Are there levels of doom? Do you think in terms of grades of ruin? I only ask because to exist in the modern world is to be forced to accept grey areas. I say forced with the same reluctance a blind man might feel as he is prodded towards the edge off a cliff, a sword in his back. No-one likes to be forced to accept anything against their will. It goes against our sense of ourselves as being in control. As humans, we have fashioned the world in our image, taking from it the things we feel are ours by right. Consequences are an irritant, easily dismissed. We'll sort it out tomorrow. It isn't as bad as the prophets of catastrophe believe. Things are always exaggerated. And anyway, we are the dominant species. Look at all the achievement. Yes, we make mistakes. But, after all, we're only human, aren't we?
We are only human. Before any further ado, while the faint idea of doom and ruin pop in and out of the mind like unsettling whispers that no modern soul can fully grasp, here is the news. You may want to look away now. If nothing else, the following may hopefully confirm that nothing in the world is really ill-defined, ambiguous, or grey. It's high time for some stark black and white and an acceptance of what's real.
Think about the paltry space of time that is forty years. Two score. Four decades. Not a long time at all. Barely the casual blink of an eye, you might agree. Half an average human life-span. The teenage years of the Galapagos tortoise. A grain of sand in the great egg-timer. So consider the following and shudder.
The history of the world is the history of worlds within worlds dying. A tongue-twisting concept, I know, but not as mind-bending or truly, truly awful as how easy it has become to accept and shrug. At anything. In the face of anything. Despite anything. We might sigh every now and then, wring our hands, even apologise. The conundrum, though, is working out what we are apologising for, or indeed who to. How does an apology gather weight?
A sobering thought is a solemn one, or at least should be. So here are some solemn statistics. And recall the span of forty years. The true horror of complicity is encapsulated in that brief moment. If you don't hold a torch to statistics, or feel that they are necessary as a means of understanding cause and effect, then fine. I won't argue the point. But sometimes they are the only way to understand the gravity of something, especially a tragedy. In a tragedy, statistics are usually the only thing left.
In forty years, homo sapiens has been responsible for the eradication of between a quarter and a third of the planet's wildlife. And please, let's not be coy about what this really means. None of this carnage has been inadvertent. Man may not in all scenarios have gathered his weapons with the deliberate attempt to deplete the world's wild things, but there has been an indifferent deliberation at play in viewing the destruction of the natural world as somehow unavoidable. Collateral damage. Sad, but a price somehow worth paying. Progress, you see. Sorry. Wish we could have done more.
In those same forty years - and I make no apology for repeating the mantra, 25 percent of land-based animals, 28 percent of marine and 29 percent of freshwater creatures have been unceremoniously wiped off the face of the earth. Not removed temporarily, not sequestered somewhere remote, not lost in a nameless and unknown wilderness, to be rediscovered in a hundred years time. Gone forever, never to show themselves to the children of the future, except between the pages of dusty and forgotten books.
It gets worse. 35 percent of the world's mangrove swamps, home to thousands of aquatic birds have been destroyed. 35 percent. Let that figure resonate for a moment, even if statistics normally leave you cold. This one should make you, us, everyone feel a chill. It should make the heart freeze and the blood boil. Coral - 25 percent gone. Arctic wildlife - 25 percent. 600,000 square kilometres of Amazon rainforest - no more. Extinction rates are soaring, the oceans are churning and seething because of all the industrial pollutants still being used to poison them. Birds are almost dying on the wing. Or, if they don't get airborne, they die soon after being hatched, all over the world, poisoned by pesticides. But none of it is directly our fault, of course. It's all a kind of reverse natural selection. Inevitable really, a natural phenomenon that none of the technocrats could have seen coming.
We are not computers. Our brains are not conditioned to grasp the infinite, whether it be infinite joy or despair. Most people do not think on this scale, which is probably why we have arrived at this point. We avoid contemplating doom-scenarios. Too many other more important things to fret over. Mobile phones. Cars. Streaming devices. Wondering why our bins haven't been collected instead of asking ourselves why they are full. We don't like statistics, not if the evidence behind them is scarily compelling. We like and nurture and invent stories - our stories. And most of these are the kind we hide behind. The only time we want to be frightened is when we're clutching our popcorn. The remainder of an average life is spent documenting our needs and pursuing some abstract idea of happiness. Wildlife and it's struggle to survive us, is not even a peripheral concept. An idea is all that the natural world is, something to be briefly sentimental about, like nostalgia. It makes us long for the things we have left behind, things we can never get back.
I'll wager that if asked what nature means, the average respondee wouldn't know how to answer. What do you mean, they would say. Nature, it's, well. you know, it just sort of is. Only, it isn't. Saying that nature 'just is' takes no account of responsibility. Our responsibility. I'll go further. Believing that nature 'just is' and having nothing else to contribute to any kind of understanding is making the crass assumption, the ignorant assumption, that the animals roaming the planet can look after themselves. Ideally, they should. If man still had the relationship with the wildness surrounding him that he once had, animals would exist in that imperfect but infinitely more preferable way that for thousands of years stood them, and us in good stead. It was a more measurable and measured co-existence, something more like the reciprocal relationship that threatened neither side.
Blame the cavemen, if you must. They began the transformation from the ground up. It took millennia, of course. Man's domination of the earth habitat and all that roamed across it didn't happen overnight, but when the momentum gathered pace and primitive man graduated in his survival strategy from spear-wielding opportunist to large-brained farmer, the rot began slowly to set in. Animals were no longer a random source of prey and sustenance, but a resource, to be exploited as readily as a root vegetable. It's a simplification of the history of man's subsequent domination of all the other species, but it serves to offer an example of the disastrous downside to so-called progress. And the simple and lamentable fact is this; if it couldn't outrun us, swim away from us, or escape into the skies, we would hunt it down, collectivise it, process the guts out of it and then eat it in vast quantities, until it disappeared.
All of which continues today, now, every single waking hour. Only now, we have vast machines to help hasten the process along. The machines have taken over, which some would say is better. More efficiency, a higher and cost-effective means of wholesale slaughter at the touch of a button. And best of all for those who work in the industry but are squeamish about getting blood on their own hands, the machines are dumb. They have no scruples, no conscious awareness of the rights or the wrongs. They are aloof, like gods. And they ask no questions.
The green ecologists are in disarray. and the activists among them no longer chain themselves to the abattoir gates or stand defiant in front of bulldozers. They are political creatures now. They have to be, because they maybe feel this is the only way they can be heard. The thing is, what kind of message are they projecting to the world and who in the world is listening? Perhaps a partial defeatism has made the environmental movement wise-up, somewhat. After all, activism is all well and good, but it has proved by-and-large to be a fool's errand. It hoped in the past to reverse the tide of environmental destruction by shaking it's fists, marching, protesting, lobbying MPs, collecting donations and demanding a reversal of policies to protect wildlife and re-establish the integrity of the planet's eco-systems. Harsh facts are often unpleasant. They are unpleasant because they are usually the ones none us want to face up to. The world is damaged, possibly irreparably. No amount of wishful-thinking can change that. Man soldiers inexorably on, with his machines and his schemes and his thirsts. Wild places and wild animals continue to be threatened. Sustainability is not ultimately or actually possible while it proposes methods that damage the things it is meant to protect. Wind farms, nuclear energy, wave turbines. How are any of them protecting wildlife? The only thing they are sustaining is us. The only thing they are really protecting is the status quo. More of the same, please, seems to be the cry.
Still, chin up. At least we can still jump into our gas-guzzling four-by-four, take a ride with our 2.3 brood of children into the country, stop by the roadside in the middle of a real wilderness, approximately twenty miles from where we live, play a bit of hare-spotting. Then, we can eat our sandwiches, slurp our sugar-saturated fizzy drinks - making sure to not leave any litter for someone else to pick up, thereby displaying our environmentalist credentials, take a few selfies and one or two landscape pics and go home. And surely we will feel that we have contributed something, especially since we will have posted everything on social media. Sort of provides that warm glow that we all need, doesn't it? Look at us and how concerned about the fate of the planet we are.
I do not think things will improve, not much. Certainly, a lot of the damage has already been done. There is no reverse gear in the machine. All the machine wants to do is grind on, forwards. Backwards is not programmed into it's unfeeling circuitry. The same circuitry as possessed by it's creators - us. We are the machine, really. We push the buttons and then stand back and watch, protesting when the machine wreaks it's havoc that none of it is our doing. We aren't to blame. We are not culpable. We are above all that. Just look at all the good things we provide for the consumer. The lucky, blessed consumer, with their mobiles, tablets. So much bric-a-brac. So many future curios. So much disregard for the things that really matter. Broken connections, everywhere.
Once, we were said to be sleep-walking towards the abyss. Now we are running. Faster and faster. Collectively, as a species, do we want this? Do we want to plunge headlong into the quicksand? I'm not sure we do, I'm not entirely sure we don't. Ever since the first man burned his hand in the first fire, we have possessed the talent, the skill to harm. And as I have hopefully demonstrated, we always hurt the ones we (say) we love. On and on and on it goes, like a hellish merry-go-round. So fast now that we have to wonder, surely. Is there any way to safely get off? And even if we could get off, would we want to?
Everything that happens in the world and to the world is a result of the influence of outside forces. Climate changes may be the the result of natural forces beyond our control. Our pollution of the atmosphere undoubtedly exacerbates the problem. It certainly doesn't contribute anything positive. We don't have all of the answers, certainly. Or should that be obviously? We may not even have some of the answers, or any. Things may have degraded too far already. Perhaps the jury will always be out. But while we all wait, some of us trying individually to live cleaner, purer, more honest and less complex lives, the world and everything it contains rumbles relentlessly by, without a second glance at the consequences, the depleting resources or the ultimate end-game, whatever that might ultimately be.
We cocoon ourselves, put our heads under the covers, switch off the light and dream. What do we dream of? Do we dream of a future technology that will rescue us from the damaging technology of today? If we do, perhaps we should stay asleep and not want to wake up. What a hellish future that would be. Machines on the march, marching over us. Or, do we dream of the animals and their plight? The painter Franz Marc died in the First World War. Not long before he perished on the battlefield he painted a heartbreaking image of a terrified deer, trapped in a half-destroyed forest. The painting is called the Fate of the Animals. With it's tortured imagery and chaos of destruction and threat, it would be easy to see the imagery as a premonition of war and the carnage to come. Perhaps Franz Marc foresaw his own death in the muddy trench. Or was he trying to exorcise death, somehow, in advance? Was the painting a futile talisman, a good-luck charm? If so, it didn't prevent the bullet that took Marc's life away. It saddens me to say so. I don't think a mankind that could conjure the murderous and mindless mayhem of the first fully mechanised mass-slaughter in history would have cared whether Franz Marc was killed or not. He was one more romantic, pleading in the dark. And what of the deer? What, in fact of the fate of the animals? Will they all have to pay the price of our indifference? Will our desire to at least redress some of the harm we have done and still do grow, as we all should hope it can? These are rhetorical questions, for sure. They perhaps have no answers. It may be true, as the poet Robinson Jeffers has observed, that we are a species in the process of breaking it's legs on it's own cleverness.
Is fighting better than quitting? That all depends on what is at stake and whether winning is possible. Stoicism and a measure of positive pessimism can help, they say. But neither change anything for the better. All we are left with is philosophical debate and a discussion with our own intellect. What we can definitely do is attempt, wherever and whenever we can to preserve and protect non-human life. As individual direct action goes, it will not necessarily prevent future calamities, future suffering, future exploitations, future extinction events. But it is something. Something we should all attempt, if we can. Anything we can do to contribute is a kind of small withdrawal from the big machine. It may not save the world, but it may just save a few of our fellow creatures - for that is how we should wish to see them, as a valuable and intrinsic part of the fabric of our lives. Fellow creatures. You and I may not have the power to save everything good, but idealism in action, even small scale, is it's own reward. Save just one creature. Then stand back and meditate on the action for a moment. You may not ever have the chance to save anything else that walks, swims, crawls or flies again. But do it the once and you may very well save your soul.
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