This I Believe
I believe the human world is coming to an end.
Probably not today. And probably not tomorrow either. Most likely not this year, and maybe not even in my lifetime.
But I do believe in the dying frogs. And I believe in the bleached coral reefs. I believe in the acidified oceans and the melting glaciers, China’s foul air and Alberta’s putrid tar sands. I believe in human overpopulation. I believe in the Hopi word koyaanisqatsi — “life out of balance.”
I believe the scientists when they say a mass extinction event is sweeping our world, and has been doing so for the last few thousand years, largely due to human activity. I also believe in the science that says, as much as the last 150 years of fossil fuel-based revolution have rapidly advanced the ways in which we live and work, so too have those fossil fuels rapidly tainted what we eat and breathe.
Sure, I believe in human ingenuity, but I don’t believe future advances in technology can outpace or counteract the destructive effects already committed by prior geniuses and technologists. The global “experiment” we’re running, as they say, started over a century ago and has only intensified in recent decades. No one is suggesting we pause (let alone reverse) the experiment because everyone knows we can’t.
More than anything, I believe Prince when he sings, “life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”
A human life is a form of life, but humanity as a whole is a form of life too. Coming to terms with the inevitability of our own individual death is hard enough; attempting to grasp the inevitable, collective death is impossible.
How do you want to die? Many of us say we’d like to go “peacefully.” My mom said that when my family’s German shepherd passed away this year, he simply lay there on the floor, breathing in and out, faintly, in and out, faintly, in and out… and then that was it. She said if she could go that way, that’s the way she would go.
How will humanity die? Will we go peacefully, breathing our last breath?
Or will we go violently?
Will we go into death the same way we’ve lived our long, illustrious life — teeming with hate and fear, constantly divided against each other? Supposed practitioners of peace — Christians and Jews and Muslims — slaughter each other year after year after year for worshiping the wrong god. Supposed stewards of justice — the Achaemenid Empire, the Qing dynasty, the British Empire, America — rape and pillage the world, snuffing out dissidents and promoting whatever medley of slavery, sexism, racism, and homophobia that happens to uphold the existing power structure. Companies, organizations, businesses that claim to serve us, the people, are actually just dumb machines powered by us, the people, to blindly pursue profit in the same way an amoeba chases nutrients. Blindly pursued profit — it shouldn’t have to be noted — that’s accelerating the death of humanity.
So how will we go: violently or peacefully?
EIGHT HOURS IN MY MIND
One of the most difficult aspects of walking eight hours a day is simply the enormity of time allowed inside your own head. On our walk across the country, my love and I would occasionally listen to podcasts or albums, but the vast majority of the time wasn’t spent in conversation or audio distractions but rather in the comfort (and chaos) of our own minds.
I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours thinking about my past life, the possibilities of my future life, and the realities of my present life. I thought about the state of society and politics in the U.S., from the genocide of indigenous peoples to the present-day plutocracy. I thought about capitalism, Marxism, poetry, and the climate. I thought about what it would be like to suddenly wake up one morning as a woman or to live a whole life as a black man. I wondered what it would be like as a straight white man, as a brown lesbian, as a black transgender person — in the years 2015, 1915, 1915 BCE, or 21,115. I daydreamed about those ancient wolves that befriended human tribes for a chance at a tossed bone and, thousands of years later, those wildcats that caught vermin in our bursting granaries. I thought about fathers and sons on motorcycles, poets on whaling ships and steamboats, Okies in jalopies, and all the other millions of travelers and migrants who trod the earth before me. I thought about love and I thought about despair. About brilliance and stupidity. Poverty and greed. Laughter and disdain. Vegetables, meat, marriage, mountains.
I often thought about people, those who I had left at home and those who I met along the walk. And I couldn’t help but repeatedly arrive at the same conclusion (often heard in the voice of a Couchsurfing host named Jacob, who had put us up on his farm in New Jersey):
“People are good.”
And yet, here at home, surrounded by gangs of friends and family I consider the most loving, peaceful people on the planet, that sentiment isn’t always top of mind. All too often, I hear disgust in people’s voices or disdain in their comments online. I hear these negative ions buzzing in my own head and spilling out of my own mouth.
It’s a political year, so that might have something to do with it. Once again, millions of us have been hypnotized by a sickening presidential race in which both candidates hail from the wealthy ruling class and have absolutely nothing to do with normal human beings like you and me. And yet we listen to them — and their corporate-owned talking heads in between blaring advertisements— and we convince ourselves we have to choose one or the other. After making our decision, we develop and nurture enmity against entire communities of people we’ve never met because they chose the other — and in the process we’ve improved nothing.
But if someone casts a vote for a scumbag, does that make them a scumbag? Does it make them an idiot? Does it mean we would be better off without them?
I don’t think so. Intuitively, I believe those people we so easily disparage have far more in common with us than not. Actually, it’s a scientific fact. We want to drink clean water. We want to eat good food. We want to live with our loved ones comfortably and free from anxiety.
We’re animals. But when animals feel threatened, things get ugly.
For me, now, all politics is about this question: when the human world meets its end, how will we go — peacefully or violently? As the environment crumbles apart, famine and drought will become commonplace. Even lovers quarrel when hungry, so how will the world go? Will we listen to the teachers whose names and faces we engrave on metals and wear around our necks? If I am hungry, will I seek sustenance peacefully or kill my neighbor for his bread? If I am thirsty, will I seek a drop peacefully or kill my neighbor for his well? If you are a stranger, hungry and thirsty, will I invite you into my home? If you are dying on my doorstep, will I kick you aside or will I come to your aid? Will I build a massive wall to keep the suffering masses out? What if famine or drought strikes on my side of the wall?
I don’t want things to be ugly. I want things to be beautiful. I want to see the beauty in everything. And that requires respect for life.
Respect for life means seeing Earth as a beautiful, singular organism of which we are only one small part. This, in turn, means taking climate change seriously on a global level by demanding that both the governments supposedly representing us and the corporations we support on a daily basis take tangible, realizable steps in transitioning us away from the fossil fuels that pollute our air, water, and land every single day. It also means we take climate change seriously on a local level in even the smallest ways, whether that means eating less meat, driving less, and just consuming less in general. When you respect life, you realize that clean air and water matter a hell of a lot more than barreling through life at 65 miles per hour while eating a cheap hamburger composed of however many ill-fed cows.
Respect for life means refusing to accept massive and accelerating wealth inequality as a matter of course because there’s no explanation for why 1% of the world should be able to fly on private jets while nearly two billion people can’t even access something as basic as potable drinking water.
Respect for life means respecting women — after all, they make up 50% of all human beings and 100% of our mothers. That will mean changing our perspective of the world from one that is heterosexual and patriarchal (as a place to be penetrated and plundered as much as we like) to one that is pansexual and female-shaped (as a home to be nurtured, loved, and venerated).
Respect for life means respecting all races and colors, and not by assuming we can immediately be post-race through a magical on/off switch in the mind. In the U.S. alone, we cultivated a deeply rich racism in this country through centuries of an impossible-to-imagine war on people of color, and it will take at least as long to simply begin healing the wounds of that war.
Respect for life means respecting indigenous peoples, and maybe just maybe admitting that their worldviews may have been more healthy for us and the planet all along. If we’re seeking balance in our lives, clean air, clean water, and a loving relationship with each other and the world around us, then we need to be closer to the land.
When the end comes, how will we go?