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Recreating the Wilderness

The science gets ever more dire. The politics runs the other way.

We’ve claimed hold of the planet, but cluelessly, like the sorcerer’s apprentice. Welcomed to the Anthropocene: the age of humanity intertwined with nature.

“Climate change is not a problem we have to make go away, in a sense that you don’t make adolescence go away,” astrophysicist Adam Frank said to Chris Hedges. “It is a dangerous transition that you have to navigate… The question is, are we smart enough to deal with the effects of our own power?”

The planet itself is transitioning, to God knows what. There may be no human race on the other side of that transition, but maybe there will be. Either way, we have to reach well beyond ourselves.

Usually when the topic is climate change, what you get is science mixed with politics — the experts and the leaders — warning us and failing us, and then positing an ultimatum for the human race at large, e.g., “Humanity has a big decision to make very soon about its future on a warming planet.” We must lower CO2 emissions. We need new regulations. To hear such a message, as simply a member of the global public, is to be left feeling utterly powerless, a spectator, wishing “they” would do something to start fixing this mess.

That’s why I took heart in the perspective Frank expressed to Hedges, not because it was simpler (it’s anything but that), but because it transcended science and geopolitics and shattered the comfort zone of helplessness. He said:

“We’re going to have to evolve a new way of being a civilization.”

Maybe the starting place is for everyone to start evolving past his or her own sense of powerlessness. We’re not just spectators. In a sense, we’re all refugees, or soon enough will be, paddling for our lives to some distant spiritual shore.

Eric Holthaus, writing at grist.org, gave an example of what that means: “In 1980, a group of friends at the end of a backpacking trip across the Rockies formed a radical eco-movement known as Earth First! In their first statement of principles, they laid out a straightforward goal: ‘We do not wish to merely preserve what’s left, we want to recreate wilderness.’”

What could that possibly mean? The first thing I hear in such a statement is a deep rethinking of what it means to have power — not over but with nature. Right now we’re trapped in a global socioeconomic infrastructure that is antithetical to any sort of reverence for the natural world. In our adolescent sense of power, the best we are able to do is preserve patches of scenic beauty — national parks, etc. — which resonates with clueless arrogance, like “honoring” indigenous cultures behind glass cases in our museums.

The idea of “recreating wilderness” is absolutely paradoxical, but embracing paradox is part of the challenge. Wilderness is at the soul of Planet Earth, you might say. It’s not ours, either to exploit or preserve, but simply to cherish and be part of. Humanity, or at least a piece of it, broke away from the circle of life ten millennia ago. It developed agriculture, written language, civilization. Now, paradoxically, it must, as it evolves a new way of being a civilization, reach back to what it once was and reclaim the wisdom of being part of wilderness . . . of life itself.

Writing about the Anthropocene is incredibly difficult, because ultimately it means addressing the Unknown. Is it possible to put the Unknown into words?

Rupert Ross, in his remarkable book Returning to the Teachings, addresses, among much else, the concept of language itself, making the point that Western languages, including English, at their very core create a sense of separation: The universe is a slew of loose, disconnected nouns, which are the speaker’s to control. Ancient languages, and modern-day indigenous languages, are differently structured, maintaining the speaker’s ties to life. He describes the difference in a metaphor:

“It has to do with the difference between standing behind the triple-pane window of your cliffside mansion and watching the sun go down over a quieting ocean — and watching instead the first beginnings of a sunrise over that same ocean, but from flat on your belly on a wet surfboard three hundred miles out from shore, as the ocean beneath you awakens.

“In the cliffside mansion, there is a conviction of separation, stability and control. On the surfboard, there is the conviction of intimate and inescapable exposure to unfathomable powers which, while they might let you ride them, will never let you gain control over them.”

Can we leave the cliffside mansion without abandoning a sense of control over our destiny? I have no idea. Indeed, I have no idea what it would mean, under current circumstances, to return to reverence and connection to the planet, and even if we did, would that stop what we’ve already set into motion?

From our mansion, we’ve remade the planet: dammed its rivers, paved and lit much of its surface, dumped a continent’s worth of plastic into its oceans.

“On our current path,” the Smithsonian Institute websitenotes, discussing the Anthropocene, “ice cap melt will cause sea levels to rise to levels where many major cities will be at very high risk of flooding, and natural disasters will cause damage to our communities at catastrophic levels on a much more regular basis. Forests are shrinking at a startling pace — every year, we lose a swath of forest the size of Massachusetts. If temperatures rise by only the most conservative estimates, at least 20-40% of Earth’s animal diversity will be at increased risk of extinction, and pollution and poaching will lead to the extinction of dozens more species. All of these problems are exacerbated by an ever-growing human population, which has more than doubled in the last fifty years.”

Perhaps the biggest paradox of all is this: Even as we stare unblinking at the reality of what we have created — the Anthropocene — we cannot give up hope that we can move to a new level, that we can evolve beyond what we have set into motion. We can find our way back to the wilderness.

More articles by:

Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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