Today is Earth Day. Today we plants trees and remind ourselves to take care of the planet. It is a wonderful thought. Unfortunately it is too little too late. Global warming is upon us. Species are going extinct at an alarming rate. In 1970 Senator Gaylord Nelson created the idea of a national teach-in on environmental issues. The environmental movement as we know it today coalesced in the early seventies. Lately I have begun to think that what might be called mainstream environmentalism contributes to our lack of action. That seems counter-intuitive. Haven’t the efforts of the Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy made us more aware and fought the good fight? Doesn’t Earth Day wake people up to the need to take care of Mother Earth? The reality is that Earth Day is treated a bit like Easter for Catholics or Black History Month for everyone in America. Something you show up for once a year to express platitudes and go back to business as usual the next day.
In my twenties I was an avid reader of naturalist writing. I absorbed Barry Lopez, Henry David Thoreau, Terry Tempest Williams et al. Their writing still forms the bulwarks of my intellectual architecture. Yet there was a limit I sensed in the antagonism between “civilization” and “nature”. If you swallow whole the assumptions of the environmental movement you come to a couple of irreducible conclusions. The first is that human beings are inherently bad for the planet. The second is that the works of humanity and this other thing called “nature” are forever at odds. There is a belief that if we can just “get back to the garden” and reject the industrialized world everything will return to equilibrium. This is where the environmental movement fails. When the doomsday predictions of environmental writers overwhelm the individual’s capacity to action or that the hope of an Edenic return remains out of reach, despair and ennui set in. Belief in “Nature” as something to be saved puts one in the position of Jim Carrey’s character in The Truman Show. At some point he will sail into the wall of the stage set and discover that the construction was not in fact the world, but a container. The building had been passing itself off as the whole world.
I just read a trio of books that helped me to crack open the thin shell of inherited belief and articulate my doubts. This is not a jeremiad against environmentalism. Quite the opposite. It’s the next evolution. The books– The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton, The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert and The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen created an unexpected potion for my cramped psyche. The Ecological Thought is a companion to Morton’s book Ecology without Nature. The book refers to the ecological thought not an ecological thought. Morton explains that once you truly accept ecological thinking you can’t believe in something called “Nature” that exists outside of us. If nature is something “over there” and we are not part of it, it means there is no ecology. The more we look at interconnectedness we realize this “me” is really a “we”. We are floating islands of microflora and tiny insects. Our genes share DNA with just about every other living thing on the planet. We are made up of carbon that matches the carbon in stars. Consciousness is not a special human trait. Morton says that the ecological thought means that we must accept the mesh. The mesh is the situation we’re in, not in a “we’re all one, everything is beautiful” manner but in a “complete loss of self, we’re woven into the entire universe” way. We are not top dog. In David Cronenberg’s The Fly the scientist Seth Brundle (Jeff Goldblum) has inadvertently spliced his genes with a housefly. During his slow transformation he says to his old lover played by Geena Davis, “I am an insect who dreamed he was a man and loved it. Now the dream is over and the insect is awake.” Morton suggests we all wake up to our insect and our amoeba and so on. The more we know about the ecological mesh the stranger the world looks, the more alien. Morton points out that mainstream environmentalism is a product of capitalism. Capitalism weaves a constant narrative of its own inevitability. For capitalism everything is a dead resource. It relies on vivisection both physical and spiritual and then sells us back the frozen parts. For Morton even transcendent, romantic attitudes lead to either fascism or laissez faire complicity. The first thing in accepting the mesh for Morton is to abandon thinking about making everything “back to normal” or finding an equilibrium based on shaky values. We must accept that we have already irrevocably altered the planet. We must make a space for a different kind of cooperation with everything around us. We must learn to live in the world that is here.
Charles Darwin is a guiding spirit in both The Ecological Thought and Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent new book The Sixth Extinction. Both authors correct the erroneous popular interpretation of Darwin’s theories pointing out that cooperation, weakness and dumb luck more often than not saved a species. Kolbert chronicles the species disappearing before our eyes. It is a heartbreaking and hard thing to read. She points out that what may have served a species for millennia could suddenly become a hindrance. This is just the kind of thing that a business leader or entrepreneur might claim as proof for the need to “evolve or die”. What the business world doesn’t understand is that business itself is a maladaptation that needs to change.
There have been five previous major extinctions. This is the first caused by one single organism. Kolbert’s approach simultaneously tracks current extinctions and the history of the idea of extinction. Not that long ago the Earth and life forms on it were thought to be immutable (except to myriad mystic traditions and early mythology). Science comes out of the Enlightenment tradition in which something called “Nature” hovers outside of humanhood. Since Nature is inert material it is there for us to exploit. The closer science looked into the fossil and geologic record the more belief systems had to be calibrated. We now know that landmasses float and buckle and sink, that species die off and that we are a very recent and it turns out catastrophic species. All the other major extinctions had to do with climate shifts because of larger forces. But this might leave us at the same place most environmentalism leaves us- humans are just bad for the earth. What both Kolbert and Morton tell us is that the change is afoot. Once a species is gone it’s gone. We have terraformed the whole planet.
After Peter Mathiessen’s death earlier this month I decided to listen to an audiobook of The Snow Leopard. I found a copy that he himself read a couple of years ago. I got the book so that I could listen to it while I did oil paintings of neighborhood trees– a strange, somewhat furtive impulse on my part. I’ll write more on that later. Mathiessen’s gruff worn voice is so full of warmth that the listening is infectious. Snow Leopard chronicles the events shortly after the death of his wife. Mathiessen agreed to join his friend George Schaller, a biologist, on a trek to the Himalayas. Mathiessen was a practicing Buddhist so he tells the story unsentimentally and full of grace. Normally this kind of story would focus on macho intrepid explorers bringing wisdom from a primitive land. Mathiessen turns the story into a humbling letting go of self. With clarity he brings the reader into his own shaky understanding of perception. At one point he equates the frightened clinging to a narrow mountain path to the clinging we do with our desires and sense of self. The ego as a bully. In his ragged voice he quotes his Roshi telling him before the trip, “Expect nothing!”
In some ways, all three writers are telling us to expect nothing. They are telling us that clinging to false hope or “returns” to something pristine only result in suffering and despair. Expecting nothing is not the same as capitulation. There are many Buddhist prayers that go out to all sentient beings. Those beings are inside of us, under us above us in other universes. They are part of the mesh. There is no nature to save. Don’t despair or accuse me of raining on the celebration of the Earth. It is not just one day but the rest of your life. Liberate yourself from a belief in a stranger called nature. You are looking at yourself. Knowing we are part of the mesh awakens us to a life in which we are fully participatory. I call for compassion for all sentient beings. I request we stop believing in capitalist fantasies about our dominance. I add that business is not an inevitability, but a construct to be redesigned. We need a mass shift in consciousness. I ask that all of us in the mesh wake up to interdependence. The question on this Earth Day is how will we live a truly ethical life, one that is in full cooperation with the world?