One winter morning several years ago, after dropping my daughter off at school, I was walking up the hill that leads to my home, where it passes alongside a stone church dating from the 16th century. It was still dark, and in the dim road ahead of me, I saw a flash of movement. What looked like a cat was walking up the way. But as I approached, it became clear the animal was larger than a cat and had a bushy tail. Getting closer, I could see its coat was red, and it walked with loping motions.
It was a fox.
As I approached, it glanced nervously in my direction, located a gap in a fence, crossed in front of me, and disappeared.
Where I live, in a rural suburb of Geneva at the foot of the Jura mountains, it’s not uncommon to have an encounter with wildlife. Once while riding a bike toward Nyon, a beautiful four-point buck bounded–as if on springs–across the path in front of me.
Those moments are loaded with surprise and joy, a brief connection with the lost wildness in the landscape and in ourselves. It’s a reminder this land hasn’t been completely tamed.
And now this week, I see the snow has almost completely melted from the Jura. Much earlier than usual. The day was sunny and too warm and I tried not to resent it, though it’s difficult. Just as you can’t dismiss climate change with one snow storm, you can’t confirm it with one sunny week.
And yet the physical evidence is there in the scientific literature, in the accumulation of data found in dry charts and spreadsheets. We know now that nearly all of Switzerland’s glaciers are in retreat and have been losing mass balance. This past December was Switzerland’s warmest on record. And as you read this, fires are destroying 1,000-year-old trees in Tasmania after a record drought.
I know intellectually what’s happening on our planet. But it’s the visceral responses that move me to act. I love the earth and the diversity of life it provides. I crave those moments when I’m face to face with a fox. But feeling that intense joy also means I’ll eventually be filled with intense anger or despair when I see it threatened. It means feeling disappointed in myself, knowing I will be giving my two daughters a world which is less alive, less full of wildness than when I was a child.
That’s why, for instance, when I watch the enhanced video of the Aliso Canyon methane plant leak outside of Los Angeles, it stirs fury in me, a deep anger rising like that black plume. If officials can successfully plug the leak by the end of March, it will have spewed the equivalent of four million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
But then you read other statistics. You realize that this one big ugly leak only accounts for around two percent of all the other invisible methane emissions, the estimated 130 million tons of methane that leak from US homes and industry into the atmosphere each year. The cost of doing business as usual.
So what do you do? You fight, I suppose. You post an article on Facebook, or Tweet this blog post. You join a rally. But at a certain point, the existing framework doesn’t work, doesn’t support the the truly revolutionary change required. Outrage isn’t working.
In an essay for the Dark Mountain Project, Roy Scranton writes about how fear and anger are increasingly governing our lives. How it infects our politics, our discussions, the ways we give in to the social media outrage machine:
In either passing on the vibration or reacting against it, we let the fear short circuit our own autonomous desires, diverting us from our goals and loading ever more emotional static into our daily cognitive processing. We become increasingly distracted from our ambitions and increasingly susceptible to such distraction. And whether we retransmit or react, we reinforce channels of thought, perception, behaviour, and emotion that, over time, come to shape our habits and our personality. As we train ourselves to resonate fear and aggression, we reinforce patterns of thought and feeling that shape a society that breeds the same.
Emotional static. We look for enemies, ignoring ourselves. We re-post and click “like” in an attempt to be one of the tribe, to feel that we’re doing something, when really we have almost no agency left to us, in a corrupt system controlled a very few wealthy and powerful people.
So what can we do?
Scranton suggests it’s not through activism, or the disruptions that come from hive-like protest movements, but in interruption. And interruption he defines as philosophizing, of becoming aware of our limitations, seeing our true humanity
As opposed to disruption, which shocks a system and breaks wholes into pieces, interruption suspends continuous processes. It’s not smashing, but sitting with. Not blockage, but reflection.
The moment of thought after the fox crosses your path.
It’s hard to see this long view sometimes. And ultimately, the long view is about the destruction of it all, of life on earth, our civilization. One day it will all burn up and then go cold when the sun extinguishes itself. All of it will die, the intricate ecology that came from an improbable series of events in the evolutionary process, that led to this flourishing of life, and to us, the human beings who are able to perceive it and recognize it as beautiful.
It’s all temporary, as the late Swedish poet Tomas Transtörmer knew:
Out on the open ground not far from the buildings
an abandoned newspaper has lain for months, full of events.
It grows old through nights and days in rain and sun,
on the way to becoming a plant, a cabbage head, on the way to being united with the earth.