Updated: Mar 1, 2022
After my previous post, I received a response from my sister that warranted some more research, time, and thought on my part. I imagine that her response, and some of her thoughts and feelings, will feel familiar to many of you as they are to me.
Here is what she said:
With grief, loss, mourning, even death always comes a certain level of beauty. In thinking about the words that dominate your blog post, I find myself associating and thinking about their connections to other words and phrases.
Does guilt manifest as anger or fear? In its manifestation are they equivalent? Are love and care synonymous? Can grief become laziness? Or perhaps lethargy and motivation are more closely related than they are distinct?
This was how your writing got my head turning.
As I reflect on this prompt further I find myself admitting and truly acknowledging for the first time the fact that in my growing respect, appreciation, and love for the natural world--plants, animals, a particular love for cats, and a blossoming fascination with fungi and their endless powers, I am losing respect, appreciation, and love for the human race perhaps 10 times faster. Not for you of course, nor all of the other beautiful people that enrich my life, but as a collective whole.
Sean and I recently discussed how there exists a part of us that wants the human race to cease because quite frankly we've dug our own grave and the earth deserves the chance to repair itself. Dark. I know. (I also know that hearing that we feel this way will make you sad and possibly disappointed, and for that I am deeply sorry).
I sometimes wonder...what does the earth want? What do each of the other living organisms truly want? Survival and basic rights to live as is natural to each species? Maybe as a species we humans have lost all familiarity with what is natural to us as we race to develop and expand. Maybe we are programmed for self destruction...could that be our natural evolution?
In these questions is where it becomes clear to me that I'm teetering on the edge of not having the capacity to believe anymore. However, all feelings I have related to anything and everything are still very real and often overwhelming. Alas, we really are so closely related aren't we Ali? Sean told me once towards the beginning of our relationship that I had an oppressive brand of love...
So maybe, for me, it's time to channel and redirect some of that love back to the human race if I hope to see change. Saying, "hah...we got what we deserved," will mean that all the moments of beauty, whether the sadness I feel for an injured animal, the pleasure of an annual trip to Acadia National Park, or the pride I take in observing how hard you work and how deeply you care, will cease to be as well.
Ali, thank you for asking us to think!
Te amo, te adoro, y siempre creería en ti.
Many of us can empathize with Amy here while recognizing, as she does, that these thoughts—of a lost love for humanity or of the inevitability of self-destruction— can be both debilitating to ourselves and belittling of the truly incredible work being done at the grassroots all around the world.
This post is a hand reaching out to those of you teetering on the edge of not having the capacity to believe anymore. It isn’t a plea for you to believe. It is an invitation to shift your thinking about humans in a way that can help you to not only believe, but also to act on behalf of and to be empowered by your own humanity.
When we scoff in disgust, “humans.” I think we make two errors.
The first is to imagine that our sense of a single human “collective” is inclusive. The human collective is almost always exclusive, especially when we are talking about relationships with the rest of the natural world. “Humans” are not responsible for the ecological chaos of the day, humans in the Global North who have commoditized, and mechanized nature are responsible. The Global North is responsible for 92% of excess greenhouse gas emissions, with the countries we consider “western” (US and EU countries) accounting for 69% (Hickel: https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30196-0). People in the Global South as well as indigenous and marginalized people in the Global North have lived by different relationships to our planet, and movements all around the world are working toward replacing the extractive human-planet relationship with something more reciprocal, familial, care-oriented, and healing. The Red Nation, Buen Vivir, Futuros Indígenas, and Degrowth movements are just a couple of many that we can look to.
Recognizing these alternatives reminds us that it is not inevitable that we continue this catastrophic relationship with the natural world. This is an important reminder, because there is a slippery slope to inaction that begins with the idea that humans are somehow programmed to self-destruct or to be abusive to others by nature. Tim Jensen (whose work guided my last post) writes about how shame is a feeling associated with who you are, while guilt is associated with what you have done. This distinction is important when we think about our behavioral responses to these emotions, or, as Amy calls them, the “manifestations” of the emotions. Feeling bad about who we are- feeling ashamed- does not often lead to action because we can’t change who we are. On the other hand, feeling bad about what we have done- guilt- has a better chance (if only slightly given what I touched on last post) of leading to action because we are able to change our behavior.
What adds another layer of difficulty is that there are some things so entrenched in our society that they can feel as if they are who we are rather than something we have done or created. It is those things that feel impossible to change- like our dominant economic system of capitalism. When we prod the idea of the human collective whole by considering the ways in which we characterize it are exclusive, we can begin to guess that maybe it is not who we are that is the problem, but rather the worldviews and systems we have created.
Not that our systems will be easy to change. But at least it is possible (see: What to Say when they say it’s impossible by Andrea Brower in YES! Magazine https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/love-apocalypse/2013/06/14/what-to-say-when-they-say-it-s-impossible ).
The second error we make when conceptualizing this human collective whole is that we draw the line around humans- separate from the rest of the earth. But like the fungi and to the fungi, we are a trillion times connected. These two assumptions so often built into our critiques of human interaction with the earth– that we are talking about all humans and only humans— do not hold up to scrutiny. Examining them shows us new pathways for action led by black, indigenous, youth, and Global South communities and driven by the constant recognition of our own embeddedness in a more-than-human whole.
Amy, you suggest that to cease to exist could be what we deserve. A part of me agrees, from time to time. What is scary to me about that thought, though, is what it means if we don’t cease to exist. The end of humanity is just too easy. What’s hard, what’s terrifying, is to imagine a world in which the kind of suffering predicted by climate scientists is met with a spirit of, “we got what we deserved.” As I picture that world, the chills crawling down my back meet the anger bubbling up from my gut to make a dizzying cocktail of fear and frustration. Because in that image of the world, someone is suffering, and someone else is watching. It is scary to imagine that we could so wholly disavow emotion as to not empathize with those who are suffering; and it is frustrating to think that we could so completely turn our backs on truth and nuance as to not recognize that those who are suffering are not the ones who created this mess. That world would be a failure of both human emotion and human reason. Such a failure that is neither impossible nor inevitable, but one we can work together to avoid. You and me, sis, just might be doing so right now.
I have one question for responses this week: How are you empowered by your own humanity? Send your responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: There are some philosophical ideas in this post that certainly didn’t come from my brain. So I want to recommend some reading for those who might wonder where these ideas come from or want to read more about humans and knowledge and feelings and the planet. Just a few:
Being Salmon, Being Human by Martin Lee Mueller
Mourning Nature: hope at the heart of ecological loss and grief by Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman
The Ecological Thought by Timothy Morton
The Red Deal by The Red Nation
Check out our resources page for more!