A Light in the Dark
At dusk, I was walking with friends on the farm. As we moved into the shadows behind the barn, the ground shifted. Our eyes adjusted, and we were walking in a field of stars—tiny lights in the grass. A closer look showed us firefly larvae, incapable of flight just yet, but already filled with glowing luciferin, the molecule that leads to bioluminescence. Without the darkness, they were invisible. This three-part essay is about the Dark, particularly about dark ecology—an ecology that rejects the category of “nature” and holds that we are living in the midst of unavoidable ecological catastrophe. It is unavoidable because it has already happened (Morton 2008, 2010).
Given the enormity of the environmental problems we now face, where is there still hope? How can we engage positively? And what does the dark enable us to see? I will break the remainder of this essay into three sections. In the first, I will lay out some of the unfolding catastrophes that we face. In the second, I will explore proposed solutions and our ongoing complicity. Last, I will turn to why I see hope in a renewal of community and creativity—a Light in the Dark.
According to Timothy Morton, the end of the world began in April 0f 1784 when James Watt invented the steam engine, beginning an era of increasing human fossil fuel consumption. Fossil fuels transformed our economy, environment, and society. Most recently, burning coal, oil, and gas has led us to the highest carbon dioxide levels in human history (over 400 parts per million). The consequences of increasing CO2 levels are already being felt in tragic ways around the globe. For Memphis, the EPA projects an increase in average temperatures of 5-8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, along with an increase in days above 90 degrees (EPA 2015). Overall temperatures will likely be more like what we expect now in Phoenix.
It may be too much, though, to rest our environmental problems on the shoulders of fossil fuels. Land use across much of the Global North has roots in British land enclosures of the 18th century and earlier, in which commonly held resources were fenced and deeded to individual owners. In the southern United States, antebellum land enclosures were tied to personal and industrial slavery, plantation agriculture, and railroad construction. Current and historic land use patterns have resulted in the United States ranking second in the list of countries with the most threatened species—behind Ecuador and just ahead of Malaysia (IUCN 2015). Both our fossil fuel use and our reshaping of the landscape are core elements of our national identity, and have proven difficult to change.
Defining a subset of life processes as “nature” is another form of enclosure. Nature is increasingly restricted to specific areas where fires are controlled, species are managed through controlled hunting or breeding and release programs, and resources are harvested—including a range of ecosystem services many of which are defined according to human needs and economic benefits. Nature is framed in an Eden-sense as a perfect, pure-land—though one in need of human caretaking. This Eden myth constrains our thinking about environmental, social, and other problems by implying a hierarchical relationship between humans and our environment.
The environmental problems that we now face are extensive. Numerous names for our current era have been proposed: the human-centric Anthropocene; Plantationocene, to highlight the slave-labor system as the force behind our current carbon economy; Capitalocene, focusing on capital accumulation as the dominant force in ecology; and Chthulucene, in which grasping tentacles of human, non-human, and corporate forms entangle each other across time and space. (For a discussion of these terms, see Haraway 2015).
We continue to transform the planet. Climate change has already resulted in melting glaciers, droughts, floods, species migrations, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and changes in mating and flowering seasons. Extinction rates have been increasing globally since the 1500s, and are now estimated at 1000 times the natural background rate—largely due to the activity of humans (Pimm et al. 2014). Thousands of varieties of corn, beans, potatoes, and other crops have been lost due to monoculture farming. Pollutants accrue over time, particularly in low-income and minority communities where illegal dumping and lax regulation combine, but also from the oceans to remote reaches of the Arctic.
Even if we were to stop all pollution and fossil fuel use today, these problems would continue for decades or centuries. The catastrophe has already occurred (Morton 2008). So, as individuals within communities, how do we begin to address large-scale problems without becoming overwhelmed with hopelessness? And what does this darkness let us see?
Part 2: Being of the world
As I mentioned in the first section, even if we were to radically alter human-environment relationships around the world immediately, climate change and biodiversity loss would continue for years, possibly centuries. But, the idea that the catastrophe has already occurred should not imply fatalism. Some futures are always closed to us, but we retain the capacity for choice and the ability, at least, to engage in ahimsa—responding to the world compassionately in ways that do the least harm. The principle of least harm means that, when we have the opportunity, we can make the choices that keep us from digging ourselves deeper into crisis. In compassionate engagement we should also realize that some people, groups, and systems will inevitably continue business as usual.
Unfortunately, most or all of the proposed solutions to our current crisis are problematic. For the most part, approaches to stemming biodiversity loss—including the establishment of protected areas, regulations on land use, and restrictions on hunting and other activities, have been either unsuccessful or work only on a small scale. Win-win solutions—where social and environmental problems are solved simultaneously—are frequently suggested but rarely, if ever, achieved. Instead, successful environmental projects usually require trade-offs. Climate change has been, if anything, even more difficult to address.
Steps to curb climate change and biodiversity loss are also subject to diminishing returns. For example, if my car gets 10 miles/gallon and I upgrade to car getting 15 MPG, I can save 33.3 gallons of fuel over a 1000 mile trip. However, if my friend’s car gets 30 MPG and she upgrades to a car getting 60 MPG, she only saves 16.7 gallons over the same trip. Changing to a car that gets 100 MPG only saves her an additional 6.7 gallons. The same logic holds for saving electricity, reducing garbage output, and many other issues: first efforts often bear the most fruit. Later activities have higher costs and proportionately diminished effectiveness.
A last problem with current solutions hinges on our own complicity in the current crisis. According to one popular “global footprint” calculator (footprintnetwork.org)—imagine an atypical American: a vegan who eats only local food, who lives in a 550 sq. ft. green-design residence with no electricity and 6 roommates, and who never drives or rides in a motorized vehicle. If everyone lived this lifestyle, we would still need 3.1 Earths to provide the required resources. Personal lifestyle changes lead us deeper into crisis—some faster, some lower. The part this atypical American can’t change on her own: resource use by the service sector, the military, development of infrastructure, and complicity in the excesses of our society.
Complicity: we all benefit from the current system’s destructiveness, and we all make active choices that both perpetuate and escalate the system. To the degree that our collective problems are the sum of individual actions, complicity may seem particularly dark. However, since total disengagement is impossible, it seems to me that complicity can also be a powerful entry point for change. In the case of environmental problems, I argue that identifying our complicities can lead us to work for solutions beyond the individual level. At the same time, I would suggest that, as individuals, we are each the sum of our complicities. Attending to our wider connections can provide a window into our selves to inform personal action. In the final, part of this essayI will turn to hope: why I see a spark of light in our current environmental problems.
Part 3: A Light in the Dark
In the first two parts of this series, I focused on our unfolding environmental catastrophe and some of the challenges we face in trying to address those problems. Along the way I describe a dark ecology perspective (Morton 2010) that the catastrophe has already occurred. Our generation is the last to witness CO2 concentrations under 400 parts per million for the foreseeable future. It is also the last to see numerous ecosystems and species as human-driven extinction continues. Despite our best intentions, we all remain complicit in driving this system forward. After looking at this dire picture, I see three bright points for moving forward.
First, dark ecology is not nihilistic; it is dark because, like dark matter, it is unseen. Rather than humans in opposition to a pristine Eden-nature, dark ecology places Homo sapiens on equal footing with other species. And, like all other species, we are composed of the cinders of life (Derrida 1991). These fragile, messy, charred remnants of existence are the ground for all growth. For too long, we (I include myself) have imagined ourselves as free from this cycle. Ongoing environmental problems provide an opportunity to see and reflect on our deep connections with other species and ecosystems.
Second, seeing the scope of our current disaster may encourage us to make less destructive choices moving forward. Individual decisions are important, and while we cannot prevent climate change, extinctions, or ecosystem loss we can make both short- and long-term decisions that can improve some immediate outcomes and support future generations. Here is where consuming less, producing less waste, and making “lesser evil” choices can bear some fruit. It is important not to take a fatalistic perspective; even if we are still digging a collective hole, perhaps we can slow the machinery.
Third and perhaps most important: environmental crisis offers both opportunity and permission for change. It is hard to see how, given our current cultural configurations, we can keep from sliding deeper into disaster. At the same time, it is essential that we find ways to live within our means ecologically if we are to survive as a species. This crisis gives us permission to re-examine all of our deeply held institutions and identities, and to create new forms based around compassion, community, and connectivity. What might parenthood look like in a sustainable, post-climate change world? Family? Gender? Work? Success? How do we assemble a new mythology while retaining our history? This is our great challenge—there is space within Meeting and in other communities for exercising collaborative creativity, slowly putting forward multiple alternative models for addressing difficult questions. While this will not stop the damage that has already occurred, it does provide a way for us to all participate in imagining a new ecologically-minded culture. This is not just about recognizing our influences on the natural world; our cultural and cognitive processes are also shaped by the material reality in which we live. A creative dark ecology can be a way to reconfigure those connections to reshape who we are—as individuals, families, and communities.
EPA. 2015. “Future Climate Change.” http://www3.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html (September 20, 2015).
Haraway, Donna. 2015. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin.” Environmental Humanities 6: 159–65.
IUCN. 2015. “IUCN Red List. Version 2015.2: Table 5, Last Updated 23 June 2015.” Red List. http://cmsdocs.s3.amazonaws.com/summarystats/2015_2_Summary_Stats_Page_Documents/2015_2_RL_Stats_Table_5.pdf (September 20, 2015).
Morton, Timothy. 2008. “The Catastrophe Has Already Occurred.” Ecology Without Nature (Blog). http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2008/07/catastrophe-has-already-occurred.html.
———. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard.
Pimm, S L et al. 2014. “The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates of Extinction, Distribution, and Protection.” Science 344 (6187 ). http://www.sciencemag.org/content/344/6187/1246752.abstract.
This essay originally appeared as a three-part series in the Newsletter of the Memphis Religious Society of Friends.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.