HOW TO LET GO OF THE WORLD AND LOVE ALL THE THINGS CLIMATE CAN’T CHANGE
The earth’s a dot, compared to the sun, but a person’s a dot compared to the earth. I remember as a kid asking my father: “if the earth is round, why does it look flat?” His answer, of course, was that it is so enormous that we can’t see it’s curvature.
Somewhere along the way to now, human beings got the notion that, big though it is, the earth is a brute, compared to human beings. We haven’t always thought that way. Most of us know at least a few of the innumerable stories about the respect with which the First Nations treated the earth and our sister animals.
But the dominant European civilizations — self-perceived superior white civilizations — over the centuries have cultivated the idea that we don’t have to live in harmony with earth, that she can be controlled and fully exploited like a horse or an ox or a captured wild animal, an elephant in a circus or a zoo.
Heraclitus, an ancient Greek philosopher, is remembered for a couple of especially wise sayings, one being that everything turns into its opposite. Yes, for our arrogance towards our natural habitat, we are on the verge of being humbled big time. It’s as if we are starting to feel earth wobbling in its orbit. So much for human control!
So many alarm bells going off at once that no one of them can be effectively addressed. It’s all crisis management from here on out. Look at the growing number of species on the endangered or threatened list, for example. Big deal, some would like to say, at least in reference to little, out-of-the-way species that most of us have never heard of. So that crisis goes way down on the list of crises
But, dammit, there’s that great web of being that we ourselves are inextricably woven into Certainly we won’t lose frogs and honey-bees without consequences. Tigers. What a blow, even to the human imagination, to contemplate our planet without tigers. “Tyger, Tyger, burning bright/ in the forests of the night/…”
We’re all one — there’s another Heraclitus saying from way back there. And the world in which we’ve been “all one” for centuries is fast becoming like the river that he says we can never step into again. With no equally interesting river to replace it.
If the history of the final chapters of the human race could be written by some imaginary visitor from outer space, who found our demise interesting enough to piece together, this is what he or she might say:
Human beings got duped by their belief in progress, by their over-reaching pride (hubris) in directing progress, managing progress. In the end days of civilization, the illusion that they were bigger and stronger than the earth herself — that they were the sovereign and she was their servant — got so locked into their small heads that they couldn’t shake it loose. And billions of years of evolution were lost in a very short time.
(And here would typically come into an essay like this, or into a movie around this theme, the obligatory: “IT’S NOT TOO LATE, BUT WE HAVE TO ACT NOW.”… But I’m going to leave that part out.)
There was an anti-fracking event held recently at the Palace Theatre in Frostburg, Maryland. It was held around a showing of Josh Fox’s new documentary, “How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change.” Fox got his start a few years back with “Gaslands,” an early scathing criticism of the fracking industry.
This new movie went for the bigger picture of environmental degradation, focusing on the relationship between climate change and the fossil fuel industries. Fox went to see firsthand the many devastations going on, for example the Marshall Islands disappearing into the sea due to melting glaciers and polar ice caps. Big changes. Fast changes.
Then he went to Beijing, totally engulfed in smog so thick he could barely see the hand in front of his face. People were wearing oxygen masks as a matter of everyday behavior. Air was an enemy. The outdoors had disappeared out of their lives. Beijing is the film’s centerpiece in terms of a very pessimistic view of the future. Fox, who narrates the film, wept twice at what he was seeing and hearing.
There were several interesting people interviewed along the way. One I liked particularly was a young man of about 35 who had infiltrated an auction of American public lands which were being sold for the exploitation of their natural resources. For that, he got two years in federal prison, a sentence which he was just about to begin serving. He said that in his early years as an environmental activist, his despair over the situation lowered the quality of his work. Then he reinterpreted the word “despair,” not a weight on his back, but as a anchor in the center of his being. It was a helpful insight. To him, and to me.
Up to this point, it is refreshingly dark movie (what can be more refreshing than the truth). But indeed, near the end, Fox found a way to go falsely upbeat. I should have been ready for it from the title, “letting go of the world; loving all the things climate can’t change” which I guess has a ring of hope to it. But by the end, the “letting go” part was more or less let go of. There was footage of the young Chinese man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square, implying this is what it is going to take. Like “it’s going to be tough, but we can do it.
I could have accepted such an ending if it had stopped there. But the Tiananmen Square Tank Man was but a prologue to what seemed to me a cheap kind of cheer-leading: we can’t let the situation get us down; if there’s any chance to save a world so far gone, we can’t get down in the mouth. Let’s have fun while fighting against the odds, however long they may be. Let’s dance. Party all night.
Mr. Fox, I wanted to say. Could I have a moment here to feel sober about the state of the world that you’ve focused for me so convincingly. The ending made me feel you weren’t taking your own message seriously. I know that your decision to go upbeat most likely came from the thought that you can’t leave the audience feeling hopeless — although at the heart of the film, hopeless was the sentiment you expressed most clearly. Do I not remember at one point your saying, “it’s over.”
Back once more to that imaginary being from outer space, piecing together our demise, I’d have this visitor happen upon a book written in 1973 by Paul Shepard, The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. Shepard develops the thesis, quite convincing in its details, that the life of our Pleistocene ancestors of 12,000 years ago, before the words civilization and progress were coined, was superior to what we have now.
If it’s not over, these will be the small pockets who make it through the coming cataclysms. The Pleistocenes still among us.