Because extinction shouldn't be an option!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Lessons from Literature

Okay, so in response to a post on my blog's Facebook page about's 10/10/10 day of climate action someone posted an article about a Nobel Laureate who, though he agrees that we are ruining the planet, our efforts like renewable energy and eating local are useless. So we should just have fun while we can.

Okay, I have written a couple of blog posts on this space myself bemoaning our distraction with buying green and quick fix-its. This problem will not be solved without anything short of a complete makeover of our society. Or else it's game over. Furthermore, I know we've already inevitably bought a fair amount of climate change, and mass extinctions. But I won't accept that that gives us some go ahead, as in "since we already fucked up, let's make sure it's as royally as possible."

And I certainly take issue with the "since we're screwed, let's just have fun and put all the recycling in the trash and let's just let our SUV's idle overnight."

Here's the thing: we're all going to die one day. You, me, your dog, your kid. But does that mean we should jump off cliffs, smoke three packs a day, and shoot some people while we're at it, because we know the inevitability of our demise? If you are diagnosed with cancer, and your chances of recovery are slim, but possible, are you going to say "screw it all," and just do nothing, or are you going to fight like hell for that recovery, to extend your life--whether it be 2, 20 or 50 years?

We should try as a species to survive as long as possible, and to fight like hell for the extension of our fellow species. Whereas recycling and living a lower waste life as one person can address the larger issue isn't the point. It is one less person contributing to a problem.

Maybe my actions, such as abstaining from using plastic straws, won't save all marine life or even come close, but that's one less straw (and hundreds or even thousands over the course of my lifestime) spared from the sea. And that is certainly one, or even a dozen, less seabirds and mammals who will NOT choke to death on my personal waste. I owe it to myself and to other human beings and creatures to be the best person I can be, and not look to the mob for a cue or a pass on how to behave based on convenience or laziness.

Here's a favorite quote of mine to further illustrate this point:

Strolling along the edge of the sea, a man catches sight of a young woman who appears to be engaged in a ritual dance. She stoops down, then straightens to her full height, casting her arm out in an arc. Drawing closer, he sees that the beach around her is littered with starfish, and she is throwing them one by one into the sea. He lightly mocks her: "There are stranded starfish as far as the eye can see, for miles up the beach. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?” Smiling, she bends down and once more tosses a starfish out over the water, saying serenely "It certainly makes a difference to this one."
-- From The Art of Possibility

As individuals, we must choose to not be part of a larger destructive force. We must stop excusing or justifying our destructive habits because it's part of some larger whole. This is how civilizations become undone.

Here's an old post of mine from a different blogspace a few years back, which I use samples of literature to show how dangerous such excuses and justifications are:

Today, as I sat in the sauna of my gym, I closed my eyes and tried to imagine this as the norm, a perpetual state of existence. What if, I thought, I was always encased in this heat, and could not open the door to coolness? Taking a sauna or a sweat lodge in and of itself can be a cathartic experience, but it is the baptism of cool air or a cool shower in the end that makes it complete. It makes it complete just as winter would not be worth it without the redemption of spring, or autumn without its bursts and blushes of blinding color followed by pristine, crystalline snow that makes one know the blessedness of utter silence, save for the low whistling of the wind. What, I thought again, if the seasons disappeared and I never again saw a snowflake or crimson leaf fall from a tree? What if we, (the collective ‘we’ as in humanity), knowingly or not, usurped from our children and our children’s children these things?

In August 2007, I relocated from Washington D.C. to Burlington, Vermont to begin graduate school at the Rubenstein School for the Environment and Natural Resources of the University of Vermont and a research assistantship with the Vermont State Climate Office as an assistant to the state climatologist. I was often asked by my friends why a poet, a former English major, would pursue a science degree as her age chafes 30. It is literature and poetry that delivered me to this path and I want to explain.

Only a few months before my departure from D.C., the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change—which is comprised of 2,500 of the world’s top scientists, climatologists, and meteorologists—issued a dire report and plea to our planet’s governments for a massive reduction of greenhouse gas emissions effective immediately. The report warned that over the course of the century, including now, millions of people will die as a result of droughts, floods and dwindling resources incurred by global climate change. It is the poorest even in our most prosperous nations who will suffer most. An extinction rate of at least 30-50 percent of our world’s species is likely to occur. This will include even the loss of many of our most gorgeous and charismatic creatures, such as polar bears, tigers, wolves, and whales. The collapse of our ocean’s fisheries is imminent, and the ocean is where life began.

I am not a stupid person and I am rarely spontaneous. I do not latch onto fads as the seasons change, nor do I cling to platforms without rigorously questioning each belief. My belief system is compiled of a fierce marriage between controlled emotion and stringent logic, complemented by the lofty love a poet usually possesses for the raw art of nature. In the end, I changed my career course, not in a 180-degree turn, but shifted gears slowly as I read and became aware through my studies of what the world is going through and how humanity is culpable. In the end, I put my writing (which to me was life itself all encompassed in cups of coffee and my keyboard) on the backburner, because what I earnestly think we are dealing with might be the death of poetry, the death of books, the end of species. And literature taught me to take action.

The most profound concept I correlate to climate change as seen in literature is Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Most people read the story in junior high. The story presents a dystopian town that has managed its peace by picking a person for the lottery. Initially, you are led to believe she (the person picked for the lottery) has won something, but all she wins is a death sentence. To supposedly maintain peace and equilibrium in this fictional society, a person is picked at random and stoned to death. To me, the poignant part is the implicit rationality of this crime: everyone is stoning her, and yet everyone probably believes themselves as less guilty because s/he is merely a facet of the larger whole. “My rock isn’t the one that killed her” one of these characters is implied to think. Another might justify the action in that that “…if I put my rock down, she’ll still die.” Underlying this subconscious dialogue I imagine and ascribe to these mostly anonymous characters, is the theme of never questioning the rule of the society, a rule that offers up murder and destruction to keep it going.

Another literary work I often think of is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In both the book and the movie there is a scene where a woman is hung. The most striking point is this “traitor” woman is hung by all the handmaids as the rope of the gallows is long and intricately woven throughout a stadium through hundreds of rungs. Each woman must pull at the rope in order for her to hang. I imagine a dozen inner-dialogues much like the ones above, where the women attempt to acquit themselves of the larger crime and dismiss her own part in the destruction of life.
How spontaneously small and large all of our actions are…sometimes I subconsciously wipe my hands on the legs of my pants, attempting to rid them of the blood of future generations, but the sour salty-taste of it sometimes stays in my mouth, and provokes dreams of red hot landscapes void of anything lush or soft. When I wake up, I go to work and school as if nothing is happening. When I come home again at night, when the whir of society has slowed down and the humming in my head softens to a lull, I think of the stone in my hand or the rope I am pulling. I want the strength to drop them both and say no. I want others to join me and to hear a million stones drop to the ground. I want our parts in this play to stop before the climax brings about the blood I fear, rising with the sea levels as the Arctic ice melts.

With climate change and the vast components of destruction that will accompany it in the coming decades, I see us all as co-conspirators with these same inner-dialogues as implied in literature. That is, for those of us who pause to think about it at all. If we continue to propagate and consume at our current rate, there may be children born to this Earth who will know very little or nothing of rain and there will be many others who will drown; the states of existence in between will begin to blur. There may be no leaves that burst like fireworks of color, no snow, no striped or furry animals to gush over. It can happen sooner than we think, and it will happen especially if we do not think. Both Jackson and Atwood were aware that society can wire itself the wrong way, and that for better or worse we all can get caught up in that wiring. They also both knew that such wiring can only be undone by the first brave ones to refuse the rocks or ropes they have been handed; just a few brave ones are needed in each town to start the ripple effect…

Everyday, there are a dozen different ways in which we can change. The greatest thing we can learn is to live in harmony with, instead of against, the nature of our planet. This means nothing less than completely reconstructing our entire society and perception of the world and our relationship with it. From the things we put into our mouths to how we process and dispose of all the various wastes we create, WE MUST CHANGE.
This means consuming much, much less and boycotting Black Fridays, buying things out of necessity instead of desire, and purchasing things that are either recycled, second-hand, made of sustainable materials and/or that will endure. It means canvas bags instead of “paper or plastic.” It means not driving whenever possible. It means replacing light bulbs. It means eating as locally as possible and eating low on the food chain more often since meat production is responsible for a large part of our greenhouse gases and the oceans are being overfished to the point where it will soon fail to recover. It means keeping small, sustainable families or drowning one’s self in the gene pool, as I am very seriously considering. Finally, it means speaking to family, friends, church congregations, gyms, elementary schools and universities. It means writing not only your Senator, but your local and state officials, and our President. It means partaking in public comment periods. What can you say? That you want the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions as the Supreme Court ruled it had the authority to do back in 2007. That you support mandatory caps on our emissions. That you want the government to eliminate oil subsidies and to switch those subsidies to promote and perpetuate renewable energy sources. That you would like a far-reaching public transportation initiative that is accessible and affordable to the general public. Though personal feats are integral to addressing this issue, governmental involvement and mandates need to be enacted to ensure that the industrial sector will be on board. And most of all, we need a paradigm shift in our society. We the people must begin to think and act within our planet’s means.

My intention is not to be alarmist, but what we are dealing with is alarming. This essay is an appeal for my future and that of the following generation. When one gets upset one is often told as comfort “It’s not the end of the world.”

In this case, though, do we really know?


  1. Good blog, Laura. As we said in the 60s, "If you're not part of the solution, then you're part of the problem."

    You mention some literary inspirtations--I like Marge Piercy's HE, SHE & IT as a glimpse of two contrasting possible futures.

    - Pat Munday (aka EcoRover)