Somehow we’ve come to think of the environment as a thing outside us. As if it were a place, or a monument built out of rock face, or a lonely mammal swimming in the sea. When people confess among friends to caring about the environment, their voices often adopt a wistful tone. The friends stand back to give that emotion room, and then the conversation eddies back to more earthbound topics . . . As if it does not take years of determined social conditioning to teach the animal out of us. As if that animal part does not die, but merely recedes into submission, watching without language as we molest and poison its home. The part of us that learns language must also learn apathy in order to be unmoved by the sound of this animal part of us screaming. If that noise escaped, it would be cacophonous. The sound would be unbearable. It is the sound of a body being tortured.
Just as the powers that be subdue the body to rule, so must they at all times keep their boot on the earth’s neck. Would we see this abuse better if we saw the earth as a body? We know much of it is alive. From the trees we grow as decoration to the animals we breed like slaves. Ever make eye contact with a cow standing in a foot of its own shit? You cannot say for sure it does not understand its subjugation as a form of torture. It would be hard to say even that. And yet we persist—looking away from the obvious moral costs of our lifestyles so that we can eat far more meat than we need to, while the cattle are left to protest in the form of gas heating the planet.
We are beyond the point of this being a mere character flaw. Our needs as humans have for so long superseded the needs of the earth, and now the earth is fighting back: heating up, breeding superviruses, throwing up catastrophic weather events. Meantime, most of the species that have ever lived are now dead, murdered for tidier cup holders, plastic straws, the ability to drive a two-ton vehicle by ourselves a distance we could walk just so we can drink a beverage harvested from beans grown six thousand miles away out of a cup that will take three lifetimes to deteriorate. Pause to appreciate the astonishing gluttony of this act and its costs. The part of us that is animal is still screaming, but we push it down; we get back in our vehicle the size of the animals that once lived freely on the savannas, and we drive another mile, back to a temperature-controlled home powered by endless water and endless light.
We, the small but powerful few, have lost the ability to conceptualize the indecency of our condition. So we must now redefine what the environment is to us. As rational thinkers, we know inequality to be created by a consolidation of power and resources. You do not need to take an economics class to understand that unchecked inequalities inevitably reach a critical mass and lead to tyranny. In the world of humans, we have reached critical mass. Just twenty-six people are worth the collective labor of over 3 billion. Think of all the waking and lifting and sweating and weeping and breaking and healing and waking again that simple statistic indicates. Bottle the sound of all that work. Hear its keening. Now think of the earth. Humans are just one of its approximately 8.7 million species. Yet we consume all of its biocapacity and then some. In ten years, we will need a second planet to support ourselves.
Our relationship to the environment is an indecency; it’s not sustainable. And yet we have made a silent pact with the powers that be, which makes this condition far worse: I will turn my face from this gluttony in my name, and you will continue to enrich yourselves beyond all imagining. Enormous fortunes are not made from thin air. They are produced by seizing the resources and labor of many and putting them in the hands of the very, very few. If we are ever to become ethical citizens, we need to recognize this cycle and its costs. That inequality among humans is always connected to inequality among the earth’s species, to whom we are the twenty-six mega-billionaires. We must learn to listen to the animal agitating for change inside us, and those all around us, and reengineer our lives away from the activities that we know depend on torture—of animals, of land, of the sea, of the air. We know what to cut back on. We know where we can scrimp and save. Our bodies have been telling us in all the languages but the ones we speak. O
This piece is an excerpt from John Freeman’s
Dictionary of the Undoing (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).