Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. - Albert Einstein
Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. - Howard Zinn
Affirmation of life is the spiritual act by which man ceases to live thoughtlessly and begins to devote himself to his life with reverence in order to give it true value. — Albert Schweitzer
Pity Earth’s Creatures
Pity Earth’s Creatures
By EDWARD HOAGLAND
AESOP, the fabulist and slave who, like Scheherazade, may have won his freedom by the magic of his tongue and who supposedly shared the Greek island of Samos with Pythagoras 2,500 years ago, nailed down our fellowship with other beasties of the animal kingdom.
Yet we seem to have reached an apogee of separation since then.
The problem is, we find ourselves quite ungovernable when operating solo, shredding our habitat, while hugging our dogs and cats as if for consolation and dieting on whole-food calories if we are affluent enough. Google Earth and genome games also lend us a fitful confidence that everything is under control. We have Facebook, GPS apps, cameras on any corner, week-ahead weather forecasts round-the-clock on-screen, repair crews ready to restore “power” if it ever flickers out.
Power to the people is a worldwide revolutionary slogan advancing democracy, but presupposes a more ancient meaning: the prehistoric conquest of every other vertebrate on earth. When I lived on Samos myself in 1965, I heard about perhaps the last wild leopard killed in Europe. It had swum across the strait from Mount Mycale in Turkey, only a mile or so away, presumably a bachelor seeking virgin territory, and when discovered and chased, had taken refuge in a cave, where the Samians promptly walled it in to die of thirst. Wouldn’t you have done the same? I suspect that Aesop, however, might have advocated setting it free to garland the 27-mile long island (and thus Europe) for a few more years with a last whiff of the eons preceeding modernity.
Sadistic flicks, sea rise, assassination drones: are we up to playing God? A tectonic shift in civilization has never happened this fast before, and we’re still part-chimpanzee with double Ph.D.’s in trial and error. Invent pesticides and see what they do to our organs, sell civilians assault rifles and count the schoolhouse shootings, experiment with longevity and economics, friendship and cellphoning. By our own account we’re pigs, yet bearish, owly but mousy, catty and bovine. We beaver at work, hawk merchandise, and ape others by parroting them. We’re lemmings, wolfish, snakes in the grass, weasels, bucks, hens, leonine or sharks. We’re beaky or tigerish, doe-eyed, raven-haired, foxy, chicken-hearted, slow as a tortoise, meek as a dove, sheepish, dogged, old goats, goosey, sitting ducks or vultures. We butt in, bull ahead, change our stripes or spots, strut like a peacock, weep crocodile tears, ram through or swan about. We’re rabbity, calf-eyed, we beat our chests like gorillas, buzz off, or act like a jellyfish.
Aesop would perk his ears, pick up a pen at this thicket of still current figures of speech. But what he, Aristotle, Linnaeus, Darwin, Emerson, Kipling would make of what’s going on should give us pause. I don’t mean whether they would like e-mail and “the cloud” so much as the price in demolitions paid, the dramatis personae wiped out. Even Isaac Newton, sitting in his apple orchard, might wonder, “what have you done with the birds?” — was it a fair trade? Will Robert Frost be the last great poet to notice that leaves are gold before they’re green? And his beloved stars; where are they? Would Newton need to fly to Australia or the Andes to gaze at them as before — and feel the magic of the plane was worth it? So much of creation has gone up in smoke to produce glass skyscrapers flocks fly into, superhighways, on-demand electronics, seven billion people in flabbergasting densities, that it’s anybody’s guess what these luminaries would say. Would they prefer what used to be called “God’s green earth?”
It’s a steeplechase, hell-for-leather and exhilarating, for the highest stakes, but not knowing where we’re going. Call it progress or metastasizing, what we have done as a race, a species or a civilization is dumbfounding. Every inch of the planet is ours, we claim, and elements of clear improvement are intertwined with cancerous excess: the two-car American dream empowering women’s independence but engendering horrendous African droughts. Would Emerson and Aristotle find their hair standing on end, or would they grin so hard their mouth muscles finally wore out? And Darwin’s reaction to the tsunami of discoveries succeeding his? A ride on the subway, a month of inquiries, a walk in the park? “Is there any nature left?” he might ask, without concluding if he was pleased. Planes high as the sky, kids with instant gratification from fingering a gizmo, and no gangrene. The seethe dizzies us, also (two billion people were alive when I was born), though we’re acculturated to extraordinary amounts of disorientation — the steely shriek of wheels underground, hostile searches at airports, changing lanes in heavy traffic at a mile a minute, sudden bureaucratic notifications — without blowing a fuse. Strokes and heart attacks we postpone by surgery or pharmaceuticals, plus an evolving tolerance for stress.
Yet my patriotism is shifting, from America in its triumphalism toward the wider sphere of everywhere: Africa, India, England and New England. The total entity is entering troubled waters. There are precedents for our imperial decline but not, in written history, for climate alteration on the scale that’s looming or for gargantuan extinctions in forest and ocean — our global skin. Simulations have become an addition for us, collaging reality into surrealism and taming it for convenience, entertainment or profit. Simulations are faster, zanier and tailored to our preferences, sentimental or otherwise.
IT’S fantasy, amusing, but as technology closes in upon mimicking God, once again are we up to it? Who shall live, who shall die? We’ll save the pandas and the whales that sing prettily, but, like godlings, we’re playing with fire and water, tides and industry. The “City Upon a Hill” will have wet feet even if scientists simultaneously, let’s say, clone a mammoth to prove their prowess. I’d like to ogle the mammoth but would prefer to hear the bobolinks and wood thrushes singing in the spring as before. We have Dumbo but are losing Jumbo for his ivory (remember the cruel phrase “tickle the ivories,” for piano-playing?), and the former needs the latter for good grounding.
Kindle presents a lapful of world thought and literature on tap at a tap, but will the owners pore over it with wholehearted absorption, as book lovers used to do? And when cars drive themselves, will the operators lavish their leisure on the landscape or on a tablet in their hands? We’re a species as slippery as mercury, appropriating any space of every shape from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle, so perhaps we can adapt to surreal simulacra transmitted through the ether, too. At least a critical mass of observers has not yet turned pessimistic. Photosynthesis we’ll have for growing calories, plus the blessings of rain, and like lichen, be hard to dislodge even in extremis from the rocks of our home, living willy-nilly in reduced bands. A sparer version of civilization may emerge, a throwback to leaner virtues. To kill so vastly as we have (a third of life?) and yet remain unscathed seems unlikely. I do meet younger people who are fervent about reform. Theirs is a preliminary zeal, still suffocating underneath the indifference of older generations.
But love is central to life, now and again overriding selfishness for a spell. Love, mercy, pity are vividly called for with respect to corals, songbirds, sea mammals, lofty trees and other majesties, not to mention endangered pleasures like eating clams and marveling at the starshine in the depthless heavens. Nature is undefended by the powers that be, having no vote or much innate appeal to the sort of “people people” who run for office. They don’t saunter (Thoreau’s favorite term) and gaze, turn off the motor and open the window when passing a pond to hear the spring peepers sing — won’t know if the frogs have all died from toxicities. They’ll jog on a treadmill for their heart’s health while scanning spreadsheets. It’s not just ponds being steamrollered for industry, but gazing itself being lost to Twitter. The attention span involved in formulating a menagerie out of cloud shapes in the sky while lax on one’s back in the grass has been eclipsed by what’s interesting on-screen 20 inches away, and conscientious parents will troop their youngster to a planetarium, as to the dinosaur hall next door. These stars at least are carbonated, a firmament in whirligig mode, like the animated characters that populate children’s programs.
Mason jars and the verb “leapfrog,” instructive bedtime stories like “crying wolf” and the goose that laid the golden egg, or the image of Death as a somber figure hefting a scythe — are these all gone? Certainly wolves and scythes are, and the 30th-generation captive-bred lion lying sleepily on cement in a zoo will be no match for the pep and gab of pizazzy graphics designed for a new century. Even if we’re fired or a hurricane is predicted, the temptation is simply to switch channels. “Out of the woods” once meant clearing your head, or protesting “in a pig’s eye” if you couldn’t. “You can lead a horse to water,” we’d tell the boss before quitting. Will we still “crow” about small victories, speak of a predatory matron as “a cougar” or somebody scammed as a poor “fish” — still sniff the scent of loam and cedar, dangle our feet in a creekbed (unless we feel “a frog” in our throat) and “eagle eyed,” scan the sky for barn swallows and chimney swifts or a glistening meadow for spider webs jeweled by the dew?
Mostly that’s over, but Aesopian metaphors were artesian if not prehistoric. The tortoise and the hare, the lion saved by the mouse, the monkey who would be king, the dog in the manger, the dog and his shadow, the country mouse and the city mouse, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the raven and the crow, the heron and the fish, the peacock and the crane. From where will we draw replacement similes and language? Pop culture somersaults “bad” to mean good, “cool” to mean warm, and bustles and bodices segue into tank tops and cargo pants, as in a robust society they should. But will a natural keel remain, as we face multiflex, multiplex change? “Hogging” the spotlight, playing possum, resembling a deer in the headlights, being buffaloed or played like a fish: will the clarity of what is said hold? A “tiger,” a “turtle,” a “toad.” After the oceans have been vacuumed of protein and people are eating farmed tilapia and caked algae, will Aesop’s platform of markers remain?
Edward Hoagland is a longtime nature and travel writer, and the author of the forthcoming novel “Children Are Diamonds: An African Apocalypse.”