I’LL NEVER GET what I most want in the world. I’ll never even come close. What I want more than anything is to live in a world not being killed. I want to live in a world with more wild salmon every year than the year before. More migratory songbirds. More blue whales, slender salamanders, red-legged frogs. More prairies, canebrakes, native forests, beds of sea grass. I want to live in a world with less dioxin in every human and nonhuman mother’s breast milk, a world with fewer dams each year than the year before. I’ll never live in that world. I’ll never know what it’s like to live in a world with more butterflies each year, where each year frog songs get louder, flocks of birds get larger, as do herds of bison, herds of elephants. A world where seeing a tiger or wolf or marten or hawk or eagle or condor is not remarkable in the slightest. I’ll never see that world. I’ll never know that security, that homecoming.
I WANT TO LIVE in a world where nonhumans—animals, plants, fungi, rivers, stones, mountains, forests, lakes, oceans, ice caps—aren’t perceived as resources, backdrops, impediments, or pests, but rather as other beings, ones whose lives are as valuable to them as yours is to you and mine is to me. That world is far enough in the future that, if it comes to be, I won’t live long enough to see it. Nor will any of us who are alive today.
None of us alive now will ever even gain the gift given to Moses: a glimpse of the Promised Land. We will never know whether we’re going to make it, or whether this culture of war on the natural world will continue to grind away until nothing is left but ashes and dust. We will never know what it’s like to live in a world not grievously wounded.
I HAVE ON MY WALL that famous photograph from the Civil War of three Confederate prisoners standing by a fence after the Battle of Gettysburg. Whenever I look at it, I think about the world they saw. Flocks of passenger pigeons so large they darkened the sky for days at a time, flying sixty miles an hour and sounding like rolling thunder. Ancient forests of heart pine. Carolina parakeets. When these men lived, bison still lived on the plains by the scores of millions. Salmon still ran strong in the Columbia and other rivers up and down the Pacific coast.
A healthy, vibrant, fecund world existed once, not even so very long ago. It still can, where this culture isn’t killing it. Which means it is possible for it to exist. Which means it might be able to exist again.
Which doesn’t alter the fact that neither you nor I will ever see it.
WHAT WILL THOSE who come after us think of us? Will they envy us that we saw butterflies and mockingbirds, penguins and little brown bats? Will they envy us that we lived on a planet as beautiful as it still is? Or will they hate us for what we did and did not do? Will they wonder what was wrong with us that we didn’t fight like hell when the world was going down?
What will those who come after us think of us? Will they envy us that we saw butterflies and mockingbirds, penguins and little brown bats?
I USED TO THINK the reason so many people aren’t more concerned is that our culture teaches us to be narcissistic. The world is ending, so spend your 401(k) now! And certainly this argument is coming through. It’s what capitalism teaches us. It’s what the selfish gene theory teaches us. It’s what advertising teaches us. But I’m learning that it’s not narcissism. No matter how much it may seem we’re inculcated into serving only ourselves, the truth is that we have been inculcated into a protectiveness—not of the world, but of our culture.
A central function of any abusive system—from the familial to the social—is to create a class of servants beneath the abuser class, one indentured to the greater system. Our culture teaches us not to serve ourselves. (Otherwise, why would we put up with the destruction of our communities, the despoliation of the air, water, and land we need to survive? Why would the audience member have remained so stoic about his hand?) Instead, we are to serve the culture itself. We’ve been coerced into identifying more with the dominant culture than with our own bodies, more with capitalism than with the earth on which the economy rests, more with civilization than with the battered and bleeding and heartbroken beings who are our brothers and sisters on this planet. In that sense, our unwillingness to defend life on Earth commensurate with the threats isn’t a big mystery. People defend what is valuable to them, and our culture values nothing more than itself.
Some examples may help make this clear. The climate change activist Lester Brown has written book after book with titles like Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (which at least one university has made required reading). For many years, he ran an organization called Earth Policy Institute, providing a plan to save civilization. “We talk about saving the planet,” he says, “but the planet’s going to be around for a while. The question is, can we save civilization?”
When two hundred species were listed extinct today, when the oceans are being killed, when wildlife around the world has declined by half in the last forty years, when bee populations are collapsing, when frog populations are collapsing, when fish populations are collapsing, what he sees at stake, and what he’s racing to save, is the very civilization at the root of all this harm.
He’s certainly not alone. Here’s Peter Kareiva, chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy: “Instead of pursuing the protection of biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake, a new conservation should seek to enhance those natural systems that benefit the widest number of people.” Also: “Conservation will measure its achievement in large part by its relevance to people.”
Even among climate change activists, biocentrism has fallen out of favor. And yet reality is biocentric. We are biological beings. Every one of us is the result of the biological miracle of sexual reproduction. Your body is alive, and my body is alive, because of biological processes, like breathing and metabolizing, without any of which there is no existence.
People defend what is important to them.
AT A TALK ONCE, I was chided for saying that our culture was killing the planet. An audience member called my statement arrogant. “We aren’t killing the planet, merely transforming it,” he said.
In response, I borrowed a pocketknife from someone elsein the audience and then approached the man and asked him for his hand. He refused, of course, as would any sensible person. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I’m not going to kill you. I’m just going to transform you.” (None of this was in earnest.) “I’ll cut off a finger here—that’s salmon being driven extinct. A toe there—goodbye, passenger pigeons. Then another finger—sharks—and then the butterflies, another finger. I’ll peel off skin—that’s agriculture plowing up prairies. But none of this will kill you. It’s arrogant to think I even have that power. You’ll just be transformed.”
“Extinction is natural,” he said coolly.
“If it was someone you loved—your lover, your parents, your children—I suspect you wouldn’t be so quick to call it natural,” I said.
This finally provoked a reaction from him, one I won’t detail except to say that it’s only when you care about something that you fight for it. (I was glad he wasn’t the one holding the knife.) “If it were someone you loved,” I’d said, and suddenly he stopped scratching his chin thoughtfully and rationalizing pain and torture and murder. Suddenly, he was ready to fight like hell, to give his life, to save the thing he loved.
I’LL NEVER SEE a world that fully reverses its decline. Social change doesn’t happen in a moment. That’s not even how change happens on a personal level. When I got out of the hospital after a terrible flare of Crohn’s disease in my early twenties, I was so weak I couldn’t walk upstairs—to get to my bedroom, I had to crawl. It was days before I took my first walk outside. I made it out the front door and down the sidewalk only as far as the next house before I had to turn back, exhausted.
In response to my frustration over my slow recovery, many times over the next several months, my mother would say to me, “It took a long time to get sick. It will take a long time to get better.”
I think often of words attributed to Sophie Scholl, who gave her life fighting the Nazis:
The real damage is done by those millions who . . . just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves—or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honor, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.
She never lived to see the end of the Nazi regime.
Which doesn’t alter the fact that she did her part to end it.
And end, it did. O