Shared from the 3/8/2020 Star Tribune eEdition

‘Save the planet’? No, save ourselves.

It should bring us to the same place — gratitude for our surroundings and an interest in reforming our habits.


I witnessed 11 ravens over The Point. I first heard their rumpus while still in the trees, glimpsing black bolts through the fir tops and aspen limb lattice. I hurried down the path, brushing past an old dog’s grave rock, to the high jut of woods that opens to heaven and overlooks the bog. Snowflakes nipped from the late October sky, and tamaracks down in the muskeg — misty auburn spires — looked like pillars of flame in the marshaling dusk. Brisk and raw, a northwest wind rustled the “flames” and roiled a gray overcast; clouds churned like standing waves in a rapids.

At The Point, I looked straight up and watched the ravens, utterly ebony against atmospheric canvas. They faced the wind — pitching, yawing, sideslipping — wing weathers splayed, tail feathers skewed, in breakneck motion and yet also still, as if clinging to an invisible branch of the wind itself — then abruptly banking away at velocity, loudly exclaiming all the while, and circling round the bog and lofting up into the gale to surf it again.

I didn’t know their purpose, but it looked like play. Perhaps I was merely envious, ascribing to them what seemed like boundless fun to me. I raised my arms and shouted, “Beautiful!” — and two of them glanced down at me. I wanted to believe I was recognized, briefly acknowledged by my superiors. The world was momentarily divided between those who can fly and those who can only dream of it. This was, of course, an emotional response, and it seemed to me the ravens exhibited a similar mode.

And why not? Biologist and psychologist Frans de Waal, who has spent a lifetime studying the behavior of animals, has written: “Modern neuroscience makes it impossible to maintain a sharp human-animal dualism.” In both intelligence and feeling.

For example, in his recent book “Mama’s Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves,” de Waal discusses humor and laughter, noting that the trigger for laughter among humans often has nothing to do with funniness. We commonly laugh amid conversation as a kind of social lubrication, a simple bonding mechanism: “Our supernoisy barklike displays announce mutual liking and well-being. The laughter of a group of people broadcasts solidarity and togetherness, not unlike the howling of a pack of wolves.” Were the exclamations of the 11 ravens a form of laughter? They did resemble howling.

Emotional responses will ultimately determine the extent of our human impact on the biosphere. Several years ago I was one of a party of four on moose hunt in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Gerry, then in his 50s, had long harbored the dream of bagging a moose. It was a lottery hunt, and we were fortunate to secure a permit. He was thrilled. On the first day, five portages into the wilderness, he cleanly killed a huge cow, perhaps a half-ton. As we surveyed the carcass, Gerry said, “She was a majestic animal. We shouldn’t have shot her. She was much prettier alive.” It was hunter’s remorse, a laudable emotion. It spoke of kinship, of the intimacy between predator and prey. We’ve all heard of indigenous hunters thanking a slain animal for its life. We moderns don’t generally need the meat, hide and bones for our survival, but the feeling of reverence remains. It is significant, and perhaps lamentable, that you don’t see shoppers at a supermarket meat cooler gratefully whispering to a plastic package of ground beef.

The data concerning our human spoor have been in hand for a long time. In 1955, the philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell wrote about fossil fuels that “we are living upon the world’s capital of stored energy and are transforming the energy at a continually increasing rate into forms in which it cannot be utilized. Such a manner of life can hardly be stable, but must sooner or later bring the penalty that lies in wait for those who live on capital.”

Any alert person knows this, and knowledge of the scale of our human impact predates Russell by a half-century. Today the threats are acute. The science is clear and convincing and there are myriad practical reasons to change the way we humans conduct ourselves on the planet. After all, we need good water, soil and air as much as does any raven or moose (or tree). But it is emotional response that will tell the tale. When every human on the earth finally feels personally, physically threatened by ecological degradation and is ready to forcefully act, it will be too late. What will motivate enough people to act decisively is the elation of yelling at ravens and the remorse over a killed moose, or their equivalents.

For example, “tree huggers!” is the scornful epithet thrown at humans who express useful emotions in the presence of the natural world, as if trees are unworthy of our respect, gratitude and affection. Lumber, paper, soil stabilization, fuel, shade, water conservation and, not least, toilet tissue are some of the benefits provided by trees. (How many people disdain toilet tissue?) And rare is the human who has not at one time or another loved a forest, or a particular tree, or lamented when a favorite grove was bulldozed for a parking lot. Without all the crucial wealth forests have provided over the millennia, it’s unlikely our civilization would exist. Without forests, our civilization — and probably our species — would perish.

Small wonder that trees often figured prominently in ancient religious symbolism and practice, and, not least, in civil pronouncements. The first documented secular tree festival was held in Spain in 1594, and in 1805 a Spanish village priest established a tree celebration because trees were important for “health, hygiene, decoration, nature, environment, and custom.” Arbor Day — now on the calendar in at least 50 nations — should be celebrated on a par with Independence Day and Thanksgiving. The original Arbor Day in the United States occasioned the planting of a million trees in Nebraska in 1872, and by the 1920s every state had officially designated a specific day to plant trees. We’ve long recognized the need for action.

In that context, however, we need to stop trying to “save the planet.” I deplore that phrase. Humans can neither destroy nor “save” the earth’s biosphere, much less “the planet.” We can alter the biosphere, and have done so, but wrecking the whole shebang is beyond our talents. It was functioning long before us, and if we destroy our species — a task we can accomplish — the biosphere will adapt. People don’t care about “the planet,” and why should we? The planet doesn’t care about us. What it makes sense to care about is ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and our general wellbeing. Those are the primary reasons to protect and nurture the quality of water, air, soil, forest, wetlands, wildlife; those are the reasons to care about the impact of contaminants, carcinogens, plastic waste and greenhouse gases; those are the reasons to avoid the destruction of habitats and the extinction of fellow beings. It’s not directly about whales, Bambi, “tree-hugging” and being “green” — whatever that means. It’s about our survival and quality of life. We are all environmentalists, or should be. Save the planet? A meaningless misconception. Save yourself and yours? That’s a bedrock ecological strategy, and a deeply emotional response.

Here’s the nut: If you love animals and trees and wildflowers and butterflies, then you love yourself. In the end, ravens and tamaracks require the same resources to survive and thrive as we do. That doesn’t mean we can continue to do everything we’re doing the way we’re doing it. The list of reforms is long, but it wouldn’t hurt to start by joyously calling out to a bird or by “hugging” a tree. If nothing else, consider the ramifications of civilization without toilet paper.

Peter M. Leschak, of Side Lake, Minn., is the author of “Ghosts of the Fireground” and other books. Star Tribune illustration by Nuri Ducassi

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