An environmentalist begs his comrades for honesty, accuracy, and a sense of humor
So many people who speak for the wild world seem to feel the need to speak in the voice of the mystic, a hushed, voice-over reverence. At times like those there’s very little indication that any of us have the quality that many humans find most important for living on earth: a sense of humor. You’d never guess that any of us ever laughed or farted.
Lately, I’ve been invited to give a lot of talks, and when I speak people sit listening, rapt, or at least putting on rapt faces. If I really wanted to make it big I would start intoning the phrase “global warming” over and over. But I’ve got other ideas, however, impure and pesky little ideas that get in the way. For instance, sometimes I think that, from an artistic point of view, the end of the world might be kind of interesting. Another troubling notion is that I’m not really sure I want to be this thing called an environmentalist.
I don’t think it’s unimportant to fight for environmental causes. But the old, guilt-ridden, mystical envirospeak just isn’t cutting it. My role, as I see it, is to try to pull the pole out of the collective environmental ass. For a costume I wear a Hawaiian shirt and to get into character I drink a few beers. Throughout my talks I make jokes about how earnest everyone is and the audience usually laughs along semi-masochistically. I imagine myself to be Bob Dylan at Newport, playing electric guitar among the folkies, trying (futilely) to get them to yell out “Judas.”
This last metaphor was confirmed by one of the door prizes I was given recently, a CD tribute to Rachel Carson’s work. On the way home I listened to a song on the CD that told the story of the osprey’s near demise from DDT and then its remarkable comeback, a subject I once wrote a book about. It is fair to say that Carson is one of my greatest heroes, but the music that came warbling out of my speakers seemed to be sung by a caricature of a late-’50s Pete Seeger wannabe, who wailed about the poisons coursing through the ospreys’ bodies with such excruciating earnestness that it almost made me root for the birds’ death. It makes me long for a new sort of music, a music with energy, irreverence, and drive, a punk osprey tribute sung by, say, the Sex Pistols.
What would a new environmental music sound like? It might, I’ll suggest at the risk of coming off like the mystics I just ridiculed, sound a bit like a river. Burbling, lapping, rushing, calm, excited, but above all fluid. And contradictory, too, rushing one way but filled with back eddies and countercurrents. Uncertain and confident all at once. Before I go all Siddhartha on you, however, let me add that it should also be blunt.
Of course it’s hard to keep a fluid, riverlike mind in this time of adamancy and increased hysteria. We live in an age of blowhards, windbags, and he-who-shouts-loudest wins. We are never allowed, not for a moment, to forget GLOBAL WARMING and its corollary admonishment that we must SAVE THE WORLD. Frankly, the subject exhausts me.
It’s not that I disagree with the experts. If they are right, and they probably are, the next century will be a dismal one. Our present six billion will become ten. Our resources will dry up as the world warms and our population essentially doubles. Animals that have inhabited the planet for millions of years will be gone forever. The truth is that I’m not sure anything is going to help. If the predictions are even half-correct, we’re fucked.
If you are like me, there is something particularly unpleasant about the fashion of apocalypse currently in vogue. At least with nuclear annihilation it wouldn’t so obviously be each of our own faults. Our current fantasy of disaster has a distinctly unpleasant aspect in that we should all feel personally responsible. For the end of the world. Drive your car too long or take a hot shower and you’re contributing to the great, final doom.
Could we at least take a week off from new projections of doom? A month off from talk of the apocalypse? A yearlong moratorium on books that begin with the words The End of, The Death of, or The Last?
I live in a depraved time, I get that; but I am here to say that I can still experience joy and, yes, maybe even transcendence. I want an environmentalism that is a part of my everyday life, not running roughshod over it. Imagine living with a spouse who feels the need to scream, several times a day, “THIS MARRIAGE IS OVER! WE’RE DOOMED!” It’s not so different from being part of a group that is always erupting with “THE WORLD IS ENDING!” Yes, OK, sure, we know it’s doomed, but could we just be quiet for a while, watch some TV maybe, go for a walk? What I am arguing against, I suppose, is an environmentalism that feels like the intellectual equivalent of a panic attack.
Let’s just assume for a minute that the experts are right and the world is doomed. Let’s assume that when my 4-year-old daughter is my age she will be living in a crowded slum apartment eating human-being patties like those in Soylent Green. What am I supposed to do about that? And how much does my long-term doom affect what I will do on a day-to-day basis?
I will still drink my coffee; still make my things-to-do list; still go to work; still pick up my daughter at preschool. I don’t know about you, but my own inclination is to return to the personal, which is not to turn from the altruistic to the selfish. What I am suggesting is that, as pressing as the end of the world is, most of us have other fish to fry. I am not saying that this should be the case, just that it is. As vital as saving the world is, saving ourselves is of some importance, too.
Excerpted from My Green Manifesto by David Gessner (Milkweed Editions, 2011). Copyright © 2011 by David Gessner. www.millkweed.org