Humans as Curators in Troubled Times

We had some of that golden evening light tonight just after house meeting.  The kind that makes you think maybe an apocalypse is just over the horizon.  That the mountains are on fire.  That the gods are angry.  This Saturday I went for a long bike ride up to the Peak to Peak highway with Amy from Picklebric.  At the Sunshine Saddle she pointed out the cheat grass — an invasive species that she works on.  Studying disturbed ecosystems, and how to assemble new approximations of the originals from the parts at hand.  You can’t get rid of the invasives, but maybe you can influence which ones thrive.  Just beyond the divide above us, the mountains covered with red trees, a forest being transformed in a lifetime.  500 years from now will they be the Aspen mountains?  Tim applied for a job at the Nature Conservancy as a landscape ecologist in a similar vein — understanding and managing wild and semi-wild lands for their own sake.  Like the Colorado river pulse.  All this made me think of the ecopoesis that Kim Stanley Robinson portrayed in his Mars books, especially Green Mars.  Humans as gardeners of the no longer quite wild.  From here on out, it’s all gardening. Mandatory gardening.  It’s just what kind of garden do we want?  What will grow in this climate?

Over the weekend Pope Francis (who, yes, takes his name from Francis of Assisi, patron saint of nature) named exploitation of nature as the great sin of our time.  Then last night I watched Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah (for which there will be spoilers below).  I hadn’t read anything about it beforehand, but it didn’t take long before I suspected it was some kind of anthropogenic global warming and mass extinction allegory. By the end it was very obvious.  Much more obvious than with the Kaiju of Pacific Rim.  And more interesting.

To me the most interesting issue it explored seemed to be the appropriate role of humans in our current mass extinction.  It’s our fault, and yes, we’re apparently going to go through with it.  But that’s a big “We”.  We aren’t all equally responsible (#NotAllHumans…) and among those of us who are arguably most responsible, there’s a broad range of emotional responses.  Denial and desperation.  Hedonism and heroism. There are different roles to be played in this drama.  Which part is yours?

There were always going to be hard times on planet Earth.  Geologically and astronomically, they’re waiting in the background.  Glaciers will creep to the equator.  Volcanoes erupt on their own schedule.  Seas sour.  Asteroids collide.  Supernovae detonate nearby.  What would our role be, as sentient beings on a living world, if one of those things had happened?  Were happening?  Were about to happen, with our full knowledge?  How much could we preserve?  What kinds of things would we try to smuggle into the future, to the other side of the hard times?  SeedsLanguagesBooks?  The taiga?  Shortgrass prairies? Tropical rainforests? Coral reefs? What would motivate us in making those difficult choices, beyond bare survival?

Collectively, we might still choose not to make the climate trip as hard as it could be, but from the individual’s point of view this catastrophe isn’t so different from any other we might have run into.  Statistically, if this problem wasn’t of our own making, we’d probably have developed a bit more before we were forced to deal with our first global mess.  But maybe it just doesn’t work that way.  Maybe you always get the first one before you’re ready.  Because the first one is always your fault.  Because you made it as fast as you could, and so it got going before you knew what was happening.  Before you knew what you were doing.  Just because you could.

Aronofsky’s Noah preserves the wild things at the creator’s behest, but is faced with a choice about whether or not his own family — and thus humanity — should survive the flood as a reproductive population.  Are we worth saving?  Are we meant to be saved?  The extreme dark green position might argue that human extinction is the best response — or at least a reversion to the hunting and gathering, which in many senses would be just as much an extinction of the “modern” human.  And then at the other end of the spectrum there’s some overlap between the techno-utopians and the religious conservatives: not only are we worth saving, we’re the whole point of existence!

Personally, I would like to see H. sapiens embrace the role of gardener, shepherd, or curator of the terrestrial biosphere.  When times are hard for life on our homeworld, we try to preserve whatever complexity and understanding we can.  We buckle down with the other earthlings, and try to keep things from coming apart entirely. We need to cultivate archetypes and narratives that let us see ourselves in that light.  In the case of our current situation, it happens that we’re at odds with many other humans who are actively (if sometimes unknowingly) attempting to extinguish a large proportion of extant life.  We are both the problem, and one kind of solution.  Humanity is making the mess, but a small portion of humanity can also work independently, without consensus, to minimize the damage wrought by that mess in the long term.  We can do cleanup.  Triage.  We can facilitate broader, faster adaptation to the New Normal.

Maybe it’s an unglamorous role, but there’s a poetry in it too.  A justice.  Symmetry.  And if we don’t play this role, who will?  The future should know: we did both.  Created and destroyed.  Ending and beginning.  Not all of us were sleepwalking into oblivion.  Not all of us were on the side of extinction.  Camus’ words apply doubly: It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of the executioners.

One thought on “Humans as Curators in Troubled Times”

  1. This is the sort of discussion I tend to have with my mom, perhaps the discussion that naturally comes up when you put a geologist/astronomer and a biologist in the same space. She does tend to be more hopeful that human influence can still be minimized (see here for an article on her work as conservation manager for Klamath Lake Land Trust, countering canadian thistle with gall flies – not eradication but rebalancing: )
    I do think the techniques of permaculture are a good starting point for anyone with a hopeless feeling searching for direction. Call your approach what you will, but gardening the Earth requires deep observation, thought and care. And a definition of gardening that may be less intensive. A few bad decisions are inevitable, we just don’t want all of them to be the equivalent of introducing mongooses to try to kill off rats.
    There is a terrible beauty in everything, even destruction. We will also need to allow ourselves to feel deeply the sweetness in pathos and the joy and desperation in the face of catastrophe. If we turn to numbness (_when_ we turn to numbness, as most of have to from time to time) we won’t have the energy to respond appropriately. Experience deeply, feel deeply, find a place of love, and act as appropriate. And know that everyone’s role is minuscule and important.

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