A friend of mine once told me that soon after he started beekeeping, he began noticing color differently — began picking out particular hues, as a bee might do. And as the summer wore on that year in Oxford, I realized that I, too, was seeing differently. Cycling to and from work, I spotted wild places I hadn’t before; I became aware of what creature life existed between and through the city’s walls. I was newly alert to changing weather patterns, shifting seasons — I noticed how these affected the colony in my hive; how vulnerable pollinators were to environmental change. I’d imagined the bees might offer an escape from the wider world; in fact they seemed to be leading me into a new relationship with it.
When we connect with nature we plug ourselves into the universe.
It was the opposite of what we imagined. Rather than water dripping down through air, we were listening to air escaping up through water. We were so close to the ice that this ancient fizz was surprisingly loud. Though we humans never hear it above the surface, this is the sound the Antarctic makes every summer. And as the planet heats, the sound is getting louder.
The Baller: Can attitude help save the planet? A frightened climate reporter meets an ex-basketball player with a serious game plan
Attempting some sort of equanimity about, basically, horror, I’d been vacillating along a “hope or despair” continuum. But recently I’d decided that both ends of that scale were bankrupt. Hope wasn’t precisely rational, and despair was too cruel to the living—anyone who genuinely cared about a place or a child had to come up with something, anything, more useful than “Good vibes only” or “We’re screwed.”
So I was quietly seeking a better approach as I wrote story after story on efforts to curb climate emissions. And while working on a cover story earlier that year about how the built environment (cities, roads, offices, homes, infrastructure) was an enormous part of the problem, I’d called up Mazria, who was recognized as a thought leader on the topic.
One hour on the phone with him had jolted me.
After I hung up, I told a colleague, “I just spoke with a man who has a strategic plan to beat climate change. Not ‘fight the good fight,’ but win.”
With faith, you can ask how life will be on the other side. Will you be changed personally? Will we be changed collectively? The knowledge we’re gaining now is making us different people. Pain demands relief, demands we don’t repeat what produced it. Will the pain of this pandemic point a new way forward? It hasn’t before, as every war attests. This time may be no different. But the pandemic has slipped a piece of knowledge into the body public that may not be easy to repress. It’s an insight scientists and poets have voiced for centuries. We’re not apart from nature, we are nature. The environment is not outside us, it is us. We either act in concert with the environment that gives us life, or the environment takes life away.
1) Hope And Change? Honestly, I’m more interested in change. But I’m glad to hear mention of the climate (FINALLY!), and I sincerely hope that the aspirations and ideals expressed so beautifully in this speech translate into true leadership and a kickass political strategy that leads to a real shift in what America cares about, and what sacrifices America is willing to make for the global good.
2) Annals Of Inexplicable Subsidies: Does federal flood insurance, which encourages people to build in vulnerable locations, make any sort of sense anymore? Not really.
An interesting study recently confirmed something sad that I have suspected for years: that despite the fact that humans are actively trying to protect whales in the North Atlantic, human culture and human lifestyles are so intrusive and damaging that we still end up killing whales.
Human activity is still killing right whales, one of the most endangered animals in the ocean. An analysis of four decades of whale deaths shows that attempts to prevent them have not had a demonstrable impact.
Only around 460 North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) are thought to be swimming the waters off the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. The governments of both countries have implemented several measures to protect whales from becoming entangled in fishing gear or being hit by ships, such as the US ‘ship strike rule’ that limits vessel speeds in certain areas. That rule came into force in 2008 and is due to expire next year.
Marine-mammal researchers Julie van der Hoop and Michael Moore, both at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and their colleagues, analysed all known deaths of eight species of large whale in the northwest Atlantic between 1970 and 2009. During that time 122 right whales died, along with 473 humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), 257 fin whales (Balaenoptera physalus) and scores of whales of other species. When the authors were able to assign a cause of death, ‘human interactions’ was the most common, appearing in 67% of cases. Entanglement in fishing gear was the main cause of death in this category.
The protection measures seem to have had no impact on whale deaths, according to the study published online in Conservation Biology1. Although several of the rules were implemented only towards the end of the study period, Moore still admits that the finding is “hugely disappointing”.
We can decry the age of whaling, in which humans were wiping whales out one after the other. But that was an age when the killing was both intentional and highly technological. It’s almost scarier to think that the way humans live today means that whales die, even though we (mostly) don’t want them to. In other words, there is something deeply wrong about the way in which we live today.
The main culprit appears to be our fishing practices, which are egregious enough in terms of what they do to fish stocks, quite apart from how they affect whales (and all the other species which also become collateral damage).
I feel the same way about industrial fishing as I do about industrial farming, though industrial fishing does not seem to attract the same intense opposition–perhaps because fish are not considered as intelligent and sentient as farm animals. But that certainly doesn’t mean that industrial fishing isn’t as environmentally shortsighted, and criminally wasteful (and in many instances it is cruel, as well).
But whatever you think about the emotional lives of ocean fish, and the moral issues around killing them, it’s hard not to sympathize with whales that get entangled or killed by fishing equipment. And judging from the reaction of this humpback, anything we can do to further limit the damage to whales from fishing would be much appreciated.
I hope the world takes note of Carl Safina, and his new book, The View From Lazy Point (NYT review is here; Mother Jones review here). Safina is an original and deep thinker, and The View From Lazy Point is both an homage to the natural world and a clarion call–that is remarkably gentle yet utterly persuasive–for reimagining how humans live and interact with our humble planet.
I was drawn to Safina’s work because I have long been troubled by the idea that humanity has been intelligent enough to achieve great technological triumphs, yet not wise enough to find harmony and balance in human affairs or our understanding of the finite nature of Earth. We are well past the need to try and arouse humanity from its material, consumptive ways with a deluge of depressing and enervating detail about environmental destruction. That’s been going on for decades, and people have either chosen to recognize reality, or blind themselves.
What’s needed now are pathfinders and prophets who can redefine what it means to be human, and what changes humanity should make to its behaviors, economies, and cultures. Safina is searching for those sorts of answers and that’s why he is worth reading and talking about. I have no doubt that a critical mass will eventually develop behind the need to reinvent humanity. The only question is what sort of planet we will be living on when it happens. I am pessimistic, even nihilistic, about the prospects for a reasonable transition to this new epoch. But all anyone who cares can do is put out a light and hope people are drawn to it. As Safina writes: “Just as we went from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists to civilized societies, now we must take the next great leap: from merely civilized to humanized.” Or wise. That would be nice.