Sometimes I feel as if most of the world is on a different page, and then I have to wonder if it’s something that’s wrong with me. With regard to environmental issues, I feel very much as I did right after 9-11. I worked in an office then and as soon as the second plane hit, I was torn between sorrow at the loss of life and immediate concern that George W. Bush would use the attack as an excuse to tear up the Middle East and tear up civil liberties at home. Those thoughts expressed aloud didn’t go over well. I was supposed to be patriotic, nationalistic. To be bifurcated between loss/sorrow and concern for the future wasn’t allowable.
And now I wonder if it’s the same situation, different context. I feel out of step with so many people I respect about global warming and about the environment. Not enough urgency. Solutions that seem not to address the basic problem.
I wonder if E.O. Wilson may feel the same–especially given his latest book, Half Earth, which made me nod, aghast at the things he documents–the rationale by some that because so many places are compromised, no places are worth fighting for. That somehow we should give in to rampant greed and corruption and unexamined business practices and just turn the world into asphalt and cities, with maybe some small gardens and zoos to document a past in which the nature we came out of still existed.
I see so much rhetoric that makes no sense to me. Business as usual is sociopathic. Continuing existing practices, even if global warming did not exist and was not human-made, would be a kind of self-destruction. The kind of act that would mean we should expect no pity and no mercy from any extraterrestrials who came down from above to judge us.
We are not smart enough to gauge the complexity of the world around us, even as we feel entitled to destroy it in the perverse, finite name of re-making the world to hold more of us and to contain less of everything else. Yet scientists tell us even insect brains are more intricate than we previously knew. Bears are complex organisms with feelings. Birds are highly evolved and still offering up their secrets. And yet somehow we think we are entitled to kill them whenever we like. We somehow still operate from the idea that the wealth of the world is infinite.
But this attitude goes beyond how we think of animals, how we create rationalizations for how we treat them that allows us to continue to exploit and destroy them. It is also about the landscapes we inhabit and how we think of them.
James Bradley on facebook alerted me to this great piece on the Eastern Curlew, which reads in part, “To refer to a place, particularly a natural landscape, as ‘liminal’, demonstrates not imagination but a catastrophic failure of imagination: it is to refuse or to be unwilling to see a place for what it really is, which is above all else of itself.”
I was thinking of this when watching the last third of a critically acclaimed movie about kind-of aliens, Midnight Special. It’s actually a pretty bad movie that disguises this fact with a very smart first half. But by the second half, the pay-off is a disturbing kind of closing-down into Hollywood cliche, and cliches about the world we inhabit. I can’t pretend that it didn’t hurt me to see the movie makers use the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge as a backdrop for what is basically a hymn to sentimentality and senselessness, but any natural backdrop would have shown the dysfunction of the movie.
Leaving aside the many illogical moments in the movie’s late stage, there’s a scene in which alien structures appear in the backdrop of the marsh reeds of St. Marks. It is the very exemplification of what the Eastern Curlew chapter warns against, as jarring as it is distasteful. To the filmmakers, the natural world–the wonders of that world–are just the frame for the real wonder: a vision of another wondrous other world that is straight out of 1950s science fiction, with all the blinkers that implies.
In fact, there is little to differentiate the horrible banality of that final vision in Midnight Special from the visions in Tomorrowland, a lively movie that is still, in the end, unthinking in its foundational assumptions. In Tomorrowland, as if to articulate what Midnight Special only presents as visual subtext, the protagonist gets to a vision of a glorious 1950s-ish technologically positive future while waist-deep in a swamp depicted as fetid and distasteful. Waist-deep in one of the very kinds of ecosystem complexity that might one day be the salvation of our species if we can unlock its secrets and/or restore its primacy to our landscapes.
It’s little wonder then that in both Midnight Special and Tomorrowland the vision of utopia is of clean, crisp concrete and glass, with little moments of carefully cropped and cultivated greenery. But this is not a vision of utopia: it’s a vision from the past for one thing, because it’s no different from those 1950s extrapolations. And it’s also a vision of dystopia, because it is once again a failure of the human imagination to integrate culture with nature. (Those who want to say humans are part of nature rather than a thing apart may be deluding themselves at this point–assuming we all share the same definition of “nature.” Those who take this distinction as license for dominion may be psychotic or selfish or corrupt or just don’t care.)
The truth is we won’t survive if we don’t bend, if we don’t adapt, if we don’t look at the natural world–from which we are now officially and terribly estranged–and more swiftly and in more areas take our cues from it. If we do not tell better stories with a more multi-dimensional and empathic imagination. And, ultimately, if we don’t make our tech mimic the “tech” of the natural world, we are, quite simply, toast, and the planet with us. In reality and on the level of ethics and morality.
Because in continuing to pursue a course of hard tech that is simply incompatible with quality of life for us and other organisms, we are pursuing a species-wide derangement. One that refutes science. One that refutes logic. One that, in the end, refutes any right to call ourselves ethical or moral. No amount of carbon trading to try to get out from under global warming will solve this larger problem.