Things You Can Do (4/22/11)


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, “things you can do” books were sprouting like weeds. The Earthworks group published a particularly popular one called 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. It was followed by versions for kids and variations for saving the animals. Other concepts riffed off the title to offer guidance for preventing diseases like Alzheimer’s, for selling things like books, and even for avoiding things like saving the planet. We postmodern folks in the developed world seem to love the concept of a simple list that will smite our woes and assuage our consciences (or at least make us laugh). I have to confess to being one of them if you take as evidence the fact that I purchased and disseminated, with abandon, 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Save the Earth. I come to find, however, that I may have been misguided.

A couple weeks ago, I found myself at an intense and intensive meditation retreat, during which I seemed to leave myself behind—heck, I left the species behind—to land myself in the consciousness of Planet Earth. It was not a pretty picture. That is, it was not a pretty picture for humans. For one, the Earth was royally pissed off at the species, a species it considers highly invasive. I detected an anger I have yet to experience in human form. Worse, I detected an almost shear lack of attachment, on the part of Earth, to the species. I had the clear sense that Earth could basically care less about whether or not humans make it. Furthermore, Earth isn’t worried about making it. Humans aren’t in control; Earth is. This shift in perspective pretty much rocked my world. Please allow me to explain.

We like to kid ourselves that we control our environment, that we control our fate. This belief manifests itself in statements like, “We created global climate change; we can fix it.” Unfortunately for us, my new-found perspective tells me that the assumptions here are false. We didn’t create global climate change. We aren’t the agents creating the action. Earth is. And from her perspective, she created global climate change as a radical response to address the problem of a species that refuses to live in harmony with the whole system. In short, if we refuse to play well in the sandbox, then the sandbox is going to kick up one hell of a dust storm and choke us to death. The sandbox will still be here when the wind dies down. And we will rot nicely to feed the critters that remain. Balance restored.

Bill McKibben argues in his latest book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, that humans have created, through their hubris and folly, an entirely new planet from the one that I was born on in 1966. He adds an “a” to the old name and calls this new planet Eaarth. His book is a frightening read (or listen, as I did on the long drive home from Vermont last December), and he makes a compelling case for the myriad ways that we humans have taken a perfectly lovely place to be and turned it into a hostile one. He predicts that we’ve only just begun to see Eaarth in all her new glory, though I claim fury. The tsunamis, earthquakes, droughts, and melting polar ice caps are just the beginning.

I tend to agree that the alarm McKibben is sounding is completely valid. McKibben contends that our hope lies with scaling back. I’ll agree with that, too. However, I’d like to add that a more fundamental hope lies with recognizing and contending with our place in the system as part rather than master. If we don’t initiate a shakedown of our falsely reified sense of hierarchy, with us on top, then Earth will shake  us off, like water off a duck’s back. What I’m getting at here, is that despite our desire to be in control, we don’t really have much choice. We aren’t in control so long as we continue to stake our claim on the planet as the mostly highly invasive species Earth has heretofore, so much as I know, known. We, and by we, I mean Earth and all her parts, might benefit from humans shifting their perspective from a human-centric one to a Gaia-centric one.

Such a fundamental shift in thinking isn’t beyond us as a species. The Ancient Greeks were certain that the earth was the center of the universe. Then, the early moderns hit the scene, and humans managed to realize that actually, the sun is the center of our universe. Fast forward to this postmodern moment, when Earth is making a pretty compelling case that the time has come once again for another significant shift in our thinking. It’s time for us to join our place as one of Earth’s rank and file. We’re just one of the many species she supports, and like the dinosaurs, we’re expendable.

Of course, the big difference between the Ancient Greeks, the early moderns, and us is that our predecessors had a choice to shift their consciousness. This choice kept the egos that we humans hold so dear, intact. We, however, may not have a choice. We may have to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are not fundamentally in charge, that there may be nothing we can ultimately do if our ego-based need to control our fate, to control our environment, wins out.

…One last thing, a thing that keeps the embers of hope glowing for me. In this meditation marathon, I also received the insight that Earth has incarnated periscopes in human form, whose mission it is to experience what it is to be human and to report back. Earth’s goal? Well, perhaps this is my own folly, but I believe that these human periscopes are intended to help Earth cultivate compassion for a species she does not currently understand and will otherwise contentedly annihilate. Folly though it may be, it gives me hope to think that it’s possible that what’s best about the species—and sometimes I’m challenged to come up with a solid list, though art is always on it, while capitalism never is—will help us save ourselves, and furthermore, that Earth will be patient enough to let us do it.

So, here’s my little list of things I’m going to do on Earth Day to help us save ourselves:

  1. Park my car.
  2. Plant some veggies.
  3. Read a book.
  4. Make something with my hands.
  5. Walk to the library and/or museum, art gallery, reading, or performance.

Now, your turn. Sit, look around, go inside, and imagine yourself as Earth. What will you do?


originally published on Michigan Quarterly Review Blog on April 22, 2011

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