It sounds a little like a war zone out there, but it’s just the police helicopters surveilling the West Indian Day Parade.
I’m back from a trip to visit my West Coast relatives, and tomorrow, my city, that hive of alarming ambition, will be back on the job, fully re-populated after the blessed vacation hiatus.
I keep thinking about that hour we spent–Winston and I, my sister and brother-in-law, and my mother, whose 90th birthday we’d just finished celebrating–around the kitchen counter in her Vancouver (Washington) home. It’s a small but comfortable place that looks out on a golf course, which affords a pleasingly green vista at the expense of massive applications of killer chemicals; my mother appreciates the view, though it forces her to enclose the back of the house in protective netting to guard against the ambient stray golf balls that would otherwise be driven into skulls and windows with devastating force.
We were drinking wine and talking about the human prospect, having got there by way of coal trains, oil trains, ocean acidification, and other topics related to the environmental devastation that folks in the Northwest have a somewhat different perspective on from the one seems to be current in the Northeast, where energy extraction rather than transshipment tends to raise the biggest alarms. (Two months ago, following my keynote at the Goddard MFAW writing residency, a talk that centered on my perennial question about the meaning and nature of art in a context where a planetary “we” must try to imagine its fundamentally altered condition as a potentially self-extinguishing species, nobody quite seemed to know what to do with a topic that large. One woman rushed up to me afterwards– “You’re absolutely right, it’s so important what you’re talking about, we have to ban fracking!!”)
I think Ebola had also come into it.
Things aren’t looking good: we five agreed on that.
What struck me at the time, and what I keep coming back to, is where different human minds go when face to face with this perception. (The question at hand, although never phrased so bluntly, was plainly nothing short of: does humanity have a future?)
I said what I always say: we have the capacity–proven, now, in several arenas, that of nuclear technology and that of uncontrolled climate change–to wipe ourselves out–probably not through the action of any one mechanism, but rather through the unforeseen consequences of interacting harms. So far, there aren’t too many evident checks on that process.
My sister and brother-in-law, biologists by profession–they had a career managing wilderness habitats for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game before moving to San Juan Island, where they continue vigorous involvement in conservation pursuits–said that the impending collapse of the biosphere will lead to a radical reduction in Earth’s human population, and large amounts of suffering, but because our species is the most adaptive ever, some humans will undoubtedly survive. And my brother-in-law insisted, with a perverse good cheer that reminded me of Steven Pinker’s barrenly optimistic thesis about the supposed downward trend in violence over the centuries of human affairs, that this is the best time in history to be alive…so long as you focus only on the present.
My mother, who was my earliest educator in how to be very afraid of the death of the world during those terrible years of nuclear terror, the early 1950’s, said that reading a book named Time Reborn made her think that if matter and energy can neither be created nor destroyed, then….somehow, the losses will be compensated for: something will arise. (I’m not entirely sure what she meant by that; she struggled to express an ineffable intuition.)
Something will arise or someone will survive: this is the sort of mantra we chant to ourselves these days, sitting in comfort, drinking a decent wine, cheered by the example of a 90-year-old with all her faculties intact.
Not to mention the secret self-reassurance: I, at least, won’t live to see the worst. Which, when you think about it, sounds a little too much like a kinder, gentler après moi, le déluge.
“We” I say, deploying the most mendacious of all pronouns. What mantras do the young people favor? What about the more or less immiserated? What difference does location make, whether temporal, social, or geographic?
In imagination is, or might be, the preservation of the world.