What Do You Take With You and What Do You Leave Behind?

Origins and Ideas IconMartin Rowe

I had the great good fortune to attend a talk at NYU in September 2016 on the environmental humanities—an effort to explore how to think or write about life in the Anthropocene amid climate change. This discipline endeavors to respond to the reality that assessing the impact of, or mitigating or adapting to, the environmental crisis is not simply about providing economic and policy pre- or proscriptions. Nor can it simply be about popularizing science or dumping data upon the public and hoping that an informed polity will pressurize politicians to pass laws that address the consequences to which those data point. Our attitudes toward the environment reflect our histories, cultures, and values—which is why environmentalism broadly conceived needs to take into account of the way we talk about and imagine ourselves as living and cultural beings within all kinds of ecosystems, biological and social.

As you might imagine, such a line of thinking is close to and expressive of the concerns of the Vegan America Project. I was particularly struck by the conversation between Rob Nixon and Ursula Heise (moderated by Una Chaudhuri) that questioned our tendency in the West to fall back on familiar tropes when we think of nature—such as the pastoral or the apocalyptic—to delineate how our social order might reflect environmental realities. Heise mentioned that an alternative to utopian or dystopian futures might be an “optopian” vision, whereby a society is neither perfectly good nor radically evil, but has optimized its possibilities and minimized its difficulties or undesirabilities.

I also very much appreciated Nixon’s use of the English poet John Clare’s phrase that we’re all being “moved out of our knowledge.” Clare (1793–1864) was writing at a time when the Industrial Revolution was uprooting many communities from the land and transferring them to the city and so radically changing the English countryside as a result. Nixon indicated that we’re in such a time again, and considering ourselves being “moved out of our knowledge” might help us to find means to articulate our fears and feelings. To that extent, Nixon observed that scholars at the University of Exeter in England are working with the National Trust on what is termed “anticipatory history”—an effort to use England’s records of its ancient past to anticipate whether to preserve a piece of land that will be within decades washed away by the sea or find an equivalent piece of land of equal or similar heritage value that could be saved in its stead.

Being “moved out of our knowledge” echoed for me a question that I’ve often found myself asking in recent years: “What do you take with you and what do you leave behind?” It’s a question that aims at the heart of cultural, religious, ethnic, social, and psychological identity—one that is already affecting everyone within the remotest micro-nationality and the most sophisticated and globally integrated civilization, and every polity in between.

A case in point is some of those in the Maasai community, with whom Brighter Green works. As pastoralists, the Maasai—particularly the men—have long defined themselves by the cattle they live with. Boys herd them; the traditional rite of passage for a boy to become a man is through the tracking and killing of a lion to show that you can protect the cattle; marriage dowries are determined by the exchange of cattle; and wealth in general is revealed by how many cattle you own.

The Maasai face the challenges that confront many pastoral peoples today. Their populations are increasing, and so are the number of cattle. As they do so, their traditional lands are being overgrazed and desertifying, a situation not helped by irregular rainfall patterns and hotter temperatures across the region because of climate change. Pastoralists have always contested territories with agricultural communities, and these conflicts are intensifying as water resources and grazeable land grow scarce. Because the Maasai consider themselves an indigenous community, whose traditional territories go beyond geopolitical (and colonial) borders, they find it difficult to prosecute their needs in national parliaments, which are filled with members from communities that would like the Maasai to settle down and become agriculturalists. Because tourist revenue from visitors to national parks are a considerable source of income, Maasai encroachment into such parks to graze cattle and their pursuit of lions that may have attacked their cattle, or as an initiation rite, are unwelcome—even though all recognize that these parks are often on the most fertile land and were established by white settlers and colonial forces to keep black and poor Kenyans out.

In a discussion in New York City in 2016, we heard from our Francis Sakuda that Maasai men are, like many rural job-seekers, moving to the cities, where many become guards or nightwatchmen because their visual and auditory senses are more acute (the result of having tended cattle throughout the day and night when they were children). Those men that remain are becoming agriculturalists and even raising chickens, work that is traditionally assigned to women. Francis is acutely aware of the need for his community to bypass industrial development and use clean energy to power its way into the future. He wants the Maasai to use solar technology for its energy: to power lights, so that children, for instance, can study after dark; for refrigeration (to keep vaccines and other items freezing); and to enable access to the outside world through run televisions and to charge cellphone batteries.

When I asked Francis whether it was possible for him to imagine Maasai without cattle, he shook his head. The Maasai were too identified with cattle, he said, to abandon them completely. Nonetheless, he acknowledged that his community had to move with the times and that some of the changes that had already occurred were unimaginable previously.

It’s easy for outsiders to romanticize the life of pastoralists, indigenous communities, or native peoples, and to assume that their relationship with the natural world and other animals was always one of respect and symbiosis, and unchangeable relationship extending back into the distant past. It’s also as easy as it is for any community to present themselves to outsiders as the honorable bearers of an eternal vision of Man in harmony with Nature as a way to ensure they are granted more weight in discussions at governmental level and in international forums. Sooner or later, however, as the Maasai are discovering, any fixed identity will meet the realities of cultural change, political demands, and the limits of the ecosystem. And that is what Francis and his community are trying to negotiate.

It’s my hunch that if the Maasai can give up cattle as a marker of wealth, masculinity, and identity, then Americans can do the same with the hamburger or the steak, or for that matter the cowboy and rancher can do with their cattle. These latter identities, constructed and developed throughout the nineteenth century by storytellers and showmen, such as “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and popularized through John Wayne and the Western, were always narratives that expressed the wish to be free of the constraints of the domestic and collective responsibility, and as a means of individual self-expression and stoical and singular masculinity. If they were constructed then, then they can be deconstructed and dismantled now. Or—as Francis and the Maasai are trying to figure out—they can be recoded to be something different; something more sustainable.

In the end, the question of what we take with us and what we leave behind not only asks us to think about who we are and with what or whom we identify ourselves, but to examine honestly just how attached we are to those characteristics and why they hold such a purchase on us. Environmental humanities offers a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the psychosocial complexities involved in those buzzwords of contemporary development specialists—adaptation and resilience—and our tendency to essentialize our own behavior and relativize everyone else’s. I’m sure we’ll have a lot more to say in the realm of environmental humanities in the weeks and months to come.

Planet Earth Is Cooked—Why Bother?

Climate Change IconMartin Rowe

It’s worth addressing still one more question that might be made at this stage about the Vegan America Project: and that is what we might call the nihilistic argument. We’ve already addressed those who claim that global warming is either a conspiracy cooked up by the Powers that Be or that its risks are vastly overstated. As we argued, the skeptics might add (not necessarily inaccurately) that in the short or medium term the changes to Earth’s climate will benefit some areas even as other regions dry up or flood, leaving it a net neutral in spite of the accompanying misery that will likely descend upon tens of millions of vulnerable people or the decimation of numerous species of flora and fauna.

There are those, however, whose response to climate change might be “Bring it on!” They might comment that the human project on this planet has been one of destruction and that Earth will finally begin the much-needed “correction” to eliminate the predatory primate that has imbalanced Gaia. Earth produced (and destroyed) life for eons before the various hominins journeyed from Africa to carry out their massacres and it will do the same for eons after our sojourn here, before our sun in a couple of billion years expands and renders Earth uninhabitable.

By then, techno-utopians contend, “we” will be long gone to another solar system, or we’ll have developed space stations that will allow us to orbit our fractured planet until it’s reached a climatic equilibrium that enables some of us to return as recolonizers. Or we’ll be composites of human and machine, capable of self-generation and no longer dependent on the decayed ecosystems of our planet or our bodies. Our virtual reality will be filled with virtual animal and plant life, and be so sophisticated that it will no longer be possible to tell what is real and what is not. In fact, the distinctions will be literally immaterial.

These are terrifying, attractive, highly imaginative, and deeply privileged notions. On the way to their achievement, millions of ordinary people and billions of ordinary animals will die and the level of suffering will be immense. Political structures—and the accompanying security and peace that R&D require—may crumble, leaving us no longer able to function at all, let alone launch our spaceships or retreat to our geodesic domes. Records of prehistory on this planet have shown that Earth can survive without a human presence—although that might not be possible were our actions to instigate runaway climate change—and we are, in the end, merely one species among many. Yet those who fantasize about or conceptualize a global apocalypse—whether those who will be taken into heaven at the End of Days or whisked away in a spaceship—always seem to find a way for a chosen few to imaginatively live beyond it, and to belong to that elect bunch. Either way, it seems beyond callous simply to write off the billions of victims as merely accidental casualties of our casually fascistic, adolescent utopian–dystopian daydreams.

Such fantasies are privileged because they also assume that the only species that matters is our own (in whatever form it takes in the future), and that we can wander around the universe trashing planet after planet in our quest for whatever it is we believe our unique destiny as (former) Earthlings is to be. Have we not considered the possibility that it won’t be alien life on or from another planet that might force us to confront our lack of singularity, but the development over the next 200,000 years of another species right here on Earth that evolves a consciousness to trouble our moral senses? To return to my previous influences, that species might be one of our own making (like the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica or the apes in the new version of the Planet of the Apes series)—or through some unanticipated evolutionary “turn.”

Do we really want to stop the possibility of such an evolution by wiping out all the other “higher” species on this planet? Wouldn’t it instead be a safer bet to recognize that, because of our vaunted moral awareness and the biophilia that Edward O. Wilson argues is innate in us, we need the other species around us, and that an impoverished natural world might leave our soul shriveled, our sense of purpose blunted, and even the possibilities of our own physical, spiritual, or technological evolution cut off?