The sky is peaches and cream. I’m feeding the goats and enjoying the way the breeze rubs against my shoulders. For once this summer, it’s not too hot.
The sun goes down, comes up again, goes down again. Or rather, the sun doesn’t move at all; it’s the earth that’s turning, always turning, each revolution heralding some small reinvention, some tiny metamorphosis.
I went last weekend to an exhibition at the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C. called Reforestation of the Imagination. Created by Ginny Ruffner, the exhibit is a combination of sculpture and augmented reality. Almost entirely colourless tree trunks, made of what looks like frosted glass, are transformed into sites of rebirth and renewal when looked at through an iPad or smartphone. Vibrant, fantastical plants sprout from the decimated landscape, an imaginary future where the planet continues its long history of perpetual reinvention.
“This is nature reimagining itself,” Ruffner’s description of the installation says. “The imagination cannot be exterminated, it just re-creates itself.”
People say that environmentalists are ‘tree-huggers’, that they care more for the planet than for people. I can’t think of anything further from the truth.
The earth will be fine—it’s been through five mass extinction events already. It has undergone so many shifts and changes, so many warming-ups and cooling-downs, that you can hardly say this is its first rodeo. The earth, nature, will survive. It will just reinvent itself into something new, something different. It’s not the planet we need to worry about.*
No, it’s people we’re fighting for. The earth will carry on—in a vastly altered state, maybe, but it will go on. The same can’t be said for humanity. We exist at this moment in time in an incredibly narrow climate window that has allowed, for thousands and thousands of years, human life to exist, even sometimes to flourish (when we haven’t been too busy abusing and killing each other). And we’re doing our utmost, as a species, to ensure that the planet moves out of that window and into something dramatically different.
And if it’s people we’re fighting for, we have to find something in people worth saving.
It can be easy in today’s world, filled as it is with so much hatred and anger and brutality and selfishness, to want to give up on people. We’re a lost cause, it can be tempting to think, a plague on this earth; greedy as locusts, deadly as the Yersinia pestis bacterium that causes bubonic plague. Easier by far to fight only for the tree, for the dragonfly, for the fox and the hawk: they cannot let us down.
Although we humans are so very flawed and broken, we also have the capacity for enormous goodness and unbearable beauty. We aren’t evil, we’re just thoughtless. We’re not fundamentally selfish or destructive, we’re also cooperative and creative. It’s just that we live in a society that encourages us to perform the worst parts of ourselves, to act out our worst impulses. And that society, those structures—they can be changed.
So what’s the point? There are two. First, that we have to remember that the fight for the planet is really a fight for humanity’s place on it. And that people are, despite all our efforts to prove the contrary, worth fighting for.
And second, that we need to let go of that arrogant human belief that we are in control. Although we are having an unprecedented impact on the environment that is proving hugely destructive not only to ourselves but to so many other organisms that call the earth home, we don’t, really, have the power to destroy everything. The earth, nature, the environment, the wild—whatever you want to call it—will carry on without us. And though that’s a bit of a grim hope to cling to, I find it helps on days when hope hides from sight.
The sky is peaches and strawberries and cream and fire. The goats have finished eating and a cool, damp stillness falls across the land. Night is coming, but tomorrow the sun will rise again.
*This is not an argument that the environment and all the plants, animals, fungi, bacteria and other living things that exist now are not also inherently worth saving and protecting, because they are. Of course they are. Only that it’s not the entirety of existence that we’re threatening to obliterate, only the version of it that supports human life.