Jennifer Jacquet: Survivor guilt may also exist at a species level. That humans have helped bring on other species’ end times is not an easy feeling to deal with.
Small farms on the tattered edges of second- or third-growth forest, where the whippoorwill’s vesper song from a much deeper past can still be heard occasionally, are merging into horizon to horizon mono-crop deserts where seagulls, crows, and jays compete with the “green revolution’s” industrial chatter and buzz. In my sixty-nine year lifetime, human encroachment has continued to erode true wilderness into a few remnant pockets within this scattered network of small woodland “edge”; and the loss of big apex predators, and keystone species, greatly diminishes the Natural soundscape as the ancient music of gray wolves and rusty-patched bumblebees steadily, ominously, fragments into a distant whisper. I remember a more varied music, and more shades of green. Even though some very common (characteristically small and nonthreatening) human-adapted species mascaraed in these edge ecosystems as “diversity”, species overall, in a world super-connected by tireless human movement, have been going extinct at an accelerating pace. Given this history, I think we must acknowledge the likelihood that Natural habitat and human habitat have always had an uneasy relationship. In fact, evolutionary ecologists can easily argue that true wilderness represents a whole other level of “creative intelligence”, well beyond the simplicity of what we like to call, “humanized ecosystems”; and that wolf song, leopard frog croaks, and whIP!-poor-wILL!s are orchestrated into a harmony that doesn’t respond well to our own non-coevolved instruments.
I would like my grandchildren to hear a whippoorwill at least once. But of course they are all growing up in the city or town now, and this means they are going to find many, much newer and more fleeting, songs to entertain them. We are a resilient species after all (thanks partly to this inter-generational forgetfulness I suppose); so if the whippoorwills can’t conform to us, and we can’t be depended on to join their relatively unchanging ecological harmony, what is there really to sustain a grandfather’s hope—or even to justify it?
Given our inevitably morphing human instruments, the Extremophile Choice philosophy proposes that we should only play countermelodies to those gene-regulated rhythms that aren’t quick enough to adapt themselves to us; and since the need for conservation is urgent, we also shouldn’t waste any more time expecting the majority of our fellow humans, who now live in cities, to play at this level; that is, to become avid conservationists and rewilders converted by Love of Nature. Yes we need their money, and their political will, but it might surprise some of the more zealous converts to learn just how many other city folk are quite happy where they are; they don’t hear the whippoorwills and this means their motivation, to at least do no harm, must come from a place that also affirms their chosen lifestyle. Also, let’s not exhaust our nervous energy in the brass section, trying to scare each other into agreeing that we Need Nature; that we’ll all die if we cut down the last tree. It might be true of course, but I might also point out that self-preservation did not deter the first Easter Islanders in that regard, and as it turned out, their descendants prospered anyway. In fact, until Europeans came (and showed them what they were missing) Easter Island’s Rapa Nui were happily roasting their introduced chickens and rats, and eating produce from rock gardens cleverly designed to protect vegetables from the environmental stresses of a treeless island. So who are we to insist we know the future of such a resourceful species? Instead, let’s celebrate what we naturally are: we are un-Naturally resourceful.
Let me explain. Despite what many justly-concerned environmentalists might suppose, a science-based acceptance of our special non-ecological status doesn’t necessarily mean we are accepting our natural destructiveness, in the sense that this is the manifest destiny of an all-powerful “alien species”. You see, the idea that we are not a species at all, in the ecological meaning, is actually the easiest scenario to believe if you live in the city. Do you see where I’m going with this? It’s simple: the only way to counter the inevitably destructive ambitions of an absentee landlord is to stop reinforcing the notion that it’s his “place” to be lord (with however benign intentions) of the land in the first place. So if we can see that our dependence on “Natural resources” has been slowly shifting towards un-Naturally contained, grown, and processed goods anyway, and that this trend is likely to continue into the future as “undependable” Nature provides diminishing returns, is it perhaps time for us to rethink our “stewardship” assumption? And the princely privileges it conveniently gives us?
This is where the science of evolutionary ecology has more to offer than the popular school of thought we know as “environmentalism”. In unsentimental evo-ecological terms, the bodies of organisms (whether animals, plants, or fungi) are regulated by natural selection to perform for their short contingent lifetimes in such a way as to support a stable, multi-leveled, and maximally diverse ecology. What this ultimately means is that when human beings accessorize our bodies with technology we necessarily defeat Nature’s co-evolving genetic regulation. And, what’s more, we can’t use our advanced brains to re-enter the system and “take our share”. The following excerpt from Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile Choice explains why this is so:
To understand sharing in Nature, we only need to consider the wolf: here is an apex predator that eats many times its weight in prey during its lifetime and, seemingly, gives nothing back but a little bit of buzzard and maggot food. But in fact, the trick that Natural regulation depends on is that every one of its temporarily living feasts, like the wolf itself, is engaged in a ballet of inter-action that optimizes ecosystem diversity and stability. We can never do this. Everything about us exempts us from this response-ability. We take the fittest stag, not the unfit (How would we measure wild fitness anyway, except in terms of a forest’s own evolving rules of play?); we grow crops that suit us, but they can’t survive on their own in the long run (evolution is a very long run); and increasingly, in all our interactions with wild Nature our personal survival is not at stake. We are un-Natural, and we turn evolving ecosystems into ‘productive’ (i.e. less diverse) farm-systems.
So how does this revised understanding of Humans and Nature actually motivate a largely urban human population to save wilderness? The quote at the head of this blog is from an article written by Jennifer Jacquet (Apr. 21, 2016. ‘Human Error – Survival guilt in the Anthropocene’, www.Laphamsquarterly.org/disaster/human-error ), and while her term “survival guilt” would normally refer to a debilitating condition felt by holocaust survivors, Jacquet extends this definition to human-caused species extinctions, suggesting that we humans are ultimately governed by what psychiatrist Arnold Modell describes as “an unconscious bookkeeping system” that haunts our mental lives when we are associated in any way—even indirectly—with past genocides, war-crimes, slavery, and white privilege. In the case of species extinction, it’s reasonable to suppose that our sense of culpability must be especially urgent when the damage is still ongoing, and it must be stronger yet when our daily consumer habits directly contribute.
If “species survival guilt” operates even at a subliminal level (I personally think it does), and especially if we’re not convinced the “One with Nature” paradigm can save us, then I suppose it might be comforting, at a superficial level, to hear that it’s not our fault: “The destruction was unavoidable because it’s in our nature.” But this release from guilt doesn’t necessarily have to lead, as some environmentalists might fear, to a fatalism that confines our attempts at species conservation in the future; for surely refusing to take a more intimate look at the things we fear is an even worse kind of box to get stuck inside of. In her book, The Places that Scare You (Shambhala Publications 2001) the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron shows us the magic in facing our fears head on; and I wonder if this is just where we need to go at this point in the save-the-whippoorwills-conversation. Maybe this fear of our intrinsic destructiveness is trying to tell us something? The Buddhist teachers are very clear about where fear comes from: from wanting stuff, from not wanting to lose what we have, from wanting it to be easy. For a hundred-and-fifty-thousand years our species has struggled to harvest what we see as “natural resources” that have, in ecological fact, been coevolved to efficiently serve only a wild but regulated flourishing. And we, with technologies unregulated by Nature, have increasingly failed to contribute to this flourishing in a dependable, let alone a positive, way.
Oh, in the beginning of course it wasn’t that much easier for us than it was for the more regulated (i.e. co-evolving) species, but our lives have gotten easier, and steadily easier, and the flourishing has suffered in consequence. Right now we can live anywhere we want to on this planet (I’ll let others develop the “Mankind in Space” theme); we’re like those extremophile organisms that can live in super-heated deep oceanic vents, or under polar ice caps. So maybe now we can afford to start rewilding some of the more fertile parts of the planet that we stripped and plowed, or paved, and that we really don’t need as much as other species do. Having a clear and common understanding of our situation might even motivate us to share with each other, for here’s the real advantage of facing an existential fear: nothing motivates us more than knowing who we are.
I won’t pretend we don’t have a lot of work to do, but fortunately it’s the kind of work we’re good at. Despite our sentimental notions of a harmonious human past in tribal villages, we’ve never really been good at interacting with Nature as a contributing player—like the wolf, or even the beaver. The diversity of the New World began to decline as soon as humans arrived, and we’ve only recently begun to understand how the continent we evolved on also suffered from our presence. With the yearly extinction rate now at 140,000 species above ‘normal’ we must conclude, on the face of it, that these species cannot easily cohabit with humans; but like the whippoorwill, on the edges of our pioneering invasions, they are a flourishing of wilderness. We are no longer response-able to this flourishing, nor is it our place to oversee it. We are neither equipped nor interested because what we are good at, and getting better at, is harvesting energy directly from the sun, wind, and waves (and yes, responsible nuclear fission); we’re good at building cities in deserts, carving them into Earth’s bare bones, and even transplanting them underground; and we’re good at growing food in farmed, climate-controlled spaces almost anywhere we can assemble metal, glass, concrete, and materials yet to be imagined. We’ve moved half of the human population from the country to the city in only a few hundred years, and we’ll keep on moving, because it’s in our nature. But it’s only by conquering our separation anxiety, and deliberately accepting our natural human future beyond this one-sided dependency on already complete Natural systems, that we might yet bequeath to our grandchildren, through the generations, the privilege of hearing the sovereign inviolate music of whippoorwills and wolves.