The moral price of destroying our home.
I come to the intersection that would lead me back to my warm dormitory, but I don’t turn my feet toward home. The night is bitter cold, with a windchill plummeting to -22°F. I’m wearing only thin jogging pants below my waist; the skin on my legs burns and then becomes numb. I don’t care. I keep walking. This is my world. This is the world. I want to live in it. I want to love it.
The one thing most people know about me is that I am obsessed with climate change. I spend my free hours working with lobbyists and planning demonstrations, reading the latest news on environmental legislation and writing editorials about why we should tax carbon. I can regurgitate a veritable book about the state of our climate: why we need to limit global warming to 1.5°C and bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350 parts per million, about the carbon-sequestering properties of prairie soil and the relative potency of methane compared to other greenhouse gases.
What most people don’t know about me, because I rarely discuss it, is that I actually don’t care that much about greenhouse gas levels. I know that the climate is changing. People will be hurt, people will die, and it will be tragic. It already is tragic. But I also believe that we’ll find a way, good or bad, to adapt to our new world. The planet will be different — probably poorer — but it will keep turning. This is not why I am an environmentalist.
I’m walking further from home with each step, and I know I’m going to be seriously frozen by the time I return. Still, I keep trudging into the wind; something about the frozen night feels comforting, or at least appropriate. Right now I am angry and sad, and the north wind freezes my tears to my cheeks. At least climate change hasn’t taken away South Dakota’s frigid winters, not yet.
I’ve just come from the library, where I’ve been reading about farming philosophies, the injustices of corporate agriculture, and the hope in regenerative farming methods. I love this topic; that’s not what’s made me feel despondent. No, I’m angry about the fact that these arguments have to be written down in books and proven through carefully-crafted studies. I’m angry that we are still waiting for “scientific breakthroughs” to tell us — what, exactly? That we should care about our planet? That we need the earth, and that we should probably stop abusing it at some point, lest we face the consequences?
Consequences. The environmental movement is built on avoiding the consequences of our actions. But it’s too late — we can’t avoid the effects of what we’ve done. The impact of our destructiveness is already permeating our lives.
Let me explain what I mean. When I was a kid, I felt really sad a lot of the time. I didn’t know how to put a name to the sadness, but I would sit on my couch and stare out the front window, looking down my urban street, past the gray treetops criss-crossed with telephone wires. I would imagine I was anywhere but in this square, boxy house, nestled inside a square, boxy neighborhood. I would imagine that I was far away in the northern wildernesses, surrounded by things made by nature, not by humans.
Before I went to sleep, I would flip through the glossy pages of An Encyclopedia of Animals, pausing at my favorite species: the gray wolf, the mountain lion, the common loon. I would stare at these pictures until I wanted to cry. I was maybe seven years old, and I barely understood the concept of conservation, but I grasped something deeper. These were species that we had destroyed. These were animals that my ancestors had chased and shot and frightened and killed, until they were either dead or secluded beyond reach. Now, families like mine would travel to parks for a camping trip, so that we could have a weekend in the woods, “living close to the earth” again — as long as there were rangers nearby ready to shoot any bear, coyote, or moose that forgot its rightful terror of our species.
Maybe this sounds absurd to you. Why would anyone worry about the fate of endangered animals, when so many humans are suffering? All I can say is that I have never found any meaningful distinction between the way we treat humans and the way we treat the earth.
I know many people cannot or will not extend their empathy this far. But a growing tide of youth are seeing the truth. The world I saw, as a child, was covered in the blood of every living thing crushed to make room for neat asphalt roads, every root torn from the soil so that we could sink the foundations of our houses into the earth. I developed strange compulsions that I would perform every time I glimpsed a road-killed squirrel or rabbit from my car booster seat. My parents worried that their child was going mad, and sometimes I felt like I was. I don’t remember what the compulsions were, but I know they were some kind of choked prayer to a God whose powers I wasn’t sure of, in the face of a human society that seemed quite powerful enough.
To be clear, even as a child, I had no fantasies of a deathless world. I knew how fundamental death is to the cycle of life. I spent my grade-school afternoons reading about the hunting strategies of wolves and lions — how they tear their prey limb from limb and begin to feast while it is still alive. I didn’t like those facts, but I respected them. I could not respect the rampant destruction that was everywhere, invisibly oppressive, in the culture around me.
Of course, we don’t need to focus on non-human beings to see how modern industrial development has a record of promoting horrific violence. We learned in school about the slavery and genocides that accompanied European colonialism. “How could they have done that?” we ask ourselves. “How could they not have understood that we are all human?”
It’s an important question, but maybe it’s the wrong one. Why must we determine whether someone is human in order to extend a basic respect for life? We talk about environmentalists as if they were a special interest group, but environmentalism is not one political issue among others. To be an environmentalist is to value existence.
According to social scientists, every genocide happens through three processes: authorization, routinization, and dehumanization.
First, a public authority figure declares, either explicitly or implicitly, that the crime is socially acceptable.
Second, the crime is routinized: divided between many specific jobs and workers, so that no one sees the full picture of what is taking place, or has the ability to stop it.
Third, the object of the crime is dehumanized. Groups of “us” and “them” are created: those who are worthy of respect and empathy, and those who are not.
Replace the word “dehumanized” with “devalued,” and one need not look far to see how the three-step system perfectly explains our current situation. We are in the middle of a sanctioned massacre of life on Earth. This is more than an emergency. This is a crime.
We know that crimes are never committed without repercussion. We hear enough stories from veterans with PTSD to know that violence harms the perpetrator almost as much as the victim. We can market our self-destructive massacre as “progress” or “economic growth,” but we remain trapped in a system that makes each of us implicit in destruction. Can we doubt that this knowledge impacts us in a sinister way, whether or not we realize it? Are we not the loneliest of creatures, shut off in our brick-and-mortar cages from every other form of life?
This is my world. It is built on on soil that was plowed up and washed away, on trees that were slashed and burned, on land that was purged of every animal large enough to shoot — because killing made us feel in-control, less afraid of a world that was, and still is, more powerful than our fragile social structures. And people wondered why I was often sad as a child. I wondered why everyone around me wasn’t grieving, as well.
Eventually, I’ve walked as far as I can tolerate in this cold, and I’ve gone through all the thoughts I have in my head. I turn for home. I unlock my door and sit down at my desk. I open my laptop as the blood rushes back to my fingertips and burns its way down my frozen shins. I know that my thoughts cannot un-build a society that is so corrupt at its core. But I need people to understand. I need them to know that when I say “climate action now,” I mean so much more than carbon emissions. I mean that this is our last chance to see where we’ve gone wrong, our last chance to learn to want something better. Sooner or later, climate change will force us to alter our habits. Perhaps, in this re-creation, there will be room for a new understanding of environmentalism: that it is not about us. It is not about what we can extract from the earth without suffering consequences. It is not about ensuring a stable future for ourselves. It is about waking up to the incredible reality that we live on a blue gem, floating in infinite blackness. The reality that nothing that humans ever create will hold a candle to the miracle of our living planet. If the climate crisis cannot move us to understand that, then I fear that nothing ever will. This is the best chance we’ve got. I cannot be silent.