Vanished

A generation ago, humans eluded nuclear annihilation; with luck, we’ll continue to dodge that and other mass terrors. But now we often find ourselves asking whether inadvertently we’ve poisoned or parboiled the planet, ourselves included. We’ve also used and abused water and soil so that there’s a lot less of each, and trampled thousands of species that probably aren’t coming back. Our world, some respected voices warn, could one day degenerate into something resembling a vacant lot, where crows and rats scuttle among weeds, preying on each other. If it comes to that, at what point would things have gone so far that, for all our vaunted superior intelligence, we’re not among the hardy survivors?

The truth is, we don’t know. Any conjecture gets muddled by our obstinate reluctance to accept that the worst might actually occur. We may be undermined by our survival instincts, honed over eons to help us deny, defy, or ignore catastrophic portents lest they paralyze us with fright.

If those instincts dupe us into waiting until it’s too late, that’s bad. If they fortify our resistance in the face of mounting omens, that’s good. More than once, crazy, stubborn hope has inspired creative strokes that snatched people from ruin. So, let us try a creative experiment: Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait accompli. Not by nuclear calamity, asteroid collision, or anything ruinous enough to also wipe out most everything else, leaving whatever remained in some radically altered, reduced state. Nor by some grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade, dragging many more species with us in the process.

Instead, picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow.

Alan Weisman, The World Without Us (2007)


Prípiat after Chernobyl Disaster (1986)

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Greater Indignities

The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race. They have greatly increased the life-expectancy of those of us who live in “advanced” countries, but they have destabilized society, have made life unfulfilling, have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering (in the Third World to physical suffering as well) and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world. The continued development of technology will worsen the situation. It will certainly subject human beings to greater indignities and inflict greater damage on the natural world, it will probably lead to greater social disruption and psychological suffering, and it may lead to increased physical suffering even in “advanced” countries. 

Ted Kaczynski, Unabomber’s Manifesto (1995)

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Self-

At the end of the twentieth century, we saw a convergence of three areas of self-destructiveness: the self-destructiveness of war, the self-destructiveness of exploitation and suppression among humans, and the self-destructiveness of the suppression of non-human beings and of the degradation of life conditions in general. The movement to eradicate wars has a long history as a global movement. The movement against abject poverty and cruel exploitation and domination is younger. The third movement is younger still. These are the great movements that require intense participation on the grassroots level far into the new century. (…)

The urgency of preserving nature for ‘future generations’, meaning ‘future generations of humans’ and not ‘future generations of living beings’, has won acclaim among power elites. What I, perhaps misleadingly, have called the ‘shallow’, ‘reform’ or ‘non-deep’ ecological movement has started to have an impact at government level. Environmental organizations are listened to, and their advice has occasionally been used in practice. But future generations of non-humans seem to be valued publicly only for the sake of future humans. [By way of offering a definition] of the deep ecology movement, I find it difficult to do more than propose a tentative formulation of views that most supporters have in common. (…)

The realization of the [tasks required by this movement] requires significant changes in both rich and poor countries and affects social, economic, technical and lifestyle factors. Goals include the protection of the planet and its richness and diversity of life for its own sake. The specific urgency accorded to this third movement is due to the time factor: It is obvious that delays rapidly make the ecological crisis more difficult to overcome. Wait five years, and the process may take fifty years more. Such a nonlinear function of time does not restrict the other two movements. 

Arne Naess, The Three Great Movements (1992)

ASPECT STUDIOS, The Ian Potter Children’s Wild Play Garden (2017)

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Reawaken

Chris McCandless at his bus-home in Alaska (1994)

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Sean Penn, Into the Wild (2007)

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We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us even in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden (1854)

Jensen & Skodvin, Liasanden Picnic (1997)

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Sell the Sky?

The President in Washington sends word that he wishes to buy our land. But how can you buy or sell the sky? the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of the earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. All are holy in the memory and experience of my people. We know the sap which courses through the trees as we know the blood that courses through our veins. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters. The bear, the deer, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the dew in the meadow, the body heat of the pony, and man all belong to the same family. The shining water that moves in the streams and rivers is not just water, but the blood of our ancestors. If we sell you our land, you must remember that it is sacred. Each glossy reflection in the clear waters of the lakes tells of events and memories in the life of my people. The water’s murmur is the voice of my father’s father. The rivers are our brothers. They quench our thirst. They carry our canoes and feed our children. So you must give the rivers the kindness that you would give any brother. If we sell you our land, remember that the air is precious to us, that the air shares its spirit with all the life that it supports. The wind that gave our grandfather his first breath also received his last sigh. The wind also gives our children the spirit of life. So if we sell our land, you must keep it apart and sacred, as a place where the man can go to taste the wind that is sweetened by the meadow flowers. Will you teach your children what we have taught our children? That the earth is our mother? What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. (…) This earth is precious to us. It is also precious to you. One thing we know – there is only one God. No man, be he Red man or White man, can be apart. We ARE all brothers after all.

Chief Seattle, Letter to All (1854)

LEES+Associates, Iqaluit Municipal Cemetery (2018)

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Header: Chief Seattle (c. 1786 – 1866)