Editor’s note: This post is a transcript of a talk given by Dayan Martinez at First Unitarian Church of Hobart (Indiana) on July 19, 2020 at my invitation. Dayan had written an earlier essay by the same name, which inspired this talk. The transcript was originally posted at Atroposian Musings.
This is not a call to action, nor is it a surrender. Those words should have been heeded decades ago, before rainforests and brush and tundras burned, before saltwater acidity stunted the growth of shells and corals, before hurricanes cleaved islands in two, before the insects and the birds fell silent, before all life was threatened. Our hands, evolved to miniscule precision, are no longer at the helm of this great habitat. Our feet may pound the pavement and our mouths may chant pithy slogans, but our ears refuse to listen. It is the time of Mass Extinction and this is where we adapt and make peace with endings.
More than fifty years ago, our scientists noticed the first signs of a changing planet. Their early models warned that, so long as our industrial society continued to rapaciously burn through fossil fuels and ecosystems, Earth’s spheres would become destabilized. These dark prophecies have, by and large, been so-far fulfilled in our lifetimes. Humanity’s rampage through the natural world spares no forest, spring, estuary, mountaintop, or field. Our mark on the world is an indelible scar writ on the geological scale, a wound done in the name of golden idol profits. A common measure of this catastrophe, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, continues to rise as predicted. In response, monthly temperature records shatter historical highs. Its effects on the ocean, weather, and health worsens every year.
A World Wildlife Fund report two years ago estimated a decline of “60% of the populations of mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians… on average” in the time we have witnessed this unfolding catastrophe. “About half” of the planet’s shallow-water corals have disappeared, and about “a fifth of the Amazon” is likewise gone. (This was before the catastrophic fires of 2019, which further damaged the area.) This does not mean that more-than-half of the animals alive in 1970 are now gone, but that these collapsing populations signal a new fragility in our world. Almost always, reports show, this change is due to direct human activity, such as indiscriminate use of pesticides, deforestation, poisoning of waterways and wetlands, and a warming planet.
Perhaps all this death weighs heavy on your conscience, if it has found expression through our numbed witness of real-time disaster on the screen.
Even before I was fully conscious of these morbid truths, I felt the uneasiness that many have felt and continue to feel. The year-by-year quieting of wild voices in our cityscapes as species vanished or adapted to evade human contact. The retreat of the world from our built environments first came to the fore of my awareness as I entered college, in 2003, with all the naivety of youth helping me believe that what hadn’t been fixed in more than three decades could still be solved.
My university campus was known locally for its burrowing owl population (and nearby gumbo limbo trees). It was, in fact, the reason I chose that university to attend. A night owl myself, I stayed up late many nights and stalked the grounds in hopes of catching a glimpse of one. When I did, I was ecstatic and sat down at the parking lot curbside to watch it from a distance. By my sophomore year, the university logo was changed to crashing waves (despite the apparent popular disapproval of the student body). The next year, rumors were confirmed that the university planned to relocate its burrows, somehow, and pave over those tracts for more parking space and a new stadium. It was the first time I stood up for the rights of nonhuman beings, now appalled their right to life was not respected as much as the rights of pavement and parked cars.
Burrowing owls are considered of “least concern” on the endangered list, which is probably why the university felt safe in their conquest of their meager spaces. Never mind the birds had been there first and their homes constituted a vital waypoint for an extended corridor stretching hundreds of miles. Convenience and recreation—and the implied carbon cost of asphalt and machinery and plastics, etc—superseded a living population. The same cold calculus that led us to remove the peoples of the First Nations from their ancestral homes, to deem the wolf a nuisance fit only for extermination, to level entire forests of the Eastern woodlands and cut down the lungs of the Earth for palm oil and cattle elsewhere.
Ecopsychologists theorize that our modern culture—and, to some extent, the pre-modern culture that led up to this present form of civilization—handicaps the transference of parental bonds and associations to the natural world in children. It stunts the ecological development of individuals by focusing the formative years of childhood and adolescence toward anthropocentric pursuits and actively teaches avoidance of Nature as a hazardous and inconvenient place. After all, how many of us are not currently vexed by the blazing heat of July, and the recent heat-wave that gripped the nation in 100-degree temperatures? How many of us have practiced the yoga of staying so still breath wills itself out without moving a muscle? If culture is nothing but the sum of our actions and beliefs, what do we add up to?
We must become witnesses, in the Biblican sense of St. John’s revelation, before the healing of peace can commence. We must gain the courage of desperation, felt by every human being present in this catastrophic moment of Earth’s long history. We must enter the cathedral of grief and face the silent judgment of our moral imperatives for the sake of those we’ve forgotten to hear. It is a place full of darkness, studded with the sparkle of hopes and reason, a cocoon of potential where our future waits to be transformed from devastation into something other. Here, we do the work of shadows, crafting the chthonic prayers of the penitent, and recording whatever wisdom echo back from living reality. We return to ourselves.
The work I believe we’re called to, this radical peace-making with the forces of extinction now unleashed on this planet, happens within the mind of each but also in the fertile, shared mindscape of bioregional populations. We return to the same ecological units all threatened species share because we recognize our place is with them in this struggle. Within ourselves we maintain accountability for the practice and act out of the authentic human nature that developed before domestication. Within our immediate, diverse populations we receive and implement the teachings of the wild systems all around us. We develop kinship bonds this way with water and air and seeds, with native species (those arising) and migratory patterns (those passing), that strive toward survival.
Extinction will come in stages, like moon phases and tides. Much like the planet’s orbiting companion, these changes will be forced upon us and demand an adaptive response from all communities in tandem. As the models predict, the further we are into this so-called twenty-first century, the more uncompromising the climate disruptions will become. In the end, extinction is unavoidable, once the mechanisms are in place. We can hope to “work around the edges” of this change, and thereby survive along with our companion species, met on the penitents’ road. We can make this the praxis of our shadow work.
What emerges through extinction? What is the landscape of life on Earth beyond this point? There is where I find my daily hope, despite the gulf of chaos that I will journey through in my lifetime. It is a narrow and fragile bridge that carries me through all that is to come, and so my eyes stay fixed on the far horizon. Even if my years are not long enough to reach the other side, what remains of me will undoubtedly find its way to new life in myriad shapes and forms, unwitting of their previous selves as I am of the ocean life and leaves that held this breath.
There is a world on the other side of this catastrophe, however bleak it might be at first. In time, Earth will heal and settle into a new dynamic balance that could, if we’re lucky, still have a place for a species of bipedal ape caught between the ashes of its old world and the beckoning stars. To fear the loss of this world proves to be maladaptive, in the end. For about 90% of our species history, we lived as nothing more than just another life form. Crude tools and a mastery of fire barely guaranteed a continued existence, even as it was punctuated by century-long droughts due to glaciations in distant northern climes and apocalyptic volcanism. Through starvation and struggle, our ancestors encoded the strength to survive on their progeny, and they passed it on to us.
It is entirely possible that human civilization will collapse before it manages to unleash its full arsenal of destruction on all life… but we are not merely civilization. We are not the brick and mortar, the rebar and the Plexiglas. We’re not capital gains or quarterly profits. We are not blips in the stock market of things. We are a drumbeat of lifeblood, a breath of the wild, borrowed from a myriad lungs. We are the rain on the plain, the stream, the ocean, coursing through these veins and speaking of voyages through life and ice and storm. We are a innumerable particles that dance on and on and on, making life anew in each miraculous form. We are the love of those known and unknown, of families and friends, of compatriots striving as we have for generations.
May this be a story of the lessons learned, of overcoming the great sweep of ages. May the story be told of a species that endured. To that end, I offer this myth:
An age ago, the People suffered a great sickness of forgetting. Little by little, they lost their footing on the Path of Being and wandered far and wide through a world of smoke and mirrors. Unable to see themselves clearly, deceived by the distortions of alienation and superiority, they crafted great wonders of earth and stone and metal. These they raised up toward the sky in desperation and defiance, seeking a glimpse of the Path they had forgotten.
In time, this quest was all they knew. It became their only definition for worth and purpose, centered so tightly on themselves that they even forgot each other. Suffering followed, as the People cried out and heard back only echoes of their pain. The beings of the world forgot them, too, and gave up talking.
They’d become a wounded beast, a rational species capable of calculating profit out of mass destruction. Their minds constructed falsehoods to fulfill desires, without relief or soulstenance. In their wake, nightmares were carved into the land, wounds only the ages may now heal.
It is said that in their last century, an awakening took place. The smoke of devastation cleared and their false mirrors shattered. A few began to remember and retell their stories, reaching out to others and shaking them awake. It was too late to stop the Catastrophe, then, but they saw there was time enough to save a remnant of who they could have been, all along. As their world fell apart, they banded together and wove the dream of the world to come, a prayer of hope none of them would live to see, but could live on after through the ones to come.
Our forebears grew up and passed through a world of vast uncertainty, but great hopes. They carried with them the light of a dream that could not die, lest all the People would be left in darkness and without direction. They sought and gained great strength from the memories of those before them, a spiritual line of wise ones stretching back down the ages.
When the day came for a new dawn, our people were ready to receive it. Rooted in their sacred place of being, kin to storm and earth and all the living, they found others like themselves—survivors—People who walked the Path of Being. This is our age, our story, and our hopes for those who hear it.