We live in a society that pits the needs of human beings against nature. Over and over again, through advertisements and public pronouncements, we’re urged to sacrifice forests, mountaintops, rivers, wholes species, or even the quality of the air we breathe so we can have energy, jobs, economic well-being.
But the conflict that is conjured by corporate interests between what we need and the needs of the earth should not be confused with the human condition. Nor does the narrow idea of “self-interest” that is a corollary to this divisive thinking derive from any realistic understanding of human nature. Compassion for others, including animals, is hardly opposed to the will to survive or even the desire for pleasure — drives that human beings share with animals. It should not be surprising that human nature, which has evolved in tandem with all other life forms on the earth, should include the capacity for compassion; indeed empathy is implicate in the human nervous system, necessary to the way we learn, and thus essential to our survival. This aspect of human nature reflects the systemic nature of nature — in effect, we belong to one body, the earth, in which every cell, every atom, affects every other.
To place the campaigns that address climate change in competition with campaigns that address the extinction of species, as Allen Kanner does in his article “Why Extinction Matters as Much as Climate Change,” is less a departure from the divisive mindset that dominates post-industrial society than a subtle continuation of it. His arguments seem to ignore the fact that human beings are animals and that global warming is threatening us with extinction too. Considering the prominent role the polar bear has played in campaigns designed to warn us about global warming, Kanner’s accusation that the movements to stop climate change only present the consequences to human beings and ignore the effects on all other forms of life on the planet seems unfair at best. Given that the thought of the polar bear disappearing has moved many to tears, the problem would seem to lie not in our indifference to other species but in our failure to recognize that since our habitat is also in danger, we too are under threat. We do not need to think less about our self-interest (as Kanner suggests we ought to do). We need to made more aware of it.
In fact we are all faced with extinction. Along with forests, animals, and countless life forms, if we do not address climate change quickly, we will simply perish. Yet our awareness has been blunted. The same corporate mindset that places our welfare in conflict with the earth is also denying the gravity as well as the human causes of global warming. In complicity, too many governments and international institutions all over the world have been far too slow in responding to what becomes daily apparent to scientists as a grave danger.
One of the difficulties the movement to address climate change faces is that we are living in a society that is dissociated from nature in countless ways. With so many people living in cities or paved-over suburbs, often spending the great part of their lives in front of a computer screen or a television or on as assembly line in factory with no windows, the reality of our surroundings and along with that our dependency on plants, trees, water, air, and other animals for our survival, has faded from daily consciousness. Whether pandering advertisements or lifestyles that separate us from natural habitats, so much in modern civilization has acted to diminish our sensual, concrete, and yes, practical knowledge about how to survive on earth.
By contrast the awareness of many indigenous peoples, who know from their daily lives that their sustenance depends on the health of the ecospheres around them, has not been blunted in the same way: not only do they see the effects, but they are also alarmed over the consequences of global warming.
This October when I was in Washington, D.C., I attended an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum called Conversations with the Earth, Indigenous Voice on Climate Change. Through photographs, quotes, and videotape, the indigenous leaders in this exhibit — men and women in villages from the Arctic Circle to the Amazon forest — give testimony about the ways that their lives, their livelihoods, their cultures, and even their cultural memory is being threatened by global warming. To experience global warming through their eyes is to open to a profound level of grief, a grief that is not opposed to compassion toward other creatures, but is instead kindred.
An intimate kinship with all creation also exists among many of us who live in more technological societies, who experience what Glenn Albrecht has called “Sostaligia,” the psychological effects we feel when the life that surrounds us is being diminished or destroyed, a grief that would certainly include the death of species. Kanner agrees that compassion is part of human nature and in part his article is a plea to enlarge that compassion.
But if compassion and the subsequent grief for others that we suffer is part of our nature, could not the wish to prevent the extinction of animals be considered a kind of self-interest? And here also I would caution against fragmentation, in this case dividing physical from psychological needs. To feel grief is certainly a physical as well as a psychological experience. And physical deprivation also has psychological consequences. To separate these two responses is to mimic the separation our culture makes between matter and intellect or between human beings and nature, including other species.
Healing this false division is an essential ingredient to meeting both the challenge of climate change and extinction. Kanner nods briefly toward the causal relationship between climate change and animal extinction, but he does not give this connection the full attention it deserves. Rather his aim is to elevate animal extinction in public discourse as the most crucial issue, the sine qua non that ought to determine the ecological movement’s agenda.
This competitive approach obscures a connection that has within it a fertile possibility regarding the conduct of research that might reveal how the extinction of species actually adds to global warming and vice versa. The symbiotic and synergistic processes tying these phenomena together must be endless.
In the meantime, Kanner’s elevation of extinction over climate change (a phenomenon that it must be repeated threatens mass extinction to countless species) seems to ignore the severity and urgency of the threat we are all facing. He deplores the images of melting glaciers that are shown over and over, but these images have been chosen both as scientific indications of the acceleration of warming and also a literal tip of the iceberg, not just a symbol or a symptom but the beginning of a world wide disaster.
Though I find these images from the Arctic terrifying and thus both informing and effective, I would like to see more images that bring the phenomenon home, that indeed focus even more on self-interest than images of glaciers do. Yes, because global warming is a pattern and not one incident, scientists cannot say for certain whether each tornado or hurricane terrible winter storm or drought is caused or made worse by global warming, but nevertheless I would like to see these images used too, because they wake us up to the consequences of ignoring climate change. Like all animals, we possess an intelligence that is located and sensual and serves to help us survive a threat that is unfortunately all too real.
Accordingly, though I agree with Kanner’s concern that the awful effects of global warming, such as melting glaciers or the denuding of the Amazon, can bolster our civilization’s fear of, enmity with, and hence wish to control nature (which certainly, given centuries of alienation from nature, is a possibility), the answer is not to deny that these dreadful events are occurring. Denial is indeed a central part of the pattern by which our civilization has created the illusion that we are not part of nature, not subject to natural process and that in any case we can control nature by meeting every challenge with technological innovation. Again I argue that we should neither erase nor hide these images from public awareness but instead add to them, both analytically and symbolically, the understanding that nature is not the villain here but rather decisions made by wealthy and powerful interests that in fact more often than not do not even benefit all of us even economically.
We may live in a society that pits individual self-interest against care for the larger social body and for nature. But this way of thinking presents a false idea of human nature. It is in fact an assumption that benefits the privileged and justifies exploitation. Which is one of many reasons I would have liked to see greater discernment regarding class perspectives and a discussion of the influence of corporate power on media in this article.
And on this subject, I know Kanner will agree with me that compassion is not the sole responsibility of individuals, but is also a collective responsibility. In a culture such as Ladahk (a culture in the western region of Himalayas about which Helena Norberg-Hodge has written so eloquently in Ancient Futures) in which the community provides mutual care and the efforts to survive are collective, compassion and self-interest are intertwined. The question for us now would be how do we build a society that enables mutual compassion not only between human beings, but also between species and with all of nature.
(To read other perspectives on extinction, climate change, and the rights of nature, click here.)