All You Sea

Speaking of large ships, in honor of World Ocean Day, which was June 8, I had planned to watch Seaspiracy.  A Netflix original documentary, this really is a must-see film.  Not to pass the buck, but I’ve long believed it will be the younger generation that will take the initiative to improve conditions on our planet.   I’ve seen my own insanely selfish and aging generation (with even more aged and selfish senators) continue to exploit this planet like there’s no tomorrow.  If you watch Seaspiracy you may see that it’s closer to true than you might think.  There may be no tomorrow if we don’t change our ways right now.  Borrowing its title from Cowspiracy, another important documentary, Seaspiracy looks at the fishing industry and its devastating effects on our oceans.

There’s a lot of sobering stuff here.  It begins with plastics.  Single use plastics, and even recyclable plastics, are everywhere.  They kill sea animals, they break down into micro-particles and infiltrate everything.  Chances are you have lots of plastic in your body just from living in an environment where it’s everywhere.  Ali and Lucy Tabrizi take you on a very disturbing journey where governments keep secrets about their roles in depleting the oceans and where large corporations kill observers at sea where there’s no chance of the truth being discovered.  They take you to the claims behind “dolphin safe” tuna and other fish.  They take you to where the market price on illegally caught blue fins can bring in three million dollars per fish.  And they’re caught in great numbers.

The oceans, according to current projections, could be empty in 27 years.  If current practices don’t change, there could be basically nothing left by 2048.  Why?  Because humans are hooked on consuming.  Some critics complain the date should be 2072, as if that isn’t just kicking the can down the road.  I became a vegetarian many years ago, after leaning that way many years before that.  It took Cowspiracy to make me go vegan. We eat without thinking about where our food comes from.  Our industrial food practices are literally destroying our planet.  Having given up fish along with other meat, I didn’t think much about fishing.  Seaspiracy shows why fishing is everyone’s concern.  It’s largely unregulated, unenforceable laws apply, and companies try to make consumers feel better in their acceptance that some fish is safe for endangered species.  This documentary shows once again how the price of eating animals, and doing so on an industrial scale, is simply not sustainable.  My generation is perhaps too lazy to change its ways.  Our only hope is that the younger generation takes the state of this mess far more seriously than we do. And perhaps thinks before putting things in their mouths.


Ocean Day

Yesterday was World Oceans Day.  It’s probably a measure of how busy I’ve been that I missed it until well into the work day.  Environmental care is one of my major concerns—something that the majority of Americans share but which Republicans block at every chance they get.  The oceans are the largest part of our planet .  Viewed from certain angles, the globe has barely any land on it at all.  And yet, since we live on the dry part, we use the wet part as our dumping ground.  There is an entire island in the Pacific made of plastic refuse.  Big petroleum doesn’t want any alternatives offered even though plastic is one of the most toxic products we produce for other life on this planet.  Shouldn’t governments share the values of their people?

Born in the landlocked western part of Pennsylvania, I first saw the ocean when I moved to Boston.  It was almost so distracting that I couldn’t study.  Here was this seemingly endless expanse of water that we so poorly understand, the symbol of eternity and life itself, right before me.  It was while living on the coast that I came to read Moby-Dick.  I could spend hours on the rocky shoreline, gazing out toward the seas in wonder.  I’m not a sea-farer myself.  I have inner-ear problems and being on a ship for any length of time would likely lead to extreme discomfort.  I can imagine, however.  Eventually I would read Coleridge and Hemingway and understand that I was not the only one who felt this way about the seemingly endless water.

Some of my earliest literary memories involve Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us.  It’s another book that opened young, landlocked eyes to what our world really is.  The image of water eternally crashing onto the shore is a comforting one.  As Carson knew, we came from the water and we yearn for it still.  Life as we know it isn’t possible without our oceans.  Yet, having petty human needs for extreme wealth and a sense of power over others, we pollute these seas with oil and plastics and chemicals and figure it’ll be somebody else’s problem.  In reality, the problem belongs to all of us.  Plastic Island, as it’s now being called, is nearly three times the size of France.  It’s composed of 100 percent pollution.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is being considered by some the eighth continent.  World Oceans Day should never slip away unnoticed.


Well Grounded

Earth Day feels like it’s actually Earth Day for the first time in four years.  Many of those with more common sense than gullibility know that we have only one planet.  Even as we have achieved flight on Mars, any hope of going elsewhere (and some of us would rather not) is many years away.  Earth is our home and we can live on our planet without destroying it.  Other animals also change the environment, of course.  The problem arises when one species becomes unchecked and begins changing things for their benefit only.  Or what they perceive as their benefit only.  Life evolved on this planet deeply integrated.  The more we study nature the more we see how interconnected it is.  Thinking ourselves special, we’ve placed a wall between humankind and everything else.  It’s an artificial wall.

If you read about nature you’ll be amazed.  Trees, perhaps the true heroes of this planet, make our life possible.  They couldn’t exist without the fungi that partner with their roots in a symbiotic relationship.  If there had been no trees our ancestors would’ve been easy prey to larger predators and would likely not have survived.  Large industrial corporations destroy trees as if they’re a nuisance.  They are our life.  Even as governments with “strong men” leaders destroy the forests in “their” countries, we are losing the very biodiversity that makes life possible on this planet.  There’s room for humans to get along here without destroying the environment that supports our very life.

One of the hidden motives in this scenario is a strange development within Christianity.  A literalism that would’ve shocked even old Augustine developed around the turn of the last century.  That literalism was used by corporations that saw the earth as a resource to be exploited and claimed that we, unlike animals, owned the planet.  If you own a home would you destroy it just because you could?  What good would it do?  No, this Earth Day let’s take the time to consider our religion and its implications sensibly.  The Bible does not advocate destroying what God created.  It may have been written too early to comprehend evolution, but that was never a problem for early theologians.  When fused with capitalism, however, this religion provided everything greedy businesses needed to exploit the planet for its own purposes—the god Mammon.  Just this week we flew our first flight on an inhospitable planet far away.  Today let’s think of how we might protect the only home we have under our feet. 


Story Over

Despite my penchant for speculative fiction I tend to read a lot of what’s usually categorized as literary fiction.  These tales don’t fit into any genre and are often colored with realism.  More than one person had recommend Richard Powers’ The Overstory, not least the Pulitzer Prize committee.  In the style of novels these days it’s pretty long and that meant I had to build up the courage (and time) to get to it.  I support the environment.  I have a great respect for trees and try to support conservation any way I can.  The Overstory is, however, a bleak vision of what we’re doing to the planet and to other living beings.  It certainly helps to have read Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees first.  It helps to know the main premise of the novel is based on non-fiction.  There may be spoilers below.

The first part of the book, Roots, introduces us to the various characters—most of whom will interact in the remaining pages.  Most of them are marked by tragedy in their lives and come to realize the longevity of trees has a perspective that can make sense of what, to our lifespans, seems inexplicable.  Several, but not all, of them end up in a conservation group trying to defend old growth redwoods from the insatiable greed of lumber companies and politicians.  The novel ends happily for none of them.  Trees, however, have the ability to outlive us.  While we cause real damage, they have the ability to regenerate, but in ways that none of us will live to see.  Trees see beyond the short, tragic lives we lead, into what may be a more hopeful future.

The other sections of the book, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds, follow events chronologically as the people age.  Some notable deaths among the group have a great impact on the small coterie of those protecting trees.  An unfeeling state and the corporate nature of laws are clearly on display.  They serve the will of those who can’t, or won’t, think differently about the world and our place in it.  Although the novel doesn’t ever cite the source, one of the eco-heroes finds a verse from Job to be of tremendous consolation: “For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease.”  I was glad to see the connection made, but the book left me emotionally exhausted.  With speculative fiction at least you can escape the real problems of this world for awhile.


Slimy Veggies

This wasn’t the work of ghosts, but it sure looked like it.  I snapped on the kitchen lights at 3:00 a.m. to find one of the counters dripping with slime.  It looked like the basement of the New York Public Library.  As I grabbed a damp rag and a roll of paper towels, I thought about Ghostbusters and fresh produce.  The slime, you see, came from a burst freezer pack.  During the pandemic we’ve been using Misfits, a service that delivers fresh fruits and vegetables to your door.  Early on, back in March and April, it looked like various shortages, apart from toilet paper, were here to stay.   Every couple of weeks we’d get a Misfits box, so we’d at least have that.

Since fruits and vegetables are perishable, and since there is a time lag involved, they are packed with freezer bags.  These cold-pack bags are reusable and we began sticking them in our ice-box.  We have no free-standing freezer, so the unit atop our fridge was getting full.  The last week’s pack had begun to leak in transit, and, being too busy, I’d set it aside until I could figure out how to dispose of it in the most environmentally friendly way.  We don’t generate a huge amount of trash.  We compost our food scraps, and being vegan we don’t have smelly animal byproducts to toss.  And we recycle all that we can.  I guess just “throwing it out” has become a kind of last resort.  In the dark, the freezer bag made the decision for me and so I found myself mopping in the middle of the night.

It’s a small price to pay, really, to try to help save the environment.  The past four years have contributed unconscionably to global warming.  We tend not to care because those who’ll bear the brunt of it in the short-term are the poor.  Industrialists can afford vacation homes in the mountains.  Our lifestyles have an impact everywhere.  We need to learn to think differently about things.  Of course, that leaky freezer pack did cause quite a mess.  The gooey slime was everywhere, but it was everywhere with a conscience.  I have to wonder what happens to the world when leaders lack conscience.  Unfortunately I don’t have to wonder long since I have the headlines to read.  No, this wasn’t the work of ghosts, but unless we change our ways it could well be.  And when those treating you like enemies are your leaders, who you gonna call?


From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.


Not for Men

Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird?  Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism.  One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing.  Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean.  Theology played its part too.  Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday.  In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons.  As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.

We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results.  Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity.  The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient.  This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar.  Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted.  I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish.  Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit.  Tech makes it so easy!

In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity.  As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times.  Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap.  I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there.  In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores.  I no longer eat fish.  With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner.  Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations.  The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use.  And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster. 


World Environment Day

Do you like where you’re living?  Planet earth, I mean.  Today is World Environment Day.  It’s not enough of a holiday to score time off of work, but it is well worth observing nevertheless.  More than that, it’s vital.  Other holidays tend to be the decaying remains of religiously appointed observances or sops thrown to the Cerberus of patriotism, but World Environment Day impacts every one of us, all of the time.  Whether sleeping, waking, working, or playing, it’s in the context of the one planet we have.  Even those in space have to check in here to survive.  We might try to make World Environment Day an international holiday, but I’m sure we could never all agree to it.  Business would collapse if everyone took the same day off, all at the same time.  Instead we’re left to dream.

I recently watched The Lego Movie.  Although released in 2014 it perfectly anticipated 45 with “President Business.”  Overlooking for a moment that Legos represent big business, the film underscored the problem: the only thing hard enough to cut a diamond is another diamond.  And the only way to fight business is with business.  Perhaps there aren’t enough people to envision what life could be like without the constant stress of having to make more money.  It’s a sickness, really.  But it’s a pathology we worship.  There are some abysses, it seems, into which nobody dares peer.  Who doesn’t want to be in charge?  And those in charge care nothing for Mother Earth.

We have spent the past two-plus years watching helplessly as the Republican Party has done its level best to lay waste the planet.  Rolling back and abolishing environmental initiatives deemed detrimental to “business,” these are folks who need to feel what it’s like to lose a job or two and have to reinvent themselves.  Not that long ago, most of the humans on this planet lived on farms or supported those who did.  Daily in touch with the planet in a literal way that those who mow with industrial, sit-down lawn helicopters can never be—how can you be in touch when your feet never even meet the ground?—they knew that paying attention to the planet is crucial.  But that’ll have to wait.  It’s a work day, after all.  And a Wednesday, no less.  In the middle of the week-long worship at the altar of Mammon.  Still, I urge you to take a moment or two today to consider how to save the only planet we’ve got.  It’s worth celebrating.


Sustainability

There comes a time, it seems to me, when each generation realizes it’s made a mess of things.  Well, at least the thinking members of a generation do.  I mentioned a few days ago that I kind of idealize the sixties.  The book about them that I mentioned wasn’t shy about showing the misguided aspects of the time.  In many respects life is better for many—not for all, and that’s important to remember!—and we’re more connected with better, if too expensive, medicine.  More people are finding some kind of enlightenment and realizing that we continue to use up this limited planet far too swiftly.  At the moments when such thoughts become oppressive, I recall the young.  Perhaps we’ve done something right by gifting ourselves our forward-looking offspring.

A website my wife recently pointed out to me, Sustainable Millennial, is a locus of hope.  For too long we’ve bought the lie that anything really is disposable.  Bread cast upon the waters comes back, even if you put it on a rocket and send it to space.  You see, society has bought into what was a deliberate economic plan—help people find meaning in consuming (the war was over and the economy slowing, we were restless).  If you could get people to spend money for things to make themselves happy, well, just ask MC for the results.  Problem is you only have room for so much stuff.  Better make it “disposable.”  Trash heaps never fill up, do they?  Heaps become hills and hills become mountains, and all the sudden we need to get Daniel on the phone.

Our young understand something we’re slow to ken.  We’ve polluted, used up, and “thrown away” what can never be replaced.  The good news is that there are other ways to live.  We can reduce waste and even stop paving any space wide enough for a car to squeeze through.  All that’s being made is mere money.  What we’ve needed is voices not long enough vested in the system to try to change it.  By the time you’re middle aged you spend far too much energy trying to figure out how retirement’s supposed to work to have any left over to challenge the system.  The young are, and always have been, the future.  There are fewer angry white men because they realize that the plan of their forebears for personal gain simply hasn’t worked for the majority of people.  Daniel isn’t the only visionary, but even his young companions fade before they started worrying about disbursements and tax consequences.  If the young don’t lead we’re lost.  


Testamental Annihilation

I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t tell you there may be spoilers below. The book to which I alluded last week—the one made into a movie—was Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation. I first saw the book in a Green store in Ithaca, New York. I figured it must have a planet-friendly message if it were being sold at such a venue. I’ve finally had time to read it. There may be spoilers, so if you plan to see the movie, be warned.

Set in a kind of edenic dystopia not far from now, the novel gives none of its characters names. The narrator is the biologist of a four-member team sent into Area X—a region in the south from which no expedition has returned. Clearly intended to be part of a series, the novel does leave quite a few things hanging. Among the many unanswered questions is what has happened here. One of the problems with having Bible-radar is that you can’t overlook references to the Good Book. Without going into too much detail, the story has mysterious writing on the wall. That itself is a biblical trope, of course, but when the biologist discovers notebooks from previous expeditions, she considers that the writing is like something from the Old Testament. This description made me pause and ponder. The Hebrew Bible has, in the popular imagination, been cast in the role of a harbinger of doom and gloom. Granted, there are many passages that have earned that reputation, but on the whole it’s a very mixed bag. Still, in popular culture “Old Testament” means things are going wrong.

While not a horror novel, there are elements of horror here. People transforming into plants and animals, sloughing human skin. And resurrection—how New Testament! This made me think that maybe a penchant for horror isn’t such a strange thing for a guy who spent a decade and a half teaching the Hebrew Bible. My motivation for going in that direction had more to do with my interest in origins, but nevertheless, I also grew up watching monster movies. Maybe, unbeknownst to me, I was bringing the two together in this field of study. It’s difficult to tell at the end of book one what the overall message will be. But since I’m discussing the Hebrew Bible maybe I’ll take a stab at prophecy and predict that the second book of the series will be in my future. And I wouldn’t want to be a hypocrite.


De-programming

I’m no foodie. That’s not a trendy thing to admit, I know. I’ve never been a good consumer. I think it’s because I don’t like being programmed. One area of life where we are most open to programming is in what we eat. Raised to masticate animal flesh, we’re told that it’s healthy for us, and besides, where on earth are you going to get protein if you don’t eat animals? Without thinking too much about it, we step in line. I remember asking my mother, as a child, what part of the animal “the meat” is. I was kind of hoping, I guess, that it was some part that might be kind of painless to lop off, because I didn’t like to think of the implications otherwise. Even when the answer wasn’t satisfactory, I didn’t change my diet.

Once, when eating with a friend, my host commented that you shouldn’t be allowed to eat meat unless you were willing to kill the animal yourself. He wasn’t advocating vegetarianism—he was serving meat—but he was thinking through the process logically. I became a vegetarian, because of that logical thought process, about 18 years ago. I continued to be programmed, however. Yesterday I attended a vegan lunch. I always thought of vegans as spare, acsetical types, emaciated and gaunt. I learned that they are often people who think through the consequences of our love affair with meat. And other animal “products.” The problem is industrial farming. In a word, the commodification of animal suffering. Those who don’t work in the agri-business—to which most looming environmental disasters can be directly traced—are prevented from seeing the conditions in which their “food” is being kept. Animal cruelty on a scale that is, well, industrial. Decisions are made based on one metric—profits.

I don’t think about food a lot. It has become clear to me that my friend’s logic works. One of the things our vegan presenter pointed out is that pigs are considered the fourth most intelligent animal species. Our love of bacon has them kept in conditions where they literally lose their minds. We don’t see it, so we continue to be programmed. Go to the grocery store. The healthy foods are more expensive—“consumers” are punished for refusing to play the “no thinking” game. I don’t know much, but I do know that it’s often the things I do without thinking that ultimately lead to trouble. Capitalism rewards the greedy only. The rest of us, including our animals, pay the price. Think it through and consider the conclusions. I don’t like being programmed.


Milkweed and Honey

I’ve never thought of bugs as an ethical concern. Well, not directly anyway. I had some truly frightening encounters with insects and arachnids as a child, so I tended to avoid bugs when I could. At times, I hesitate to admit, I took advantage of my size and smooched them. I did, however, mature out of that. Many years ago I stopped killing bugs that got inside, choosing instead to favor capture and release. I’d trap them in one of a variety of empty peanut-butter jars we kept around the house expressly for that purpose. The imprisoned intruder is then escorted outside and released. It seemed the only fair way to handle the situation—I don’t believe in exploiting size, and hating things with too many legs is prejudicial. Then I heard that insects are dying out.

Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons

Instead of bringing glee, this instilled a kind of panic. According to a story in the Washington Post, scientists have noted a 75% drop in bug biomass over the past several years. Stop and think about that. Insects contribute so much to our lives that we barely pay them any mind. Everything from pollination to breaking down decomposing organic matter, bugs do it. We need our insects. As with most things these days, it seems that we humans are the likely culprits. We destroy habitat, we spread pesticides everywhere, we try to take all kinds of land and make it in our own image. And we’ve sacrificed our insects along the way. As the article states—driving around country lanes on a summer night doesn’t bring up the windshield splatter that it used to. I stopped to think about that. It seems to be true.

The tiny members of the animal kingdom do a tremendous amount of work. I know they’re not doing it for us, but the things they do we don’t have to—and oftentimes can’t—do. All fruits and vegetables are pollinated by insects. Honey has been the main place where some of this shortage has been felt most directly. Bees have been disappearing. So have monarch butterflies. The fact is, we can’t live in a world without bugs. This does make it an ethical issue. If we’re going to claim dominion over all things we have no right to overlook the smallest creatures. Sure, they can, well, bug you. They fly in your face or bite you while you’re sleeping. They’re only doing what they evolved to do. I don’t mean to bug you about it, but we need to look after the minuscule and vulnerable among us.


Small Wonder

Nothing makes me feel small like thinking about the universe does. Never a large individual anyway, thinking how this apartment encompasses me and it is dwarfed by the small town in which I reside, it’s only a matter of moments before I become a mere microscope slide. And that’s before I even reach the level of just our planet. I’m sure Neil Shubin didn’t mean to make me feel bad when he wrote The Universe Within: Discovering the Common History of Rocks, Planets, and People. In fact, I’m pretty sure that he intended it to be a book that makes the reader feel connected to life, past and present, as well as to the stars that long ago spewed out the elements that have made such life possible. This is a big picture book. From the perspective of a paleontologist the very rocks that entomb the fossils live. The stream of particles is unbroken from the Big Bang to our little corner of the Orion Spur.

The great orthodoxies of science, however, require faith. No matter how the math works, it seems impossible to the rational mind the the entire universe could fit inside the space of the following period. Then, for some reason not yet known, bursts out to infinite but expanding size. Shubin brings many concepts together here—the effects of Jupiter on bringing earth into the Goldilocks Zone, the impact light and dark have on our bodies, whence the dinosaurs might’ve gone—and weaves a tether through it all that ends up in the hand of humanity. Evolved beings we are, but evolved from stardust as well as primordial soup. And then there’s the fact that the earth itself, as is inevitable, is slowing down. Days are growing longer yet we don’t get any more done. And we have maybe a billion years left before the sun goes Trump on us.

There is a strange comfort in being connected to all of this. And also a sense of shame as well. We are, as far as the fossil record reveals, the only species to initiate a mass extinction single-handedly. We have this whole planet and we want even more. It comes as no surprise that religious language crops up now and again in a treatment like this. After all, words divested of such concepts can take us only so far. The Universe Within is a book with a universal perspective, placing us squarely somewhere within a context that we simply can’t comprehend. And yet, reading it somehow leaves me feeling small.


Trees, Please

One thing we know about nature is that we don’t know much about nature. We can be a pretty self-absorbed species. Peter Wohllenben’s The Hidden Life of Trees is a good corrective for that. When we’re young we’re taught the difference between plants and animals. What Wohllenben shows is that such differences are more a matter of degree than we realize. Trees move, but slowly. Their timescale can be vast, compared to our brief, get-rich-quick outlook on life. It has been demonstrated pretty clearly that trees communicate with one another. They help one another, and they can, in their dendritic way, think. They cooperate with fungi to maintain connections between their root systems. Trees might even have what we would call personalities, were they fortunate enough to have been born human.

In a little like a medieval fantasy world, Wohllenben is a German forest keeper. He knows trees and their ways intimately. The trick, of course, is that we have a difficult time seeing things in timeframes that exceed our own. There are living trees that are 9,000 years old. That’s before the Sumerians ever showed up to invent writing. In human eyes, a lot has happened since then. And although we don’t know how to define consciousness, we’re sure that it’s limited to our species alone. Grudgingly we may admit some “higher” animals to the club, but our predilection for conquest of our world would be sorely diminished had we not other creatures to dominate. Looking at the world through a sympathetic lens, however, the fact that we’ve evolved these traits from the common ancestor we have with the animals should tell us something. As Wohllenben points out, animals diverged from plants at some stage, but we do ultimately come from the same stock.

Even on a practical level, we can’t live without plants. No matter how gourmet our foodies may be, our nutrition cycle begins with plants photosynthesizing food from pure light. There is perhaps a danger in recognizing our kinship with trees too closely. We depend upon them for food, shelter, warmth, and the oxygen we breathe. We might be inclined, as Wohllenben notes, not to use them at all. The key word here, however, is exploitation. We evolved along with plants and other animals and we all rely on each other. We are all connected. We should care for those with whom we share the planet. Trees have a much longer view than we do. When the desires of one species set the terms for all the others, we soon feel the pain of the trees.


Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.