Environmentalists and conservationists have long been attacked as hippies, tree-huggers and middle-class jobsworths but attitudes are slowly changing. The effects of habitat loss, the burning of fossil fuels, rapid construction, over-population, intensive farming, over-hunting and ignorance on the current state of the environment and natural world are becoming just that little bit plainer to see. There are of course many global-warming deniers, corporate bods, conglomerates and governments still refusing to move with the times. There are still a vast majority of people, globally, that may acknowledge that the earth is changing but somehow find it difficult to acknowledge human responsibility, to care even; that age old mentality of “as long as it’s not on my doorstep”. I have news for you, the issue is firmly on your doorstep. We can be in no doubt: The world is heading towards its endgame and it is solely at the hands of man. We all need to be environmentalists if we are to rectify the situation and even then there is no promise of reprieve.
If you only read one book this year, let it be ‘The Moth Snowstorm’ by the brilliant Michael McCarthy. It could just be the most important book in a generation or more. Helen Macdonald describes it as ‘A great, rhapsodic, urgent book full of joy, grief, rage and love’ and she isn’t wrong. Buy it, borrow it, share it. Believe it.
Below is an excerpt from the book, taken with the permission of Michael, in which he puts into words far more eloquently than I ever could, just what the natural world, the planet and indeed humanity is facing.
It is extraordinary: we are wrecking the earth, as burglars will sometimes wantonly wreck a house. It is a strange and terrible moment in history. We who ourselves depend upon it utterly are laying waste to the biosphere, the thin, planet-encircling envelope of life, rushing to degrade the atmosphere above and the ocean below and the soil at the centre and everything it supports; grabbing it, ripping it, scattering it, tearing at it, torching it, slashing at it, shitting on it. Already more than half of the rainforests have gone, pesticide use has decimated wild flowers and the insect populations of farmland and rivers, the beds of the seas are deeply degraded and most of the fish stocks are at danger levels, the acidity of the ocean is steadily rising, coral reefs are under multiple assault, 40 billion tonnes of climate-changing carbon are loading the atmosphere every year and currently one-fifth, and rising, of all vertebrates – mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians – are threatened with extinction. Many are on the brink, if not already gone. The Vietnamese rhinoceros was discovered in 1988, one of the thrilling secrets of the Indochinese jungles which war had for so long kept out of reach; it was extinct by 2010, slaughtered for its horn, believed in traditional Asian medicine, quite erroneously, to be a cancer cure. We knew the Dodo for three times as long. The nightingale, the worlds most versified bird, was revealed in 2010 to have declined in England by 90 per cent in forty years; that is, to have vanished from nine out of every ten sites where it sang as the Beatles were breaking up. The Mediterranean bluefin tuna, a fish glorious in form and function but unfortunately glorious too in taste, is starting to look doomed by the appetites of sushi eaters; all seven species of sea turtle are endangered, three of them critically; and amphibians are sliding in a bunch down the steep slope to oblivion, with the golden toad of the cloud forests of Costa Rica famous for its disappearance, while the golden frog of Panama may not be famous, but had disappeared just the same. Loss is everywhere, and the defining characteristic of the natural world in the twenty-first century is no longer beauty, nor riches, nor abundance, nor, if you like, life force, but has become vulnerability.
It cannot be stressed enough:these losses are not caused by natural events, such as tsunamis or volcanic eruptions. They are the word of people – of us – and as we continue to grow, and our needs continue to expand, so will the devastation. The proximate causes can be easily enumerated – we can see that they are habitat destruction, pollution, over-exploitation or over-hunting, the havoc caused by invasive species and, increasingly, a changing climate – but the ultimate cause of the great spreading ruination remains Homo sapiens: just one of the earth’s great array of millions of radiated life forms, whose numbers, having exploded beyond the planet’s ability to carry them, are now firmly on course to wreck it.
In a curious historical coincidence, at the very time when the explosion in numbers was beginning, a new vision of the earth it was so directly to affect was vouchsafed to us. We can put a precise date on it: Christmas Eve 1968. The person directly responsible was William Anders, an American astronaut, one of the crew of Apollo 8, the first manned spacecraft to leave the earth’s orbit and circle the moon. When on 24 December, he and fellow crewmen Frank Borman and Jim Lovell emerged in their craft from behind the moon’s dark side, they saw in front of them an astounding sight: an exquisite blue sphere hanging in the blackness of space. The photograph Anders took of it is known as Earthrise, and its taking was without doubt one of the profoundest events in the history of human culture, for at this moment, for the first time, we saw ourselves from a distance, and the earth in its surrounding dark emptiness not only seemed impossibly beautiful but also impossibly fragile. Most of all, we could see clearly that it was finite. This does not appear to us on the earth’s surface; the land or the sea stretches to the horizon, but there is always something beyond. However many horizons we cross, there’s always another one waiting. yet on glimpsing the planet from deep space, we saw not only the true wonder of its shimmering blue beauty, but also the true nature of its limits. Seen in the round, not really very big at all – the Apollo 8 astronauts could cover it with a thumbnail – and most assuredly, isolated. Only the one. Nowhere else for us to decamp to, in the never-ending blackness. Thanks to Earthrise, we now understand it in the intuitive way, in our souls: What we are wrecking is our home.
The idea that something might be done about this, that a way might be found to hold back the tide of human destruction across the globe, has been one of the great moral and intellectual challenges of the last quarter of a century, given that the pressures involved are intractable and that the problem itself is fully acknowledged by relatively few. They are usually classed as environmentalists or conservationists. They are in every country, and are often loud, and sound influential, but they are small in number in global terms. Most ordinary individuals do not care, because the consequences are not yet visited upon them (although they will be), and also because people are quite naturally focussed on their own concerns, which often seem harmless enough, and do not grasp that the essence of the trouble to come is their own individual choices, multiplied seven billion times.
Furthermore, the destruction of humanity’s home by humanity’s own actions is not something that can be coped with adequately – and that means, confronted – by our current belief system, which we might term liberal secular humanism. This creed, which has held sway since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to advance human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be free from hunger and fear and disease, and in so far as possible, to be happy and to live fulfilled lives. It is principled and upright. It is admirable. But there is a gap at its core; the failure to acknowledge that humans are not necessarily good. Still less does it admit that, more, there may be something intrinsically troubling about humans as a species: that Homo sapiens may be the earth’s problem child.
Many, indeed, would be outraged by the suggestion, for poverty and hunger and disease are terrible enough without proposing that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality. There was a continual problem with man. Man was glorious, almost godlike, and continually striving upwards; yet only the gods were actually Up There, and if man tried to get too high, as he often did, the gods would destroy him. The gods represented man’s limits. We think of Icarus, of course, but there are deeper lessons to be learned. The principle fault of Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were the incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was beyond peradventure wise. the gods showed him he was not (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation , which now he can see).
In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of man as having limits , as not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature – for what else is a species which destroys its own home? – is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. To suggest it, is absolute anathema. For with the dying of religion and the vanishing of spirituality we have become our own moral yardstick: at the heart of our notions of good and bad lies human suffering, and what we can do to avoid it. This is so deep-rooted in us now, so instinctive, that it has been internalised in the language: one of our most prized virtues is humanity, one of our deepest tributes to another person, that they are humane. He, or she, is a humane human. It’s only one letter, one squiggle away from saying he, or she, is a human human. Our morality now is entirely anthropocentric: we automatically define objective good by what is best for ourselves. So where humanity’s interests clash with other interests, the other are likely to get short shrift from us, even when they involve the proper functioning of the planet, which is the only place we have to live.
The Moth Snowstorm is available from all good retailers. Get a copy. That’s an order.