Telling the story of us and nature

I was very pleased to be asked to take part in the ‘writer’s rebel’ event last night as part of the Extinction Rebellion protest going on in London. The request was that I do a short reading of my own choice, as one of a number of writers doing the same. Having agonised all week about what to read, I ended up sitting down and writing the following, a matter of hours before the event:

The fragile Earth…  The delicate web of life…  Nature as a wounded thing, desperately in need of our protection… 

The ecological crisis, it seems to me, has tended to be presented in those kinds of terms and I’m struck by the fact that this is really a new variation of an old story, a story in which ‘man’ is the master, and the rest of creation lies stretched out beneath ‘him’.  (I’m using the traditional gendered terms: it’s worth noting also that in many mythologies, Earth is personified as a woman.)

“God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Genesis, 1:26

Things have changed of course since that was written and in our new, ecological version of the story, humankind is not so much the imperious lord of creation, but rather its custodian or curator. But in the new version, as in the old, humans are powerful, humans are godlike, humans are strong, while nature is weak: a wounded animal by the roadside, perhaps, or a beggar holding out a bowl.  It is something vulnerable that needs us. 

One problem with this, it seems to me, is that vulnerable things that need us can invite a tough response. You can walk away from wounded animals and beggars and still carry on with your life.  We all do it.  ‘I’ve got enough problems of my own to worry about just now,’ we say to ourselves. 

And this, after all, in practice even if not in theory, is the response most people give to the environmental crisis: ‘We’ve got enough problems to worry about already. The environment will have to wait.’   You can get a measure of the extent to which that’s true by imagining a world in which the media and Parliament and the general public expended, lets say a tenth, or a twentieth, or even one hundredth as much time and energy on the climate crisis, as they are doing now on the actually rather trivial and local question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. 

And it’s not just Parliament or the media.  If I’m brutally honest, even for me, the climate crisis is quite a few rungs down from the top of the list of things I worry about most frequently.   Even people who are worried, even people who make some effort to speak out, aren’t anything like worried enough.

And I’m wondering if part of the problem is that we’ve been prone to think about this the wrong way round?  Wounded things that need us can be walked away from, but the idea of the rest of creation as being vulnerable and under our dominion is actually an infantile fantasy, like the fantasy of a little boy who plays at being big and fierce when really he depends on the care of others for everything he has. 

The Earth isn’t really fragile.  It’s five billion trillion tonnes of matter.  Drop a hydrogen bomb on it, and it just shrugs.  Life isn’t really that fragile either.  Life on Earth is getting on for four billion years old, and has survived asteroid strikes that completely blotted out the sun, and periods of cold so intense that almost the whole planet was covered in ice… As for ‘Nature’… well, nature is everything, and we’re inside it, totally and utterly subject to its laws. How can that be seen as weak? 

So perhaps the story we should be telling isn’t the story about fragile Earth and delicate nature, but the opposite?   We aren’t the masters of nature, in fact nature is ours (or our mistress is you prefer to give Mother Nature her traditional gender).  But nature is far stricter than any human ruler.  It can’t be bargained with, or flattered, or coaxed, because it doesn’t listen to us, it doesn’t hear us at all, it just responds to what we do, applying its own rules with an unbending impartiality that makes even the hardest and most rigid of bureaucrats look like bleeding hearts.  ‘Do this and the Earth gets hotter, do that and it won’t,’ says Nature, stifling a yawn and looking at its watch as it leans back in its office chair. ‘Those are the rules. It’s entirely up to you.  I really don’t mind either way.’  

And it really doesn’t, any more than electricity minds whether or not you stick your fingers into a socket, or gravity cares if you jump off a cliff.

The truth is that we and our loved ones, all our achievements, our societies, our cultures, our histories— all of the things we value and treasure and that give our life meaning— are just a small and recent outgrowth on the surface of a ball of rock that doesn’t even know we’re there.  The question isn’t ‘How do we help the poor fragile Earth?’ or ‘How do we mend the wounded web of nature?’ because the Earth is fine and nature as ever is in perfect health.  The real question is a much simpler one: ‘Do we want to be here or not?’

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