On the Earth Itself
Reflection on the human response to our environment. Published November 2016 in Bilkent News.
This time I have something to say not of art or literature, but of space-age misery: I am speaking of the humble black earth as it is slowly stripped naked, burnt dead and dark with thirst. I hadn’t intended my column to be like this—heavy and descriptive, so deeply frustrated—but so it has become. I wanted it to be clear, persuasive, less emotional than it is. But perhaps I’ll reserve that detachment for the next piece, which ought to be something plain and appealing; this one is crawling with resentment and is irritable and impulsive, because here I want to discuss nature, and it is a fact that nature has many, many grievances.
I think it might be the microaggressions that are the most sinister. Everyone likes to think they respect the environment, and it’s hardest to make someone stop doing something when they know it’s wrong but don’t want to admit it. Down on the ground goes the cigarette packet, the gum wrapper, the snack box and the water bottle; of course they didn’t mean to leave it there, of course it was a mistake, and naturally all trash should lie in the dirt, among the trees, among the late flowers—of course it’s a human right to leave one’s mark on the good earth, plastic packaging strewn all over the October leaves! It’s a sick impulse, completely inexplicable. Is it laziness that causes people to do this? Is it mindlessness or insensitivity, or is it some other, deeper urge to pollute—a sort of territorial pissing? I wish someone would explain all this to me—the crumpled paper, the words carved into trees, the litter and light pollution and endless consumption—I don’t understand, I can’t see: is it ignorance? is it selfishness?
If it’s the latter, then I’m sorry to say that this emotion is becoming completely counterproductive. It’s actually in the selfish human’s interest to preserve as much of nature as he possibly can, to fight with everything he has to keep this lovely, unique earth whole, precisely because it is unique; there is no backup plan or convenient retreat, just this one planet that we have so intricately evolved to inhabit. Even those who are unmoved by nature’s stunning diversity, who are terribly blind to the delicacy of the warm earth, should do everything they can to protect what they have, because it affects them directly, it affects all of us, every bit of life in our secluded corner of the cosmos. This is what I mean by space-age misery; devoid of our only planet, we will all be foreigners, cold and alone, far from home because of our own idiocy. It is our children and grandchildren who will voyage through the universe, and preferably they will do so for curiosity’s sake, for science and exploration, out of a desire to become better acquainted with their origins. Preferably their origins will not have expelled them from the only earth that they could have ever truly belonged to.
I say “could have belonged to” Earth, because the reverse—that the Earth somehow belongs to us—is completely untrue. We do not have any claim to Earth, any more than deer or cattle or the Javan tiger, which we drove to extinction for our human social constructs, for money and fashion and fur; it’s incredible, it’s infuriating, a shocking demonstration of our crude, mindless violence. The Earth is not ours to harvest, its plants are not ours to cultivate, and animals are not prey but fellows; we all coexist, and are all equally eligible to claim possession of this blue planet.
Evolution has shaped in us a primate deadly intelligent and devastatingly destructive, acquisitive and shortsighted. We like to designate as “humanity” our balancing traits of compassion, affection and understanding, but humanity has in this aspect failed itself. In the past centuries we have driven every living thing in the world to the brink of destruction; the casualties of war are not always human, and with the continual advance of military technology, political tensions threaten everything on this green earth. Nuclear nonproliferation is a new dream, and the danger of nuclear war is not yet past; perhaps it never will be. If we could only take a moment to put it into perspective, the absurdity would hit home: a very recent strain of hominid has risen to prominence over its companions, too quickly to adapt its instincts to the delicate restraint its power requires; grown arrogant and possessive, it stands to destroy the work of almost four billion years of careful evolution in one fell swoop. It would be so crude, so ironic for a civilization on the brink of space exploration, sending its vessels out into the vastness of the galaxy, to annihilate itself because of intangible conflicts over invisible borders and the artificial tensions of human territorialism. Faced with this danger, it’s now up to the base instinct of self-preservation to save us from unequivocal disaster. Our behavior here at home will be the single most important factor in the continuation of human history; if we make the wrong choices, there will remain nothing human to speak of.
I’ve leapt from littering to nuclear war; it must sound dramatic, and overly so, but there is no more important subject to be dramatic about. Perhaps the results of our actions are not immediately apparent, but they will be in the future, and it is the defining trait of the human species to use reason and foresight to avert possible disaster. This is what intellect is good for; blessed with this gift, we are obligated to use it to protect not only ourselves, but all other life that walks the earth, which made us who we are. No matter how small a wrong is, it will affect the future of everything; it is tempting to choose what is most directly profitable, what takes the least effort, but all our laziness and aggression will undoubtedly become our own problem once again, horrible and indomitable, unless we act. We must act. It is all that any of us can do.