This abiding truth is as simple as it is profound: All living creatures are threads in a single tapestry of life. The loss of one species, the anguished deaths of 1,000 dolphins, the slow-oil-agony demise of 800,000 birds affects the entire planet, perhaps even the cosmos. As John Muir said, “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
We are enlarged, made better, by a healthy and vibrant Earth. We are not detached beings, divorced from our planet, only operating on the surface as if we’re bullet trains impelled by magnetic force, hovering above but never touching the tracks. We are of the Earth and of the sky. On this, our only home, we share DNA with every living organism. The worm and the butterfly. The gnat and the loon. The wolf and the crab. The whale and the ant. We are, individually and collectively, part of every molecule in our universe for every living creature is, at its essential self, stardust. One glance at the Periodic Table of Elements is a view into the building blocks that sustain and drive the complex lives of stars and every life form on our planet, including humans. Nitrogen or calcium, iron or carbon, chromium or nickel: these elements and more are created at the end of a star’s life when the energy producing nuclear reactions in the star’s heart cease, resulting in gravitational collapse. Perhaps this is the source of our origin story, the leitmotif of sacrifice: We are all sparkling moments of rebirth.
But we are also astonishingly effective purveyors of death. We destroy a species, an ecosystem, a pod of dolphins caring for its young, a turtle completing her journey, a rare and mighty collective of whales that have a song like no one else in its genus, and we have effectively driven arrows into the very essence of our humanity. We have diminished our home, the thing that gives us joy, sustenance, life, an inkling of the holy.
I have a friend whose hobby is deep-sea diving. She told me she stopped eating fish after she had several dynamic encounters with grouper. She claimed they are very curious, intelligent fish that often swim right up to her and seem to study her. She began making faces at them and the fish made faces back. She said she could no longer eat them because they are sentient beings, animals of intelligence with a range of emotions.
Hers is not an act of anthropomorphism but of acute observation and interaction with her known world. If she’d never had those encounters, if she’d never paused long enough to notice what the fish were doing and to risk an interaction, she would have never been moved, changed. She would have continued to exist in an echo chamber of limited experiences.
I have no idea how people harm animals, or clear-cut forests, or shear off mountaintops, or through greed-fueled negligence destroy rivers and oceans. In order for humans to slaughter sharks for shark fin soup (they cut off the shark’s dorsal, pectoral, and caudal fins, leaving the shark unable to swim, sentencing the animal to a prolonged, horrendous death), I believe they must enter a mindset similar to that of combatants: dehumanize your opponent. But in this case, since the opponent is a non-human animal, I suppose the process would more accurately be labeled de-recognizing. By de-recognizing another living being’s value, it’s easier to kill it. How else could one inflict such cruelty?
And what madness causes men to think rhino tusk powder will make them more virile? Perhaps it is the same madness that prompts wealthy American men to travel to Africa and “trophy hunt” (a de-recognizing phrase—the animal is reduced to the status of object—for a killing ritual in which all the cards are stacked in favor of the man with the bait and gun). Somehow, cruelty inspires in these wealthy hunters, some of whom shoot the animals from the sniper-esque advantage of helicopters—a fetish-centered belief in the glory of their phalluses. They de-recognize the world in order to kill it, and for them killing translates into power, control, sex.
I am no longer naïve. I understand death is integral, even necessary, to life … sparkling moments of rebirth. And that people create religions. And that people fear death.
You must sacrifice that goat, that child, that man, that woman in order to appease the gods.
Believe this man is the Son of God and you will never truly die.
If you live by the Prophet’s rules, you will be given a harem of virgins in heaven (what, I wonder, do the women get?).
These are all stories humankind has created in order to make peace with the inevitable black door of death. But they also prevent us from rationally dealing with the science of nature. Life begets death, death begets life. But nature offers balance in the life-death tango. A cyclone spawns off the coast of Africa and eventually makes its way to the American plains where it drops enough water to relieve drought and water crops. When humankind decides to play god, chaos ensues: global climate change, rising sea levels, acid rain, extinct species, cancer epidemics, marginalized nutritional values in our food, and an entire ocean and its inhabitants poisoned.
We are living in a time where there is increasing awareness that natural disasters are also social disasters. In an essay titled, “There is No Such Thing as a Natural Disaster,” anthropologist and geographer Neil Smith writes in reference to Hurricane Katrina, “In every phase and aspect of a disaster–causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction–the contours of disaster and the difference between who lives and who dies is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus.”
The same holds true for man-made disasters. The Gulf ecosystem and the people who depend on its health and abundance for their well-being were already stressed due to a panoply of human factors, the most pressing of which were agricultural pollutants, the megalopolis called Atlanta and their mushrooming drinking water supply needs, and the fact that everything runs downstream. As an Alligator Point neighbor once said to me, “Every time someone flushes a toilet in Atlanta, the Gulf dies a little.”
Fertilizers and pesticides have affected the Gulf basin since their introduction post World War II. Indeed, one of the enduring legacies of a war that was technologically advanced for its era is the develop and reliance on chemicals which, while killing pests, also destroy waterways and human health.
In order to meet its ever-growing need for fresh drinking water, Atlanta relentlessly draws down the Flint, Chattahoochee, and Apalachicola watershed. This system, when working properly (read: not manipulated by humankind), creates the salinity balance necessary for thriving oyster beds. The proper flow of freshwater provides nutrients to the oysters without which they succumb to illness and predation. But Atlanta, because of its increasing population, has been manipulating the flow for years. As a result, when natural or man-made disasters hit the Gulf region, the oyster beds have an increasingly more difficult time bouncing back. This was the situation when the BP oil spill occurred. The oyster fields were already embattled. So, too, were the people who have for generations made their living off harvesting oysters. This is how a man-made disaster becomes a social disaster: Take away someone’s ability to make a living, especially when the livelihood is intractably tied to a cultural way of life, and everything falls apart—the individual and the community.
During the hundreds of hours spent researching material for this book, I discovered a secret. It’s a secret that is beginning to slowly emerge from the shadows in large part because of the Internet. Now what was once a nearly impossible task becomes a matter of keystrokes. I have at my disposal studies, plans, reports, maps, and diagrams detailing vast fields of disposed weaponry piled in watery trash heaps in the Gulf of Mexico. After World War II, without making any ado about it, the military began using the Gulf as a garbage dump for all manner of ordnance. A 2015 article published by Texas A & M University asserts, “The ordinance includes land mines, ocean mines, torpedoes, aerial bombs and several types of chemical weapons … . The chemical weapons may have leaked over the decades and could pose a significant environmental problem. The military began dumping the unexploded bombs from 1946 to 1970, when the practice was banned.”
And the U.S. Army sent three soldiers to my shack who were charged with digging up non-existent ordnance in my yard and all the while chemical weapons were and are, in all probability, leaking into the Gulf, mixing with petroleum and dispersant, and nothing is being done to address the situation. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Do we not understand that we get one chance to save this planet? And that saving our planet is the very definition of redemption?
After experiencing the man-made destruction of my sacred place, I’ve come to understand there are people who apparently don’t possess an empathy gene and, as such, are capable of inflicting massive harm.
But ignorance, apathy, and greed are just as dangerous and just as much in play. Glaciers are becoming their own rivers. Extreme weather is rampant. Species are disappearing at a rate that is up to 10,000 times greater than what would happen if humans did not exist. We are creating a period of extinction, what biologists call the sixth great extinction, and it is being primarily propelled by our addiction to fossil fuels.
Gas is under three dollars a gallon, prompting a boom in truck sales. What’s next, the return of the dinosaur-sized, hydrocarbon spewing Hummer?
The Florida legislature is on the precipice of opening up the entire state to fracking. This is more evidence we have elected people who are insane. Florida is essentially a thin crust of limestone veiling and protecting our lifeblood, the Florida Aquifer. The aquifer is the source of our drinking water and feeds our natural abundance. The aquifer is interconnected. You dump poisons in the north and they will circulate throughout the system. Fracking would bust through the limestone, contaminating the totality of the water table.
In a First Amendment-wreaking edict, officials banned Florida Department of Environmental Protection employees from using the phrases “climate change” or “global warming.”
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil, but the facts on the ground don’t change.
I am reminded ever more of the Cree prophecy, “When the last tree is cut down, the last fish eaten, and the last stream poisoned, you will realize you cannot eat money.”
Prior to drilling underwater wells, energy companies conduct studies to pinpoint oil deposits below the ocean floor using sonic cannons. According to Time Magazine, the cannons “emit sound waves louder than a jet engine every ten seconds for weeks at a time.” Common sense and science tells us this is detrimental to marine life. We are stressing our environment—air, water, flora, fauna—to the breaking point. Sometimes I wonder if the rich and powerful won’t be sated until everything is gone: all the sweet water, all the animals, all the good air, all of us … you cannot eat money.
According to the excellent 2014 documentary on the Gulf oil disaster, The Great Invisible, in the past decade 111 energy bills have been proposed in Congress and only five have become law. Those five contained subsidies for nuclear and fossil fuel energy sources. The 106 bills that did not survive all contained alternative energy provisions.
Fact and metaphor: Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons formed from the remains of dead animals and plants that died millions of years ago. Their transformation from corpse to the earth’s hidden blood also took millions of years. Fossil fuels—dead animals and plants that underwent transmogrification—are not renewable. Nearly every aspect of our modern life is fueled with their blood, with the fragile bones of death.
As far as I can tell, wind and solar power do not intersect with any blood, ancient or otherwise. And I suspect the same will hold true for marvelous energy sources not yet invented. Life fueled on the remains of a million (and far more) fragile bones is not only unsustainable, it’s killing us.
Must we do everything in our power to embrace clean, renewable energy? Resoundingly, yes. What other choice do we have? Our fossil fuel addiction is a form of slow suicide. And with each tick of the clock, our demise speeds up. Tick, tick, tick: closer to the brink. Whoosh.
We cannot risk trying to perform CPR on a cadaver. My poor mother tried. It didn’t work. It never does.
In Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese,” she writes:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Let us all, with infinite devotion, love this good earth. Let us understand with greater intimacy the meaning of “home.” Let us love with ever expanding intention and purpose, placing greater faith in nature and science. Let us view our planet and all its moving parts—stars, galaxies, winding rivers—with a shaman’s fierce gaze, a scientist’s deep knowledge, and a child’s open heart.
Yes. Let us love enough and more than enough. Now. Today. Forever.
–Connie May Fowler