Authors on Climate Change: Learning to Die
Harkening back to a recent article from Matt Gwozd, which draws wisdom on environmentalism from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, this series will focus on literature based around climate change. As an English Major and avid reader, my main point of focus is often the content I consume through literature. This said, it felt only right to incorporate the knowledge I’ve garnered from my favourite thing — books — into this series on climate change. I plan to assess this literature in a loosely “book report”-based style, giving a summary and the major take-aways of each.
Over the course of this week I will be discussing viewpoints on climate change from some of my recent reads, beginning with Parts One and Two* of Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky’s philosophical endeavour into aligning the death of the planet with the death of humankind in Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis.
Part One: The Mind of the Wild
The book may be little (both in size and length), but its meditations on climate change and how it affects the future of humanity as we know it are certainly big. It begins with a chapter from Bringhurst titled “The Mind of the Wild”, which proposes that, in an effort to discontinue acts of rapidly depleting Earth’s natural resources, humankind must shift its mindset to one of “gratitude and respect for the natural world”. Bringhurst argues that we are “predatory tourist[s]” of the earth, and that the natural world is not meant to be subjected to such acts of “human dominance” as we have been committing throughout history. These acts against the planet have gotten us into the unfortunate situation we now find ourselves in: awaiting the impending death of humankind. Bringhurst goes on to propose that we as humans should aim to live alongside the wild rather than live off of it in such a gluttonous fashion. He further argues that the land “is not a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please” and that nature has always been self-sustaining, a quality which we should aim to imitate in our own approach to living with the time we have left.
Part Two: A Ship from Delos
In Part Two, “A Ship from Delos”, Jan Zwicky refers to Socratic virtues she feels we should be implementing into our approach to the demise of humankind as a result of climate crisis. Socrates viewed his impending death with acceptance and courage (amongst other virtues), and Zwicky urges readers to adapt this outlook when considering the “catastrophic ecological collapse [that] is on the horizon”. The harrowing results of climate crisis are inevitable, argues Zwicky, and thus approaching this unfortunate reality with a Socratic sense of ownership and grace is crucial. Zwicky’s chapter revolves around the central question of “how are we to die?” — the answer to which the author feels best lies with the wisdom of the Ancient Greeks: with a balance of “awareness, courage, humility, self-control, compassion, justice, [and] contemplative practice”.
The major take-aways of Bringhurst and Zwicky’s tiny book of epic proportions are as follows: firstly, though the steady decimation of the planet and the subsequent death of humankind are inevitable, we should embrace the time we have left by living in harmony with the natural world, rather than continuing our “increasingly toxic” and colonialist behaviours toward it. Secondly, we must look bravely onward to the fatal results of climate crisis, modelling ourselves after Socratic philosophy regarding mortality.
Though all this may be bleak, and, as Zwicky acknowledges, though this ecological collapse is unavoidable, one must not lose hope completely (hope being a virtue that “Socrates himself manifests” when approaching his own death). For, as Bringhurst mentioned, the earth is remarkably self-sustaining and ultimately “prodigious”. With a tiny glimmer of optimism, Zwicky notes that “perhaps there will be some new species with many of our talents and fewer of our vices”.
*I have omitted an analysis of the coauthored afterword.