During the acute phase of the Covid-19 pandemic, I kept thinking of Margarita Engle’s poem “More Dangerous Air.” The title seemed particularly resonant, and its a beautiful poem about growing up in an atmosphere of fear.
Newsmen call it the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Teachers say it’s the end of the world.
Engle documents the way we might flail, attempting to protect ourselves & our loved ones. We know enough to be afraid; we don’t yet know enough to be safe.
Early in the pandemic, people left their groceries on the front steps for days before bringing the bags inside. A year in, we were still needlessly scrubbing surfaces with toxic chemicals.
During the missile crisis, school children practiced fire drills, earthquake drills, tornado drills, air raid drills. (They didn’t yet need the contemporary era’s most awful: the active shooter drills.)
Hide under a desk.
Pretend that furniture is enough
to protect us against perilous flames.
Radiation. Contamination. Toxic breath.
The blasts are dangerous. But warfare with atomic weapons is different from other forms of violence. A bomb might kill you, suddenly; the poisoned air might kill you, slowly; the poisoned ground might maim generations yet unborn.
Each air-raid drill is sheer terror,
but some kids giggle.
They don’t believe that death
Radiation is invisible. Marie Curie didn’t know that it would kill her. Rosalind Franklin didn’t know that it would kill her.
We know, now. At least, some of us do.
Others – including a perilously large cadre of politicians – still think we ought to stockpile a behemoth nuclear arsenal.
Viruses are invisible. And they act slowly. Breathe in an invisible virus; a week later, you might begin to cough; three weeks later, your cough might worsen; a month after that seemingly innocuous breath in which you sucked a microscopic package of genetic code into your lungs, you might be in the hospital, or worse.
Connecting an eventual death to that first dangerous breath is actually a tricky cognitive feat! The time lag confuses us. It’s much easier for human minds to draw conclusions about closely consecutive events – a vaccine followed within hours or days by fever or heart problems.
Greenhouse gases are also invisible. If we drive past a power plant, we might see plumes rising from the towers, but we can’t see poison spilling from our cars, our refrigerators, our air conditioners, our meals. This is just good food on a plate! It doesn’t look like danger.
But we are changing the air, dramatically, in ways that might poison us all. Or – which is perhaps worse – in ways that might not affect us so much, but might make this planet inhospitable to our unborn grandchildren. Perhaps we will be fine. It’s humans born twenty years from now, or fifty years from now, who will suffer more.
Each individual can take action. You, as an individual, could fly less, buy less, eat plants.
You, as an individual, can only do so much.
When I hide under my frail school desk,
my heart grows as rough and brittle
as the slab of wood
that fails to protect me
We aren’t the first. Go outside and look around – the vibrant bursts of summer green are delightfully entrancing.
Our minds are plastic things – we make ourselves through the ways we live – but certain scripts were sculpted by our ancestry. Over hundreds of millions of years, the bearers of certain types of brains were more likely to be successful in life.
Creatures like us – who need air to breath, water to drink, shelter from sun and cold – often feel an innate love for the way summer light plays over a heady mix of blue and green.
We need all that green. The plants, the trees, the algae: for humans to survive the climate crisis we’ve been making, we’re depending on them. We need them to eat carbon dioxide from the air, and drink in hydrogen atoms from water, and toss back oxygen for us to breathe.
We’ve been poisoning the air, and they might save us.
Which is ironic, in a way. Because all that green – they wrought our planet’s first global devastation.
Saving us all this time would be like a form of penance.
Early in our planet’s history, there was very little oxygen in the air. Which was a good thing for the organisms living then! Oxygen is a very dangerous molecule. When we fall apart with age, it’s largely because “oxidative damage” accumulates in our cells. When grocery stores market a new type of berry as a “superfood,” they often extol its abundance of “antioxidants,” small molecules that might protect us from the ravages of oxygen.
The first living organisms were anaerobic: they did not need, and could not tolerate, oxygen. They obtained energy from sulfur vents or various other chemicals.
But then a particular type of bacteria – cyanobacteria – evolved a way to eat air, pulling energy from sunlight. This was the precursor to modern photosynthesis. Cyanobacteria began to fill the air with (poisonous!) oxygen as waste.
Many years passed safely, though. There was abundant iron then, on land and in the seas – iron drew down oxygen to rust.
Approximately two billion years passed without incident. All that iron buffered our planet’s atmosphere! It must have seemed as though the cyanobacteria could excrete a nearly infinite amount!
But then they reached a tipping point. The iron had all become iron oxides. The concentration of oxygen in the air rose dramatically. This hyper-reactive poison killed almost everything alive.
Perhaps cyanobacteria were punished for what they’d done. By filling the world with oxygen, they enabled the evolution of organisms with higher metabolisms. Creatures who lived faster, shorter lives, turbocharged by all that dangerous air. And these creatures – our forebears – nearly grazed their enablers out of existence.
Cyanobacteria were once masters of the universe. Then they were food.
And they were imprisoned within the cells of plants. Look up at a tree – each green leaf is a holding cell, brimming with cyanobacteria who are no longer free to live on their own. Grasses, ferns, flowers – every photosynthetic cell home to perhaps dozens of chloroplasts, the descendants of those who caused our planet’s first mass extinction.
A few outlaws linger in the ocean. Some cyanobactera still pumping oxygen into the air, the lethal poison that’s gulped so greedily by human lungs. Their lethal poison now enables our growth, our flourishing, our reckless abasement of the world.
And we are poisoning the air in turn, albeit in a very different way. In our quest to use many years’ stored sunlight each year, we dig up & burn the subterranean remnants of long-dead plants. The prison cells in which cyanobacteria once lived and died, entombed for millions of years within the earth, now the fuel for our own self-imposed damnation. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air is slowly rising. Our atmosphere is buffered; for a while, our world will seem unchanged. Until, suddenly, it doesn’t.
Some species, surely, will survive. Will thrive in the hotter, swingier, stormier world we’re making.
The world is complicated. There’s so much information out there, so much to know. And our brains are not made well for knowing much of it.
I can understand numbers like a dozen, a hundred. I can make a guess at the meaning of a thousand. Show me a big gumball machine and ask me to guess how many gumballs are in it, maybe I’ll guess a thousand, a few thousand.
But numbers like a million? A billion? A trillion? These numbers are important, I know. These numbers might be the population of cities, or of planets, or of solar systems. These numbers might be the ages of species or planets. These numbers might be how many stars are in the sky, or how many stars in the sky might harbor life.
These numbers don’t mean much to me.
I don’t think the problem is just my brain. I’m fairly good with numbers, relative to the average human. It’s been years since I’ve sat in a math class, but I can still do basic integrals and derivatives in my head.
Yet I can’t understand those big numbers. They don’t feel like anything to me.
So we make graphs. Charts. We try to represent information in ways that our meager human brains can grasp.
A good chart can be a revelation. Something that seemed senseless before is now made clear.
An apocalypse is a revelation. The word “apocalypse” means lifting the veil – apo, off; kalyptein, conceal. To whisk away the cover and experience a sudden insight.
An illustration that depicts information well allows numbers to be felt.
Often, though, we illustrate information and we do it poorly.
The scientific method is gorgeous. Through guesswork, repetition, and analysis, we can learn about our world.
But science is never neutral. We impart our values by the questions we choose to ask, by the ways we choose to interpret the world’s ever-oblique answers.
Geological time is often depicted as a clock. A huge quantity of time, compressed down into a 24-hour day. Often, this is done with the ostensible goal of showing the relative unimportance of humans.
Our planet has been here for a day, and humans appear only during the final two minutes!
Unfortunately, this way of depicting time actually overemphasizes the present. Why, after all, should the present moment in time seem so special that it resides at midnight on our clock?
The present feels special to us because we’re living in it. From a geological perspective, it’s just another moment.
Geologic textbooks invariably point out (almost gleefully) that if the 4.5-billion-year story of the Earth is scaled to a 24-hour day, all of human history would transpire in the last fraction of a second before midnight.
But this is a wrongheaded, and even irresponsible, way to understand our place in Time. For one thing, it suggests a degree of insignificance and disempowerment that not only is psychologically alienating but also allows us to ignore the magnitude of our effects on the planet in that quarter second.
And it denies our deep roots and permanent entanglement with Earth’s history; our specific clan may not have shown up until just before the clock struck 12:00, but our extended family of living organisms has been around since at least 6 a.m.
Finally, the analogy implies, apocalyptically, that there is no future – what happens after midnight?
Timefulness is a lovely book, but Bjornerud does not present a corrected clock.
And so I lay in bed, thinking. How could these numbers be shown in a way that helped me to understand our moment in time?
I wanted to fix the clock.
The first midnight is easy – the birth of our sun. A swirling cloud of gas condenses, heating as gravity tugs the molecules into more and more collisions. Nuclear fusion begins.
Gravity tugs molecules inward, nuclear explosions push them outward. When these are balanced, our sun exists. Twelve o’clock.
Two minutes later, our planet is born. Metal and water and dust become a big rock that keeps swirling, turning, as it orbits the sun. It’s warmed, weakly, by light from the sun – our star shone dimly then, but shines brighter and brighter every day.
Our sun earns low interest – 0.9% each hundred million years, hotter, brighter. But wait long enough, and a low interest is enough.
Someday, shortly before it runs out of fuel, our sun will be blinding.
By 12:18 a.m., there is life on Earth. We’ve found fossils that many billions of years old.
And at 7:26 p.m., there will be no more life. Our sun will have become so bright that its blinding light evaporates all the oceans. The water will boil so hot that it will be flung into space. The Earth will be a rocky desert, coated perhaps in thick clouds of noxious gas.
Currently, it’s 10:58 a.m.
The dinosaurs appeared 35 minutes ago. 9.5 minutes ago, all of them died (except the ancestors of our birds).
Humans appeared 1 minute ago.
So, we have 3.5 billion years remaining – another 8.5 hours on our clock – before we have to migrate to the stars.
Humans certainly can’t persist forever. Empty space is stretching. Eventually, the whole universe will be dark and cold, which each speck of matter impossibly far from every other.
But our kind could endure for a good, long while. Scaled to the 24-hour day representing the lifespan of our sun, we still have another 300 years before the universe goes dark.
So many stories could fit into that span of time.
It’s 10:58 a.m., and life on Earth has until 7:26 p.m.
Humans crept down from trees, harnessed fire, invented writing, and built rockets all within a single minute. Life moves fast.
Quite likely, life from Earth will reach the stars.
But it needn’t be us.
The dinosaurs were cool. They didn’t make it.
We naked apes are pretty cool, too. I love our cave drawings, art museums, psychedelic street art. Our libraries. But we’ve also made prodigious mounds of trash. We’re pouring plumes of exhaust into the sky as we ship giant flatscreen televisions from place to place.
We burn a lot of fuel for the servers that host our websites.
We humans aren’t the first organisms to risk our own demise by pumping exhaust into the atmosphere. The industrial revolution was fueled by ancient plants – our engines burn old sunlight. But many microbes are happy to eat old sunlight, too. These microbes also pump carbon dioxide into the air. They’ve warmed our planet many times before – each time the permafrost thawed, microbes went to town, eating ancient carbon that had been locked up in the ice.
Foolish microbes. They made the Earth too hot and cooked themselves.
Then again, the microbes may have more modest goals than us humans. We’ve found no fossils suggesting that the microbes tried to build spaceships.
For our endeavors, we’ve benefited from a few thousand years of extremely stable, mild climate.
We still have 8.5 hours left to build some spaceships, but a thirty second hot squall at 10:59 a.m. would doom the entire project.
So much time stretches out in front of us. We could have a great day. We, in continuation of the minute of humans who preceded us, and continued by the seconds or minutes or hours of humans who will be born next.
We shouldn’t let our myopic focus on present growth fuck up the entire day.
Honestly? My children are four and six. I’d be so disappointed if I took them for a hike and they guzzled all their water, devoured all their snacks, within the first minute after we left our house.
assume that you, personally, have never clear-cut and burned a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. Neither have I. The number of people who have done the actual
cutting is vanishingly small compared to the world’s population.
I also assume that you enjoy living in a world where the Amazon rain forest exists — certainly more than you’d enjoy living in a world where it had all been slashed and burned. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, climate change might spiral out of control, flooding coastal cities worldwide and causing desertification in much of the interior United States. If we lose the Amazon rain forest, huge numbers of species will go extinct, including a wide variety of medicinal plants that we’ve only begun to investigate.
the rain forest is beautiful. Future
generations would feel an ache of want – likely compounded with a mix of
jealousy and anger – if they saw photographs of the Amazon rain forest after it
I was in elementary school, my third grade class sponsored a patch of the
Amazon rain forest. In retrospect, I’m
not sure what this entailed. We raised
money and sent it off in an envelope. I
don’t remember whether we ever saw photographs of “our” forest, whether the
arrangement was supposedly akin to a rental or purchase of those trees.
have no idea who received our sponsorship money, but the general idea that
money should be sent from the U.S. to Brazil is actually correct. Many of the world’s problems would be easier
to address if we used a global wealth tax to fund a guaranteed basic income for
everyone. At the very least, if there
are natural resources that benefit all of humanity, then countries that are
currently wealthy because they ravaged their environments should pay to encourage
other nations not to accrue wealth through extractive industries.
Some people in Brazil would be wealthier if the Amazon rain forest were destroyed. Everyone in the world would suffer as a result. If we – everyone outside Brazil – would prefer that the rain forest not be destroyed, we should compensate Brazilians for the foregone short-term economic benefits.
you are fantastically wealthy, you personally will be unable to enact this
policy on your own. If I decided to
split my family’s entire annual income among the people of Brazil, each would
get 2% of a penny … and my family would be left with nothing.
guaranteed basic income is the right policy, but it’s not something that I can
accomplish as an individual.
In We Are the Weather, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how each one of us can help preserve the Amazon rain forest today. We as a people should strive for political solutions to the world’s problems, but we as individuals shouldn’t make choices that exacerbate those very problems. It would seem hypocritical to lobby for fines against littering if we continued to blithely toss candy bar wrappers onto the ground.
describes how painful it feels to recognize this hypocrisy in himself. This sensation grows more intense as he
watches his children grow in a world that is becoming increasingly dangerous.
what kind of father prioritizes feeling good over doing good?”
knows that he could choose to help. Each
day, he could act in a way that makes his children’s world safer.
is a far more pernicious form of science denial than Trump’s: the form that
parades as acceptance. Those of us who
know what is happening but do far too little about it are more deserving of the
anger. We should be terrified of
ourselves. We are the ones we have to
defy. … I am the person
endangering my children.”
if the meat or cheese you eat was not imported from Brazil, by choosing to eat
it, you are reinforcing the social norm that is causing the Amazon rain forest
to be destroyed.
Eating meat is pleasurable. A good cheese pizza can be divine. Humans evolved as omnivores, and the tastes of meat and cheese are particularly delicious. Choosing not to eat these foods would be a sacrifice.
Foer has tried to be a vegetarian for decades. He has previously written about the animal welfare arguments against eating meat; now he’s written about the environmental arguments. He knows that eating meat is immoral – the cow suffered to produce it, and Foer’s own children will suffer a worse climate as a consequence.
this knowledge isn’t enough. He still
surreptitiously buys cheeseburgers.
why hasn’t vegetarianism become any easier after thirty years? Why has it become harder? I crave meat more now than I have at any
point since I became a vegetarian.”
wishes that there were a social norm to eat only foods made from plants.
meat is pleasurable. Eating cheese is
heroin is pleasurable too. Driving a car
while drunk is pleasurable. Heck, even
cruising down the road while everybody else pulls aside for the ambulance
behind you would be pleasurable.
In our culture, there’s a social norm to pull aside for ambulances. Even though it would be more pleasurable to keep driving, most people don’t.
and cheeses are responsible for somewhere between 20% and 50% of all
(There’s a wide range in that estimate because, although it’s incontestable that it takes more land to produce meats and cheeses than it does to make equivalent foods from plants, it’s debatable what would be done with all that extra land if people changed their diets. If the extra space would be used to restore forests, then animal agriculture is responsible for 50% of climate change. If the extra space would be kept as grass – setting aside the curious question of why – then animal agriculture causes only 20% of climate change. Only 20%. By way of comparison, all the world’s cars, trucks, and airplanes together cause less than 15% of climate change. You can look at the appendix to We Are the Weather for an explanation of these numbers, or even glance at Donald Trump’s EPA website for some pie charts with identical information.)
If every gasoline-powered car was replaced with a hybrid vehicle – instantly, world-wide – greenhouse gas emissions would be about 96% of what they are currently. If that was the only change we made, our planet would be toast.
we all followed a social norm to eat food made from plants, greenhouse gas
emissions could be 50% of what they are currently. With no other changes, humanity would
survive. Our planet would remain
habitable for our children, and our grandchildren.
matters. I’m an atheist, and I’m well
aware that the eventual heat death of the universe means humanity will
go extinct eventually. I don’t believe
you can make a viable philosophical argument for existence based on helpfulness
or social connections alone – your life needs to be pleasurable, too.
life can be pleasurable without meat or cheese.
I support responsible hedonism.
Good food is a joy, but you can eat well while making only choices that
protect our planet. Most people think
that sex is great fun, but we have a social norm that you should enjoy your
sexuality only with other consenting adults.
Groping a beautiful stranger might be more fun than eating cheese – in
our culture, a social norm restrains us.
wishes that we, as a people, could choose better. He’s been struggling to eat food made from
plants. But he doesn’t struggle to
restrain himself from murder, or theft, or groping his students. In those instances, our social norms make it
easy to do the right thing.
And you can still be a hedonist while eating plants! If you’re ever in Chicago, you should stop by my dear friend Auntie Ferret’s vegan deep-dish pizza restaurant, or use Happy Cow to find a decadent plant-based restaurant near you.
When I was ten years old, I read about a new card game, Magic, in the local newspaper. The article described the basic conceit of the game – you are a wizard who must conquer territory to power your spells – and a few of the cards – the article mentioned Giant Growth, which it said “is just a big rat.”
I was enthralled. It took about a year of searching before I found a place to buy cards, but eventually the local hobby shop would siphon away all my babysitting money.
My favorite card was Squee – a goblin who keeps returning from the dead. Squee was pretty powerful when combined with Survival of the Fittest, which lets you trade your weak creatures for more powerful monsters, and Goblin Bombardment, which lets you fling creatures at your enemies. But I loved Squee disproportionately to his power. This little monster, swimming in his robes, is blessed with infinite renewal … just like humanity’s original misconception of nature.
Before the industrial revolution, no single generation could change the world enough to prove this notion wrong. Humans cut down trees, but there are so many trees and more grow all the time. Humans wash their clothes or defecate in the river, but new clean water flows. Humans hunt game and catch fish, but – as long as you make a god-placating sacrifice every now and then – there will always be more animals to eat.
Jared Diamond remarks upon our inability to notice slow changes in Collapse, his (tragically relevant) account of the factors that cause civilizations to die:
I suspect that landscape amnesia provided part of the answer to my UCLA students’ question, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say as he was doing it?” We unconsciously imagine a sudden change: one year, the island still covered with a forest of tall palm trees being used to produce wine, fruit, and timber to transport and erect statues; the next year, just a single tree left, which an islander proceeds to fell in an act of incredibly self-damaging stupidity. Much more likely, though, the changes in forest cover from year to year would have been almost undetectable: yes, this year we cut down a few trees over there, but saplings are starting to grow back again here on this abandoned garden site. Only the oldest islanders, thinking back to their childhoods decades earlier, could have recognized a difference. Their children could no more have comprehended their parents’ tales of a tall forest than my 17-year-old sons today can comprehend my wife’s and my tales of what Los Angeles used to be like 40 years ago. Gradually, Easter Island’s trees became fewer, smaller, and less important. At the time that the last fruit-bearing adult palm tree was cut, the species had long ago ceased to be of any economic significance. That left only smaller and smaller palm saplings to clear each year, along with other bushes and treelets. No one would have noticed the falling of the last little palm sapling.
It probably took several generations before trees were expunged from Easter Island. As Homo sapiens migrated into Europe, the Americas, and Australia, most large animals were driven to extinction, including all other species of humans. The Homo sapiens involved probably had no idea what they were doing. Each generation would see some decline in the abundance of an animal, but nothing to worry about. The last few deaths would occur among a people who had no idea what was lost.
In Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the narrator considers whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
The narrator promptly dismisses this fear. Yes, buffalo were driven to extinction in America, but only because a single man could slaughter thousands. At that time, the concerted efforts of many were needed to kill each whale.
Even so, the whales seemed to be disappearing. But the narrator – so obsessed with the hunt that he hardly notices when he’s deluding himself – rejects the evidence:
And equally fallacious seems the conceit, that because the so-called whale-bone whales no longer haunt many grounds in former years abounding with them, hence that species also is declining. For they are only being driven from promontory to cape; and if one coast is no longer enlivened with their jets, then, be sure, some other and remoter strand has been very recently startled by the unfamiliar spectacle.
Sperm whale populations plummeted. Gestation lasts over a year; mothers care for their young for a decade; males sexually mature at eighteen and aren’t fully grown until their fifties. They could not reproduce as quickly as we could kill them.
Most whales are extremely social, and communicate in ways that humans don’t yet understand. Their songs show signs of local culture, as do their hunting strategies. Those centuries of “harvest” may have caused several dialects or languages to be lost.
Sperm whale populations have since recovered. But several other species of whale are endangered. Our discarded plastics waft through the sea. The waters are becoming sufficiently acidic to kill off coral reefs.
The ocean is not nearly so infinite as we humans once thought it to be.
Recently, technological progress has become so fast that the world changes noticeably within single generations. For tens of thousands of years, each human’s life resembled that of the parents. Even after some humans developed an agrarian lifestyle and began curating the evolution of favored plants and animals, the world changed slowly. Over many generations, Zea mays went from a useless scruffy grass to buxom-kernaled ears of corn. But, over the course of any single farmer’s life, the corn gnawed during senescence could probably be mistaken for the corn of youth.
Whereas my grandmother’s cellphone / camera / computer combo looks radically different from any of the bulky, ineffectual devices available when she was young. And my parents’ generation – whose lives spanned the development of modern agricultural practices – has seen a precipitous fall in all non-human animal life. In The Moth Snowstorm, Michael McCarthy describes this decline:
It had been the most powerful of all the manifestations of abundance, this blizzard of insects in the headlights of cars, this curious side effect of technology, this revelatory view of the natural world which was only made possible with the invention of the motor vehicle. It was extraordinary; yet even more extraordinary was the fact that it had ceased to exist. Its disappearance spoke unchallengeably of a completely unregarded but catastrophic crash in Britain of the invertebrate life which is at the basis of so much else. South Korea may have destroyed Saemangeum, and China may have destroyed its dolphin, but my own country has wrecked a destruction which is just as egregious; in my lifetime, in a process that began in the year I was born, in this great and merciless thinning, it has obliterated half its living things, even though the national consciousness does not register it yet. That has been my fate as a baby boomer: not just to belong to the most privileged generation which ever walked the earth, but, as we can at last see now, to have my life parallel the destruction of the wondrous abundance of nature that still persisted in my childhood, the abundance which sang like nothing else of the force and energy of life and could be witnessed in so many ways, but most strikingly of all in the astonishing summer night display in the headlight beams, which is no more.
And that’s just the decline since 1989. Over the course of McCarthy’s life, insect populations may have fallen by 95% or more. And, because of the “landscape amnesia” described by Diamond above, it’s difficult for anyone born later to even realize what’s been lost. We assume that whatever world we’ve been born into is normal.
Last night, Uncle Max woke me to go outside at 3 a.m. Afterward, I lay in bed listening to the birds singing.
Fewer birds sang at night when I was growing up. But they are adapting to our world. Our streetlights shine all the time, and our cities, during the day, are so loud that their songs cannot be heard. Humanity’s persistent racket is infiltrating even the most secluded corners of the world.
Some plants need silence for seed dispersal—revving cars can scare away rodents that might otherwise do the job. Animals need silence to hear predators approaching or to communicate with their mates: A bird whose song would normally travel 100 meters would, with a 10-fold increase in noise, have its melody stifled to a 10-meter radius. “In so many landscapes, both people and other organisms are living in shrunken perceptual worlds,” says [ecologist] Clinton Francis.
In The Songs of Trees, David Haskell describes the way our forests should sound – the natural world has its own rhythms, its own music. In the following passage he listens in the Amazon:
A tinamou sings the forest’s vespers. Although this turkey-size relative of the emu is seldom seen, its melodies accent every dusk. The sound is the work of a silversmith, pure tones that the artist melts and crafts into ornament. The inflections and timbre of the Andean quena flute are surely inspired by the songs of these birds. In the understory the dark is comprehensive, but here in the ceibo crown, dusk lingers another thirty minutes, the orange gray western light of sunset reaching us unobstructed as we hear the tinamou’s song.
As the light drains, bromeliad frogs spasm chuckles and grunts from aerial ponds. They call for five or more minutes, then cut to silence. Any sound will set them off again: a stray frog call, a human voice, the bleat of a roosting bird trodden by a companion. Three species of owl join the frogs. Crested owls punch regular groans from below, keeping in touch with mates, neighbors, and the youngster that the pair have hidden in the low branches of an Inga tree. The spectacled owl’s repeated low, rubbery calls wobble around their crooked axis like a badly aligned tire. A distant tawny screech owl sings a high to-to-to-to, an endless, jabbing ellipsis. Insects pulse high drills, clear, sweeping chirps, saws, and tinkles. Monkeys and parrots whose sounds dominate the day have dozed away. The upper leaves of the ceibo chuff in the sharp gusts that accompany the sunset, then the wind eases and stillness comes to the tree.
But these forests, too, are threatened. The ancient trees are cut down and the music wanes. One after another, pockets of nature are forgetting how to speak. Again from Haskell:
In the center of town, Quichua men in suits work with and within the local government. The central, national government hurts and kills the ceibo mother tree, cutting her away piece by piece. Even conservation programs encourage people to cut away the trees. We lose our medicines and hunting. State-driven conservation erodes the indigenous community. Without intact territory, owned and managed by the indigenous community, the forest falls into incoherence, the community dies.
The evidence of harm is all around us. Our world sounds wrong, tastes wrong, smells wrong. We’re scraping too few bugs off our windshields after long drives.
And, if we don’t act, our children won’t feel that they need to. A hot, loud planet will feel just as normal to them as the planet we inherited felt to us.
Our world was stolen. Current wealth, even when no recent crimes transpired to obtain it, flows from a legacy of murder, theft, and oppression.
I’m no communist, mind you. It’s quite clear the the total wealth available to the world is not a static number. People’s effort to create more should be rewarded. The basic principles of capitalism are, to my mind, the best way of doling out those rewards.
For instance, the wealth of many modern nations comes from oil reserves. But petroleum, for ages, had little value. It was noxious black muck. Wasn’t until the invention of machines that use petroleum as fuel that oil became real wealth.
And it’d be ridiculous to claim that the wealth of internet barons was merely appropriated. They had ideas, and in recognition of the value of those ideas, they were given wealth. Those inventors did nothing wrong.
The problem is, the wealth they were given is tainted.
This is easiest to see when we consider wealth tied up in land holdings. Millions of years ago, bands of Homo sapiens ranged over relatively small tracts of land. Many other species of humans also inhabited the planet, and the land was shared with other animals (although I’ve noticed that when my daughter shares toys with other toddlers, there’s generally less spilt blood, singed fur, and rent flesh than there would’ve been when early humans “shared” territory with wolves, lions, hyenas, elephants, hippopotamuses, etc.).
As time went on, Homo sapiens spread and killed off all other species of humans, either directly, with spears through the chest and rocks concussed against skulls, or indirectly, by excluding competitors from fertile land and waterholes, letting the conquered tribes fragment and starve and slowly waste away. The spread of Homo sapiens was a violent apocalypse for all other humans. There were zero survivors.
Homo sapiens didn’t just kill off their human competitors. Throughout most of the world, the spread of Homo sapiens coincided with the prompt extinction of all other large animals (Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens has a lovely discussion of the archaeological data supporting this. You can get a pretty good sense of the impact of Homo sapiens migration by looking at the “Timeline of History” that Harari compiled, with entries like: “45,000 years ago: Sapiens settle Australia. Extinction of Australian megafauna.” “16,000 years ago: Sapiens settle America. Extinction of American megafauna.”).
And then, once the world harbored growing numbers of Homo sapiens, clash after clash occurred as newcomers made forays into already-settled land. Sometimes the newcomers were repulsed. It’s unlikely that we preserve a record of many of those instances, because a failed invasion is generally more transient than a successful one, and the archaeological record would show no dramatic changes since the same style of architecture and artifacts will predominate in an area before and after.
Which always seems unfair. After each wave of violence, a culture becomes established that would like for the cycle to end. Sure, history up until now has featured wave after wave of newcomers coming and crushing and taking, but now that we are here the killing should stop.
I think this idea is conveyed beautifully by a line from Marcel Proust (trans. CK Scott Moncrieff): “But like those persons recently decorated who, their investiture once accomplished, would like to see the fountain of honor turned off at the main, Mme Bontemps would have preferred that, after herself, no one else in her own circle should be made known to the Princess.” A gorgeous phrase, “the fountain of honor turned off at the main.” And quite telling. It’s incredibly common for people to buck at the idea of losing their status to others who follow their own footsteps.
For a contemporary example, you could read Alec MacGillis’s recent opinion piece. He provides several examples of past beneficiaries of government aid voting to end that aid for others once they themselves no longer need it.
No matter how our good fortune came about, we don’t want to lose it to others.
So, the world formed. Then humans spread and claimed certain tracts of land as their own. Then humans kept migrating and re-claiming land. Taking it from others. In relatively modern times, the argument was often put forward that previous inhabitants were not using the land well and so had no real claim to it. This was the justification given for the slaughter of Native Americans, and the same argument is alluded to in Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake as regards the slaughter of the people who built Stonehenge:
anglisc folc cum here across the sea many years ago. wilde was this land wilde with ingegas with wealsc folc with aelfs and the wulf. cum we did in our scips our great carfan scips with the wyrms heafod and we macd good this land what had been weac and uncept and was thus ours by right
Roughly: English folk came here from across the sea many years ago. The land was wild with foreigners, natives, elves, and wolves. Our people came in dragon-prowed ships and then worked the land to make good what had been weak and unkept, so the land was ours by right.
But there are many ways to define what good stewardship means. Although they did not build fences, by many measures the Native Americans took better care of their land than the European settlers did after stealing it. And this same argument could be used by any culture with more advanced technology than another. From the perspective of someone who discovers a more productive farming method, vast tracts of U.S. farmland could be seen as underutilized and therefore free for the taking.
We’ve had many years now of relative stability in ownership of land, but this is due in large part to the knowledge that any unrestrained attempts at conquest could now exterminate the entire species. Yes, newspapers make the world sound violent. But compared to the past (and especially if you weight this comparison for population density), the advent of nuclear weapons has slowed the spigot of violence to a trickle.
Still, it’s worth acknowledging that violent conquest set an initial distribution of holdings that our current allotments stem from. That’s why it’s so valuable to consider what those conquests might have felt like for the losers. Their tragedies birthed our prosperity. True gratitude for our lot acknowledges what they lost.
It’s horrifying to consider what the end times must have felt like for the last of those people who had built Stonehenge. Did they know that their culture was being obliterated? Even worse, what did the end times feel like for the last Neanderthals? The last Homo habilis? The last Homo floresiensis? Did they know that their kind were going extinct? Did an individual Neanderthal know that his language would be lost forever, his myths forgotten, his lineage come to an absolute halt?
In The Wake, Kingsnorth addresses these horrors in a not-too-unfamiliar way by depicting the travails of an Englishman losing his world to the Norman Invasion. The protagonist is wicked, the owner of large land holdings that he forces servile tenants to work for him, an occasional wife beater, wielder of a sword smithed by a revered figure who raped and murdered the innocent children of his adversaries… but Kingsnorth presents him sympathetically. The man’s family is killed by the French. He is driven away from his land. And his way of life is coming to an end. In Kingsnorth’s words,
The Norman invasion and occupation of England was probably the most catastrophic single event in this nation’s history. It brought slaughter, famine, scorched-earth warfare, slavery, and widespread land confiscation to the English population, along with a new ruling class who had, in many cases, little but contempt for their new subjects.
As long as we restrict ourselves to considering events for which we have historical documentation, I’m inclined to agree. The language I now speak was starkly branded by that occupation. Some of the most telling relics are our words for meats. The names of the animals stem from their Old English roots, because the animals continued to be raised by the conquered people. The names for prepared meats come from French, because French speakers ate the food. Cows and swine and sheep become beef and pork and mutton once they’re ready to be served.
Kingsnorth’s book begins with the protagonist as a man of appreciable wealth.
three oxgangs of good land i had and two geburs to worc for me on it and four oxen of my own for the plough this was mor than any other man in this ham. baerlic i had and rye sceap and hors also i had swine pasture holt my own water aeppels on many good treows
a great man i was in my ham all cnawan me a seat i had on the wapentac and free i was from the worc of other men. this was my land it was my fathers land i will not spec of my father. geld wolde i gif but only to the gyng not to the thegn. sum lytel worc wolde i do for the thegn for this was how things was but no man was ofer me no man will be ofer me
But then he loses his land. All Englishmen lost their land, because after the invasion it was all claimed by their new king. Kingsnorth points out that a legacy of that violence is still with us today, because a huge percentage of land in England is owned by just one percent of the population. Although that concentration of wealth almost certainly would have occurred eventually, Normans or no. There was nothing particularly special about the culture of that particular set of murderers and thieves that led to the current distribution of English wealth.
Wouldn’t have needed violence, even… although if you’re plotting a massive land grab, history has shown us that violence clearly helps. But, inequality has been with us forever. From the beginning of time, not all territory was equally productive. Some spots were better for fishing or hunting than others, and there’s no reason to suspect that these were equitably shared. With more advanced technology, the severity of inequality that can be maintained increases. It’s easier to tax and horde grain than felled elk. And easier still to horde gold. Grain rots. Gold does not.
Plus, as technology advances, the productivity of a worker’s efforts diminish in comparison to the productivity of owned wealth itself. This is easiest to see if we consider advances in something like shoemaking. At one point in time, a worker would make an entire shoe. That worker’s skill and training determined how good the shoe would be, so the worker was highly compensated. Later, a worker would stitch just one single component in a factory. The identity of the worker did not matter much; how hard would it be to train someone new to make that stitch? So compensation decreased. Later still, the shoe will be made entirely by a machine. Our worker will do no work, and won’t be compensated at all. Only the owner of the machine makes money.
It’s pretty clear that the concentration of wealth Kingsnorth writes about would have happened eventually. But in this world, in England, it happened then.
I do wish, though, that Kingsnorth had written his book in English. As you probably noticed from the excerpts I quoted above, it isn’t. The language he invented is related to modern English, but I found it difficult to read. Multiple sentence fragments are often conjoined without clarifying punctuation, many words are spelled eccentrically, and archaic words are used in place of their contemporary equivalents. Kingsnorth explains this choice as a way to emphasize the temporal setting of his work.
The early English created the nation we now live in. They are, in a very real sense, the ancestors of all of us living in England today, wherever our actual ancestors come from. Despite this link, though, their world was distant from ours; not only in time but in values, understanding, mythopoesis. Language seemed the best way to convey this.
Personally I disagree with this reasoning, but I have to admit that my disagreement stems from my own failings. I speak only English and read many books in translation. I’d like to think that I can understand Proust even though he saw the world as a French speaker and I’ve read only English translations of his work. I’d like to think that I can understand the Ramayana even though I can’t read the original Sanskrit. I’d like to think that I can understand Beowulf, which is set amongst people with beliefs very similar to those that might’ve been held by Kingsnorth’s characters, even though I read Seamus Heaney’s translation into contemporary English.
(Heaney did permit himself a few archaic terms. I love his explanation for one of these: “Putting a bawn [Irish word for fortification] into Beowulf seems one way for an Irish poet to come to terms with that complex history of conquest and colony, absorption and resistance, integrity and antagonism, a history which has to be clearly acknowledged by all in order to render it ever more ‘willable forward / Again and again and again.’ ” And it made me smile that the word Kingsnorth used for “foreigner” was translated by Heaney as “stalker.”)
Even though I would’ve rather read Kingsnorth’s book in contemporary English, I should point out an unexpected (for me) virtue of his choice. The book’s language compels a reader to slow down. Many passages are difficult to understand without sounding out words. Parsing sentences without much clarifying punctuation requires careful attention. And good literature rewards attentive reading. In our era of glitzy headlines and scrollable text, there’s some merit in forcing people to read assiduously.
All told, I appreciated the chance to read Kingsnorth’s take on the end of a world. It gave me a lot to think about. And makes me want to read more about the last Neanderthals. It’s just brutal, trying to empathize with the magnitude of their loss. Sure, I know that species go extinct all the time (another species vanishes forever every ten minutes… not that this isn’t tragic), but it hits so much harder knowing they were humans. People with their own cultures, languages, dreams.