A dozen of us sat and stood around the campfire, guests at a lodge in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains. My wife and I were there to hike and sleep and celebrate our wedding anniversary. Others had come to ride A.T.V.’s, including an amiable couple who farmed in South Dakota at the harsh, dry western edge of the Corn Belt. Their crops were failing in the drought. It wouldn’t be a total loss, but they would need their government-subsidized insurance. I don’t often meet large-acreage arable farmers, and I was curious about their opinion of G.M.O.’s. The husband made some good points in favor of modified corn, the best one being that its resistance to insects reduced the need for pesticides. To convey the dangers of these chemicals, he described watching a deer fall to the ground and die when a crop duster flew by. An animal under chemical attack — the image turned my stomach. Blessedly, the conversation shifted to soil conservation and ethanol production.
Minutes later, from out of the shadows, a moose appeared.
It wasn’t the first moose we had seen that night — two or three had been feeding along a nearby creek — but it was by far the largest, a full-grown female, and it was standing right next to the lodge. It clambered up onto the deck and began licking the wooden cover of the hot tub — hungry for salt and minerals, someone theorized. Now and then it adjusted its bulk, shifting heavily on its spindly legs and scraping its hooves on the wood. We were spellbound. Moose stand taller than people in many cases, and their size gives them status and charisma. It can also make them dangerous. On one wall of the lodge, just a few yards from the fire, a sign warned us not to approach moose too closely and asserted that they injure more humans than bears do. This hot-tub moose appeared oblivious, however. Lumbering and somehow godly, it seemed instantly to make fools of us, with our jabber and our toasted marshmallows. As the fire dwindled to coals and people slipped off to their cabins for the night, the moose never once raised its head. It seemed not to fear us, which made me fear for it.
Later, when I came back to use the hot tub, the moose hadn’t budged. I clapped. I waved my arms. Eventually, it got the message. I undressed in the dark, changed into my trunks, and climbed into the steaming bath alone.
Perhaps in part as a reaction to the willful denialism of President Trump, the news has lately been full of frightening stories about climate change. In documentaries, on magazine covers, and in the science pages of the paper, coasts are flooding, forests are on fire, and the polar ice shelves are disintegrating. That is the present: shocking. The future is even worse.
Days before my mountain getaway, a story appeared in New York magazine that laid out a doomsday scenario of what will happen when the climate warms a few degrees, a temperature change in the mid-range of what scientists expect to happen this century absent massive, coordinated action on a level that we’ve yet to see. The article, by David Wallace-Wells, was widely shared. It classified and sequenced the prospective calamities in the style of the Book of Revelation, which may be one reason it unleashed such alarm. Whether you most feared famine, plague, or war, Wallace-Wells had you covered. For me, the sole consolation in the grim compendium was learning that a carbon-heavy atmosphere may substantially compromise our brains, meaning we may be too logy and confused to comprehend our collective agony. I am the father of two teenagers; the story was more than I could bear. Angst and a sense of futility surged through me, then tripped a circuit breaker, mercifully. I can take only so much. I opened Twitter and scanned the trending topics, suddenly famished for chatter about TV stars.
Was my response surprising? How scalable is fear? Or, rather, how scalable is the survival response — the state of energized, focused determination — that fear, when it’s metabolized, produces? This summer, Al Gore’s second documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Sequel, conspicuously failed to match the box-office performance of its predecessor. I wonder sometimes if certain threats are so cosmic, so enormous, so comprehensive, that they annihilate any meaningful rejoinder. Perhaps the decision to fiddle while Rome burns, particularly if the fires are spreading fast and the wind is blowing hard, is evidence not of foolish narcissism but of sensible self-soothing in the face of overload.
After all, the politics of carbon and climate change, at least as it’s been articulated lately by our leading scientists and statesmen, asks us to act in the interests of an entity — the planet — that only astronauts have ever beheld and that the rest of us know only through hearsay. It demands from us urgent, radical action in return for slow, barely perceptible results. Instead of environmental salvation, we’re promised delayed deterioration.
And what are the precedents for this great campaign on behalf of manageable slippage over runaway decline? Some people have suggested that the Scriptures offer a rough analogue in the story of Noah’s ark, but the more one studies this tale, the less one likes it: It suggests that surviving a brutal climate shift is possible only for a kinship group under the command of a stern patriarch who’s in personal contact with the Almighty. This doesn’t describe the U.N. or the E.U., though it does sound a bit — a tiny bit — like a possible scenario for the United States.
I was in grade school in the 1970s, when the first real effort was launched to forge the sort of consciousness suited to coping with planetary challenges. We were taught that we lived together on Spaceship Earth. The term was coined by the self-taught futurist Buckminster Fuller, a man at once learned, trippy, and grounded, whose type has largely vanished. He was an uncle to the world, a bit like Einstein, or like Elon Musk (if Musk let himself go bald and moved to a farm in southern Illinois). Fuller’s message: Shift perspective, simplify, and everything is going to be fantastic. When I hear the word “optimist,” I see his big, thick glasses and his endearingly daft grin.
The duty of the passengers on Spaceship Earth was to keep it clean and well maintained. For me and my classmates, this meant picking up litter. Saving the world felt quite doable to me, not overwhelming in the least, and I became obsessive about the matter. On weekends, I mounted heroic one-boy cleanups that saw me walking the roadsides with a sack that fattened and fattened and won me honks and waves from neighbors passing in their cars. I also served Spaceship Earth by turning off the lights and by pretending I was warm when my mom set the thermostat to sixty-eight. But I had a secret: Spaceship Earth depressed me. It belonged to no fleet and had no mission. It hung in the darkness, spinning, going nowhere.
The way earth lovers saw the planet — as the Big Blue Marble — upset me even more. The image gave me vertigo. The word “marble” overpowered “big,” casting the world as toylike and insignificant, a charm that a hippie might wear around his neck. The only attribute that stirred me was the “blue,” which referred to water, precious water, because the oceans were where dolphins lived. Dolphins were my thing back then. If the earth was worth saving, dolphins were the reason, for unlike spaceships and marbles they spoke to me. Their coquettish dark eyes. Their smiling, tapered beaks. The way they aided their old and sick by nudging them to the surface so they could breathe. Did I anthropomorphize dolphins? You bet. And I went further: I dolphinized myself, viewing my human self as a fallen version of their marine-mammal ideal. Were dolphins to vanish from the earth (entanglement in nets was the great threat then, though it’s been joined today by habitat loss and warming seas), I couldn’t imagine still caring about the place. I’d leave the litter on the grass and let the lights burn and the faucets run.
For me, attachment has always beaten fear as a spur to action. Fear floods my system with cortisol, a stressor, but having something to fear for — something I love, something creaturely and carnal — engages my heart, not just my brain; my soul, not just my cerebrum. Yet here’s the thing about attachment: It’s intensely specific. It needs a special object. And this object has to be real, not metaphoric; tangible, not notional. The earth is real, but only the part you’re standing on — the planet as planet is an idea, a concept. It’s the spaceship, not the dolphin.
The environmental movement hasn’t much concerned itself with such distinctions, or with evaluating the possible disadvantages of a media strategy that emphasizes shock and horror about abstract dangers over enthusiasm for protecting a concrete good. In his new book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist, Paul Kingsnorth, a former green activist from Britain who’s become something of a brooding fatalist about the catastrophe he calls “ecocide,” describes his fall from orthodoxy. He joined the movement as a nature lover, a Wordsworth-reading tramper through fields and forests, but over time that outlook fell from favor: Pragmatism displaced romanticism. The movement’s new goal became sustainability; technology, its new method and hope. Wilderness and wildlife were good, but “green growth” and “renewable supergrids” were better.
This approach led to wind farms in pristine desert valleys and tidal turbines in estuaries, just the sort of fragile ecosystems that Kingsnorth had campaigned to defend. “I realized that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment,” he writes. In the movement’s shift from idealism to utility, from questioning growth to seeking clean ways to fuel it, he sensed a reprise of old errors.
This is business as usual: the expansive, colonizing, progressive human narrative, shorn only of the carbon. It is the latest phase of our careless, self-absorbed, ambition-addled destruction of the wild, the unpolluted and the non-human.
I understand his frustration. Over the past few decades, as our big-picture concern for carbon and climate change has intensified, the animals of the world, as individuals and as species, in the water, on the land, and in the air, have been steadily, massively expiring. According to reputable estimates, their numbers have fallen by half during this period, while ours have climbed and climbed, and show every sign of continuing to do so regardless of whether we manage to lower emissions. As we concentrate on an air war whose outcome remains woefully uncertain and which we may finally lack the will to fight, we’ve been losing the ground war — that much is sure.
And though the two battles aren’t mutually exclusive, as some of the die-off has been caused by climate change, neither are they identical. Addressing localized, mortal threats to animal life, such as habitat destruction, overfishing, and the spread of invasive species, won’t do much to stem rising global temperatures. It will, however, preserve a world worth rescuing.
From the spring through to the fall, my wife and I walk for an hour almost every evening, usually on a dirt road beside a creek in which beavers have built a series of elaborate dams, forming a chain of ponds. Herons out for minnows and small trout stand in the water with one leg stiff and planted, the other raised and bent. Big mule deer, careful steppers for their size, creep down from the hills and dip their heads and drink, their eyes looking sideways, their ears like radar dishes. Sometimes we see a coyote or a fox, those diminutive canids that move like cats, and occasionally we spot a beaver swimming along with its chin up, which looks difficult, as though evolution failed them in this detail. How very odd that these creatures still exist, and that they still want to, unaided and unencouraged, in landscapes that they must sense are under siege. The herons, too, with their slow, dragonlike wingbeats and long gliding landings, which they always stick. They’re holdovers from another epoch, clearly, and though they’re surely useful to their own ecosystems, they don’t seem critical to life in general. Their numbers are just too few, their ranges too limited, their ways and habits too eccentric.
Microbes, bugs, and vermin I understand our need for: They do the dirty work, fermenting, fertilizing, pulverizing, liberating energy that’s trapped and fixing energy that floats free. They’re small, ubiquitous, and tireless, behaving a bit like living lines of code. They don’t show off; they simply do. A coyote that has caught a gopher or a bird trots smugly, its tail a fluffy boast, but a beetle in a tree trunk just bores and drills. Male antelope strut and pose, but voles and shrews tunnel on unseen. Our world relies on these busy little beasts in a way that it doesn’t any longer with larger creatures. When the honeybees started to vanish a few years ago, it caused a mild panic — our food crops were involved — but when moose started disappearing in the Nineties, a decline that continues to this day, it drew less notice, since we can live without them. And we do live without them, nearly all of us, nearly all the time.
But it’s encouraging to know they’re there — and positively inspiring to see them, pressing on with no encouragement, absurdly, perfectly, persisting in a world that barely acknowledges their existence. They are impossible not to watch. Because life calls to life and creature rallies creature and where is our courage to come from? Playing only for ourselves grows tiresome; it’s hard to maintain stamina. It’s also the approach that caused the trouble.
This may sound naïve to some, that an affinity for or awe of certain creatures might be more motivating than fear for ourselves. Certain animals are more equal than others, as we know, and more likely to evoke affection. Moose command attention as gophers and slugs never will. Yet love isn’t a finite quantity, and energies spent protecting animals at the top of the food chain tend to benefit those lower down.
Perhaps it’s time to shift loyalties and champion others’ causes, others’ interests. But for whom can we do this? For whom can we be heroes?
Wild creatures offer us a chance, possibly our last, to matter, to be redeemed.