By Dennis Rivers  (2019 version)

In the face of the runaway industrialization that is now poisoning planet Earth, many people find themselves wrestling with deep issues about both the survival of life and the meaning of life. Confronted with pictures of Chernobyl victims and stories of frogs dying around the world, I find myself searching for ways to combat the downward trend. And one of those ways is by argument. How can I (or we) persuade the powers that be to change course. A few years ago Time magazine featured a cover story on tigers. Tigers are facing extinction in all their natural habitats. One person quoted in the Time story, a man from India, summed up the implications of the tiger survival issue by saying that if we can’t save the tigers from extinction, we probably won’t be able to save ourselves.

Well, as Samuel Johnson once said, “Nothing concentrates the mind like the thought of the gallows in the morning.” So here are some thoughts at the edge of the abyss.

One possible approach to our predicament is to look to nature herself for some hints as to how to extricate ourselves from our current predicament. This is the approach taken by my philosopher friend Ty Cashman in his article, “Nature, Activism and the Middle Way.” I refer to this as the ‘outside’ view, because it attempts to make sense of our situation by backing up and trying to present the big picture about human and ecosystem survival.

One problem that I see with looking to nature in this way, is that in nature everything passes away, without exception. Species come and go. Solar systems come and go. We can try to learn the wisdom of survival by observing organisms and ecosystems, but this view-from-the-outside will not tell us why we should struggle to survive. And since we are creatures of intention and relationship, we need some compelling reasons and goals to get us moving, and we need someone to relate to.

Ty says “It [nature] does need to be protected from the overwhelming human assault on it.” While I find this to be deeply true, this also seems to me to be way too distant a perspective. Viewed from the outside, the Universe (nature) is not in danger. It was here before we got here, features a lot of giant explosions,  and will be here after we’re gone. It’s human beings who are in danger of killing themselves off by killing off their sister and brother creatures in a spasm of greed and ignorance. My contention is that the outside view will not move people to save themselves and the Earth, because from the outside view it’s all gonna dry up and blow away anyhow, and/or I probably won’t be around when the bills come due. And there is nothing in nature, viewed from the outside, to suggest that humans are more important or worthy of survival than the trilobites that roamed the ancient seas.

What I’m calling the inside view is the view from inside my own life, from inside of being a person. Now while that might sound a little narrow, don’t write it off. From inside of our own lives we have access to resources that the outside view can’t touch. First of all, I have experienced my own sexuality, my urge to create. As Erik Erikson observes, sexuality is not just the energy to make new life, it is also the energy to build a world in which that life can flourish. So our much-maligned sex drive could actually be a positive force for helping the world, by helping us to feel involved with and connected to the natural world. Identifying more with the children who have come out of our bodies and our lovemaking could stir up powerful energies for nurturing the natural world as the world we give to them.

Closely related to sexuality is one’s sense of beauty. From the outside point of view, whether or not I experience beauty would hardly seem to matter. But if we look more deeply into the subject, we find that pleasure (that primordial form of beauty) has played a large role in the evolution of life. Color in plants and the eyes of insects co-evolved. The fragrance of flowers and the sweetness of fruit evolved to draw animals into a creative partnership with plants. (And those plants are still working on us. Just ask any rose gardener.) The experience of beauty and our yearning for beauty are actually powerful resources for human survival. The slaughter of dolphins is ugly. Chernobyl and the Bhopal chemical plant are ugly! A forest in balance is beautiful. One of the reasons we are in our current predicament is that industrial societies disconnect people’s sense of beauty in order to make them obedient cogs in the great (ugly) machine. Let us honor and encourage people’s capacity for beauty and delight. Such people will work to make the world a more beautiful place.

Finally, there is the issue of relationship. Human beings are literally made to relate. Our most powerful energies come from connecting our lives to the lives of other people and the lives of animals and plants. While religious people might question the above assertions and emphasize relating to God (or the Buddhamind, in the case of Buddhism), a close look at most religions shows that they emphasize a lot of compassionate person-to-person relating. So one powerful reason for working to save the world from ecological catastrophe is that I am here with you. It’s not just me alone contemplating a world gone haywire. (It is interesting to note, in this regard, that it is now an often repeated principle concerning soldiers in war, that they do not fight so much to serve their country as they fight to save their comrades.) All this implies that friendship could play crucial role in the future of eco-politics. We will do with and for one another and for all our children things we might never do for an abstract principle. And perhaps we could associate our abstract ecological principles with the people, such as Rachel Carson and Wangari Maathai, who have embodied them in a particularly radiant way.

Will humans survive? I don’t know. But I imagine that if we do it will be because we mobilized energies inside of ourselves and between us that were sexy, nurturing, delightful and deeply friendly. Lets survive together so that we and our children can experience the beauty of the Earth, and of all Her creatures, and of being fully alive.

Barack Obama greets nine-month-old Josephine Gronniger
(Public Domain photo by Pete Souza)