One of the basic problems of living a relatively high quality of life (with central heating, tasteful interior lighting, 24-hour grocery stores, UPS deliveries, hot and cold running pharmaceuticals, and so on — none of which I am going to give up, by the way) is that, practically by definition, it tends to isolate us from natural cycles and dynamics. We’re not swimming naked, at the whim of clouds and currents.
Instead we’re inside four walls. Outside, temperature swings between 0 and 100 F, lumination sways from an excoriating blast to absolute black, and seasons wax and wane. Meanwhile, we stay on a keel-steady 70 F, switch the lamp on without a thought when it seems a little dim, and eat the same tomatoes that the store has for sale every hour of every day of every month of every year.
The environment we inhabit every day has had all the variation smoothed out of it. Our light bulbs have pushed back fear of dark, our AC has pre-empted summer laziness, and our miasma of psychic correctness has tamed despair and lust with all the certain uncertainty of a lion handler and his 4-legged chair. Of course none of these things has really been banished — it just takes one hurricane to demonstrate that — but most of the time the illusion is pretty convincing. And that makes us forget how much we are creations of a very physical and demanding world, steered by instincts and impulses so deep they never speak.
On the level of everyday environmental discourse there is an effect too. We tend to look at the environment as an abstract idea that must be somehow approached or accommodated rather than the physical thing that has made us what we are. There are thousands (millions?) of people out there who are convinced that we must do everything possible to “save” the planet, yet they haven’t the slightest idea of what a “saved” or an “unsaved” planet would look like or feel like, who would live there or how their lives would be different than ours today. These people just know they’re supposed to “save the world” by recycling shopping bags, buying hybrid cars, etc.
The full absurdity of this situation struck me when I was trying to review a book a PR agent had sent me (Yes, even obscure environmental bloggers are getting solicited for book reviews right now. Send more, please!). It was The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen. As I plowed through the book’s dozens, probably hundreds, of surreal and spurious everyday tips (including, believe it or not, subscribe to delivery of a daily newspaper, rather than read the newspaper online), I could find promises that these purchasing decisions would, yes, “save the world,” but no vision of what that world would be like.
There weren’t even any reasons the world was worth saving. Not even a single standard inspirational paragraph — nothing about a bird or a bee, or the feel of fresh air in the mountains, or the alarming, invigorating rush of water on your genitals when you go skinny dipping in a mountain stream. “Saving the world” was just a pious thing the reader was supposed to do, and the authors didn’t seem to think that readers would care what a saved world would look like, smell like, or sound like. I suppose if there was anything that might be inferred about the authors’ or the readers’ vision it would be that things would in some fashion stay the same and not get worse.
Hmm, skinny dipping — now that’s a reason to save the world. Any future “saved world” must include skinny dipping in my opinion. If you don’t understand this, the first thing you need to do is strip and dive in. Then come talk to me. I’ll have a thermos of hot chocolate waiting if you’re cold.
Anyway, with holiday gift-giving season coming up, I thought it might be worth it to point readers to some books that have a broader perspective on the environment, one beyond “paper vs. plastic.” Two novels by Vernor Vinge immediately came to my mind: A Fire Upon the Deep, and A Deepness in the Sky.
Don’t let their cheesy sci-fi covers fool you: these are extraordinary books with a lot of deep environmental content. No, not deep in the sense of advising you “psst, Earthling!- paper shopping bags are really better than plastic!”, but deep in the sense that they describe whole alien ecologies and environments, and show how drastically ecology and environment influence culture and personality.
In Fire, a planet at a medieval level of technology is populated by wolf-like creatures intelligent only as packs of five or six. The “individual” is a group, and a single “soul” can carry on over centuries, with ever-shifting individuals as its components. This biology creates all sorts of unique rituals and capabilities — ones confusing and impenetrable to the humans that crash land there, fleeing a hi-tech menace from a galactic culture the wolves know nothing of.
Of course humans have their own biological quirks and cultural curiosities, but you rarely think about them until you’ve gotten into the mind-set of a completely different race — and Vinge manages to give us that remarkable experience.
In Deepness, human traders and conquistadors are orbiting and observing a most unusual planet: one revolving around a star that turns on and off in a several-hundred-year cycle. Over decades, the planet’s surface goes from freezing and airless, to burning and chaotic, to lush and humid, to autumnal and serene, and back to airless darkness again.
It’s a completely different kind of seasonal cycle Vinge has dreamed up here, but it seems completely plausible — perhaps because the spiderlike inhabitants have been shaped by it as deeply as our culture has been shaped by spring, summer, fall and winter. They sink underground and freeze themselves in winter, and create moralities about the proper seasonality of offspring — just like we have moralities about homosexuality. It’s totally alien and yet totally familiar. As the spiders’ growing technology gives them protection from the ravages of the cycle, they also perceive the invaders on their doorstep.
Both of these books are tremendous explorations of the way physical facts of biology and geology help create personality and society. And in both of these books the storylines catch societies when they are starting to overcome the limitations of their biology — as we humans are now, with central heating and the scientific method and such. The question common to both books is something like this: how can an expansive, intelligent species survive in the presence of world-wrecking power?
That’s a good question for us humans to contemplate. The answers aren’t clear, but anyone who’s observed changing seasons, shifting beaches, growing forests, or petrifying fossils knows one thing: the most impossible goal of all is keeping things the same. Though since few of us leave our heated houses now, to actually see seasons change or beaches shift or forests grow, maybe that’s not so obvious after all. We need a few good skinny dipping trips to get our perspectives straight.
jump to post comment