrenched and sadly taken-for-granted part of our new normal.
Even as we head into the heedless days of summer, we are greeted by yet more studies showing that the climate change fostered by our unsustainable way of life is causing huge chunks of the antarctic to break off which will result in rising sea levels and more severe damage to our ecosystem and consequent human suffering.
If you are paying attention, it’s hard not to be angry. But, of course, there is already a virtual industry in place designed to turn people’s anger in the wrong direction, to deny basic facts about history, the economy, political power, and the actual state of the natural world. Thus, just when we need to be turning the car dramatically to avoid the crash, there’s no one at the wheel.
So instead of struggling to come to terms with our mistakes and/or working toward possible solutions to our problems at the local, national, and global level, we too frequently find ourselves unable to even agree on basic facts. As William Carlos Williams put it decades ago in “To Elsie,” there is “No one/ to witness/ and adjust, no one to drive the car.”
It’s enough to move one to join Mark Twain in giving up on “the damned human race.”
Indeed, when the world is too much with me, I frequently turn to nature in an effort to balance the horror that surrounds us with the wonder and beauty that also surround us. On camping trips in the deep woods or forays into the desert or the jungle or hikes to the tops of ancient volcanoes, my family and I are always drawn toward the refuge of nature and the miracle of the animal world.
In wild places I do not think of Twain’s disgust but of Whitman’s love in “Song of Myself” where he muses:
I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contain’d,
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition,
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins,
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God,
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
So they show their relations to me and I accept them,
They bring me tokens of myself, they evince them plainly in their possession.
And what they show us about ourselves is that we are but small parts of something much larger than the constructed world that we confuse with reality. It is the vast, interconnected web of life where we do not occupy the center. Perhaps that’s what is amazing when we encounter a bear in the woods, a rare bird in the back country, or catch sight of a green turtle showing herself to us before retreating to the sea–they remind us of our larger selves in a way that humbles and enriches us. They don’t care who we are. They just are in a way that we have forgotten how to be.
Nature mocks our pretenses and reminds us of how small and vast we are at the same time; it points us toward the intricate interpenetration of all that is. It brings us the wisdom we lack.
But we are killing it. Killing ourselves. Really.
In late May as many of us were fretting about or oblivious to the trials and tribulations of the “civilized” human world where ignorant armies clash by night, a report did the rounds that noted that:
Species of plants and animals are becoming extinct at least 1,000 times faster than they did before humans arrived on the scene, and the world is on the brink of a sixth great extinction, a new study says.
The study looks at past and present rates of extinction and finds a lower rate in the past than scientists had thought. Species are now disappearing from Earth about 10 times faster than biologists had believed, said study lead author noted biologist Stuart Pimm of Duke University.
“We are on the verge of the sixth extinction,” Pimm said from research at the Dry Tortugas. “Whether we avoid it or not will depend on our actions.”
And the causes are all human–habitat loss, climate change, over-fishing, the acidification of the oceans, pollution, etc. And if you don’t care about the buff-tufted-ear marmoset, the oceanic white-tip shark, or the unholy litany of other creatures we have or will soon banish from the earth, you should know that the folks who study this stuff are serious about this “sixth extinction” business. As one of the scientists interviewed by the Washington Post put it, “If we don’t do anything, this will go the way of the dinosaurs.”
Stick that in your iPod and listen to it every morning you are lucky enough to wake up.
In her landmark book of the same name, The Sixth Extinction, An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert traces the history of the five previous mass dyings and examines the factors that are pushing us toward a sixth. For instance, we learn that today the sea is thirty percent more acidic than it was in 1800. And if we continue our “business as usual” carbon dioxide emissions pace, it will be one hundred and fifty times more acidic than it was at the start of the industrial revolution by century’s end. That, many scientists believe, will be the tipping point where the ecosystem starts to crash.
What is most frustrating is that while we still debate the basic reality of climate change and ecocide in American political circles, we are in the process of pumping two and a half billion tons of carbon into the oceans this year alone. And this is only one of the key human actions that are, in effect, murdering the planet.
I think much of the current environmental movement has, as Naomi Klein recently noted, been seduced by the idea that we can manipulate current systems to save the environment when those systems are the problem. Simply put, we need to challenge the fundamental principles of consumer capitalism and rethink the progress narrative we have worshipped since the Enlightenment or we are in deep trouble.
As Thich Nhat Hanh observes in Love Letter to the Earth, “our addiction to consumerism, to buying and consuming things we don’t need, is causing so much stress, so much suffering, both to ourselves and to the Earth . . . . Only love can show us how to live in harmony with nature and with each other and save us from the devastating effects of environmental destruction and climate change.” But of course, that kind of reevaluation of values isn’t even part of mainstream discussions. Hence, there are some gloomy forecasts out there.
Indeed, some people, like those at the Dark Mountain Project have abandoned hope that the world as we know it can be saved and are looking for the “hope after hope” that will sustain us in an age of ecocide.
Grim stuff, but pondering mass extinction in the near future–for our children’s children–will do that to you. As Kolbert dryly notes in her introduction, “If Extinction is a morbid topic, mass extinction is, well, massively so. It is also fascinating.”
And my ten-year old son does find it fascinating. He wonders what his city will look like if the waters rise and talks about how people could live differently to help save the earth. Recently, in Hawaii where the signs in the National Park tell him that over fifty percent of indigenous bird and plant species are now extinct, we were lucky enough to see three handsome endangered birds–‘amakihi, ‘i’iwi, and nēnē–and some glorious endangered green sea turtles.
I asked him what he thinks about when he sees animals that are on the brink and he said, “I think it’s sad, but it’s also really cool. It’s something so rare that most people never see. Like a rare thing that somebody buys, but you can’t buy this. It’s more precious than that. You just remember it. And you hope you can see it again some time, that they will still be there.”
My son’s favorite was the nēnē, the flightless goose that only lives on the volcanoes of four Hawaiian islands, high in the clouds where the surreally silver ‘ahinahina grows as it too hangs on for dear life. We may not be able to turn and live with the animals, but we should at least be grateful for their presence and mourn them as they pass from our lives forever.