To be truly radical is to make hope possible, rather than despair convincing — Raymond Williams
One summer day in the mid twentieth century, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley found himself on the banks the Platte river in the high planes to the east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States. Spring floods, he wrote in his essay The Flow of The River, “sometimes bring a mile-wide torrent of destruction, gulping farms and bridges.” In summer, however, the river rambles. Dispersed series of streamlets flowing erratically over great sand and gravel fans that are, in part, the remnants of a mightier Ice Age stream bed. “Quicksands and shifting islands haunt its waters,” Eiseley wrote. “Over it the prairie sun beats mercilessly throughout the summer. The Platte, a mile wide and an inch deep, is a refuge for any heat-weary pilgrim along its shores.”
Eiseley recalled how he broke through a willow thicket and stumbled out through knee-deep water to a dune where, on impulse, he abandoned the research that had brought him there that day and decided to float downriver. He described how, letting himself go in the water and floating and bobbing into the main channel with his face towards the sky, he was swept away. He had, he said, the sensation of sliding down the vast tilted face of the continent, “feeling the cold needles of the alpine springs at my fingertips while the warmth of the Gulf pulled me southward.” Moving with him, leaving its taste in his mouth and spouting under him in dancing springs of sand, was “the immense body of the continent itself.” He felt at one with the water, and united with the diverse strange living forms it contained.
In the last few years, techniques unavailable in Eiseley’s day have reinforced the case for greater appreciation of the river system in which he delighted. They show that much more water flows through the gravel beneath and around rivers like the Platte than had previously been realised. The river doesn’t just flow down the channel, says the ecologist F. Richard Hauer; “it flows over and through the entire flood plain system, from valley wall to valley wall, and supports an extraordinary diversity of life.”
Accounts like Eiseley’s, enriched as they are by more recent discoveries, are a welcome respite from what sometimes seems like a relentless torrent of bad news. With regard to climate change, stark warnings summarised David Wallace-Wells in his 2017 article The Uninhabitable Earth have largely been reinforced by a studies such as Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene published this August. See too James Hansen’s recent Climate Change in a Nutshell: The Gathering Storm.
An instance that brought me up short yet again, however, was a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States on 5 December titled Pliocene and Eocene provide best analogs for near-future climates. “Climates like…the Pliocene,” wrote the authors, “will prevail as soon as 2030 and persist under climate stabilisation scenarios.” Unmitigated scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions will, they assert, produce climates like the Eocene, reversing a multimillion year cooling trend in less than two centuries. “Both the emergence of geologically novel climates and the rapid reversion to Eocene-like climates may be outside the range of evolutionary adaptive capacity.”
The literary scholar and philosopher Timothy Morton has suggested that climate change equals mass extinction. It may prove not to be quite that simple, of course. Under a variety of scenarios, there would be other factors contributing to the extinction of much of non-human life and severe turbulence or even extinction for the human species. These could include — and please forgive the litany — habitat destruction, soil degradation, plastics and toxins. With regard to the last of these, Erin Brockovich writes, “the fact is we simply have no idea the extent of the harm most chemicals are doing to our bodies or our planet.” And it looks likely that diverse factors interact in unpredictable ways.
“Nature is resilient,” the tropical ecologist Brad Lister tells Brooke Jarvis in a recent New York Times article, The Insect Apocalypse, “but we’re pushing her to such extremes that eventually it will cause a collapse of the system.” But Morton’s main point appears likely to stand: there is a significant risk that we are facing mass death, both human and non-human, within the lifetimes of most people alive today. According to the geographer Jem Bendell, the best we work we can do in the light of near term social collapse due to climate chaos is what he calls deep adaptation.
Many seek to deny the dangers, helping thereby to lock in what the futurist Alex Steffen calls predatory delay. The particular politics of one country for one half century will, writes Bill McKibben, have changed the geological history of the Earth. A small but stark instance of continuing obfuscation was the refusal earlier this month of the governments of the United States, Russia, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to welcome the special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the impacts of 1.5ºC warming. And such blocking tactics look hard to shift. As the journalist Tim Harford notes, with regard to different but related issues, “the further people slide into an erroneous world view, the harder they work to convince themselves that it is in a good cause, or no real harm is being done. ” And so, it appears, the system that dominates our economic and political life takes on more and more of the aspects of a death cult.
“A man finds himself, to his great astonishment, suddenly existing, after thousands and thousands of years of non-existence,” wrote the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer; “he lives for a little while; and then, again, comes an equally long period when he must exist no more. The heart rebels against this, and feels that it cannot be true.” But not everyone agrees with Schopenhauer. For some, the mere fact of having existed is cause for gratitude. For others, a life that they feel to be lived in the service of a good purpose greater than themselves is enough.
One can see the latter — magnificently, I think — in the example of those who, in diverse ways, seek to improve the conditions of life, and to safeguard their fellow humans and the non-human living world. Aiming to be responsible ancestors, and well as true comrades to those alive today, they have in their minds what the biologist and conservationist Carl Safina suggests may be one of the most beautiful things of which humans are capable: “the occasional triumphant moment when we see ourselves not in a mirror, but from a distance.” One can see this, I think, in what the writer and activist Alastair McIntosh, calls the ‘joyous call’ of the Extinction Rebellion movement, but also in the simple and humble conversations proposed by the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe. The political scientist Eric Herring makes a good point when he says that formulations such as the following are better than a phrase like ‘12 years to stop global warming’:
Every Action Matters
Every Bit Of [Global Heating] Matters
Every Year Matters
Every Choice Matters
And — who’da thunk it? — there is some evidence that seeds of hope can fall on fertile ground. Remarkably, given the divisions and anger in that country, 81% of Americans, including 64% of Republicans, support a Green New Deal, which would mark a significant step in the right direction.
The risk of dangerous climate change is very far from being the only challenge. “It’s all too easy”, writes the journalist Brandon Keim, “to imagine a future in which humanity has averted the worst of climate change but nature is woefully diminished.” To which one can add: not just ‘nature.’ Many questions of social justice and human dignity can be addressed with little reference to ecological and earth-system processes, at least in the short term.
Still, when it comes to restoration and restitution, deep work on one’s relationship to ‘great creating nature’ will be a vital part of the story. And one frame for this may be what the geographer Paul Jepson calls a new ‘recoverable Earth’ narrative.
During the mid-20th century, writes Jepson, a powerful environmental narrative emerged that ‘nature’ is in crisis due to human fecundity, greed and ignorance, and that catastrophe looms. By contrast, 21st century stories of a recoverable Earth are “characterised by fresh and compelling stories telling of the return and recovery of [large animals], the restoration of natural dynamics and ecological abundance: stories of reassessment and refinding the self, and working with restored forces of nature to create novel solutions to the challenges of environmental and social change.” They are stories of what can be achieved rather than what needs to be done. To use a phrase from the writer Elizabeth Kolbert, the glass is seen as five per cent full rather than ninety five per cent empty.
A modest but striking example is the revival of the North American bison, or buffalo. Before the arrival of Europeans, tens of millions of these animals grazed the great plains. In the 19th century the U.S. government made their elimination into policy in the drive to starve and subdue the Native Americans who depended on them. Ecocide and genocide went hand in hand. By 1884 only about 325 wild animals were left alive, and the impact on the people was devastating. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” said Plenty Coups, a Chief of the Crow Nation, “and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” And yet, as the historian Jackson Lears documents, Plenty Coups somehow retained what Lears calls a sense of ‘radical hope’ even in the apparent absence of anything to be hopeful about.
Today that radical hope does not look to have been entirely deluded. In 2012, members of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes reintroduced sixty buffalo descended from wild survivors to the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Conservationists envisage that, within about fifty years, this founder population could give rise to ten herds each numbering about a thousand animals.
Even in one of the most crowded corners of the small and crowded island of Britain, rewilding projects are taking place. At Knepp, a former mixed farm in Sussex, the vigorous and abundant return of rare and endangered plants, fungi, invertebrates, birds, mammals and other forms of life has surprised even the project’s creators. “Initially we just loved the feeling of life rebounding – the noise of birds and insects, barking foxes, roaring stags,” the project’s co-founder Isabella Tree told me. “There is a sense that the very ground beneath your feet is coming to life again.”
Knepp is just one farm, a few hundred acres in a single county, but the project is inspiring many others to envisage projects at various scales across England, and beyond. A form of rewilding in the shape of mass tree planting has even been advocated as part of a strategy to meet Britain’s climate change commitments, because forests and healthy soils can be great stores of carbon. Care is needed on this point: nature is not a machine for fulfilling carbon targets on a spreadsheet. Wiser, in instances where such a thing is feasible, and possibly more adaptive and resilient in a time of rapid change, to let rewilding unfold without too heavy a human hand, on its own terms.
The theorist and critic Raymond Williams observed that ‘nature’ may be the most complex work in the English language. And so with its facet, ‘wildness.’ It takes a fool to rush in and try and define it. So here goes. ‘Wildness’ denotes, among other things, elements of surprise, complexity and the possibility of meanings that are beyond those we normally understand. It also, on occasion, denotes immediate, sensuous engagement with the more-than-human world. Loren Eiseley was a better scientist as well a wiser man for floating down that river. The novelist Stephen Marche writes that our electronic, mediated civilisation has made for us “a painted, bubbled, pretend paradise” in which “we refuse to treat the ragged, beaten world as a home.” By contrast, immersion in the wild can bring about a state of consciousness in which we fall in love with the productions of time. Recalling one such moment, the biologist and author Curt Stager writes that “all around me, trillions of living specks are feeding, breeding, dying, and ultimately sinking to the bottom. Joining them in the gentle flurry of debris are leaves, twigs and pollen from the forest. Mushroom spores, insect wings, translucent grains of beach sand from the shore.”
The long term success, or otherwise, of rewilding projects in turbulent times remains to be seen. So much good work can be undone so quickly. But here, for now, we are…and this was never guaranteed. A cursory reading of The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg’s history of nuclear war fighting doctrine and practice during the Cold War, reminds one how almost miraculous it seems that the protagonists did not come to blows. But there is no miracle here. As the futurist Anders Sandberg has pointed out to me, what we have here is a classic example of selection bias. A small nuclear exchange would almost inevitably have led to a large-scale exchange that would have ended most if not all human life. The fact that it did not happen (so far) and that, consequently we are here is no more miraculous than your parent’s meeting was a miracle because it gave rise to you. Things could easily have been otherwise, but they weren’t.
Stepping back a little, the philosopher Todd May asks us to consider that human extinction, while tragic, could actually be a good thing. I follow the reasoning but am not convinced. More persuasive, I think, is an observation by David Wallace-Wells: “Climate change isn’t a reason not to have kids. Kids are a reason to fight to stop climate change.” But whatever else is true, it may be that there are other and in some sense bigger stories that provide, if not solace, then at least scope for fascination and wonder. And some of these stories are made possible by developments in technology and scientific theory beyond anything Loren Eiseley knew.
It is increasingly becoming feasible, for instance, to view the formation of planets far from our own in marvellous detail. “The ultimate question,” suggests the astronomer Andrea Isella, “is whether we can see the formation of a planetary system like the solar system. Can we see the formation of an Earth-like planet? We know how to get there…”
Phenomena even vaster and more alien may offer ground for wonder too. Black holes — perhaps the ultimate phenomena when it comes to annihilation — may, suggests the physicist Carlo Rovelli, give rise to something one might loosely term ‘rebirth,’ as white holes. “A white hole is like a black hole projected backward,” he says. “It will be found in the same place as the black hole was, only in its future.”
Caspar Henderson (@casparhenderson) is an Associate at Perspectiva and the author, most recently, of A New Map of Wonders