The Butterfly Effect: Five Stages of Anthropocenic Grief

Two years into the Twilight of the Bugs. Loving and mourning don’t seem to be so hard.

I: Confusion and Frustration

toronto at night
Anthropocene part deux has two defining features — a sadness that comes from being aware that the world is going to crash and burn, and being able to understand that no one has a coherent proposal for how to even approach building a real steering wheel. Photo by paul bica.

Call me crazy; I believe in sensible things. One of which is that universities should take a leading role on climate change, and form intra- and intercampus working groups to generate action plans for every major city in America. Then, tenured professors should go about setting them in motion. Or maybe they should reorient their academic efforts to be focused on climate change while teaching themselves and their graduate students how to become entrepreneurial. Or perhaps they run for office or start foundations, I don’t know. What I do know is that if they don’t take any action now, and they can predict that they will feel guilty for not taking action on climate change in 20 years, I will be forced to conclude they were too stupid to concretely understand how the world works. You tell me if you think this is a fair assessment.

It’s bewildering. On the one hand, perhaps such people really are dumb, PhDs, high standardized test scores, and quantity of scholarly publications notwithstanding. But on the other hand: no way, right? This can’t be correct. Can it? Why on earth do people aspire to be more like Bertrand Russell intellectually and not morally? It’s obscene that the publishing giant Nature keeps a paywall around Nature: Climate Change, even as it simultaneously publishes editorials saying “urgent action is needed at all levels” and articles about how communication around climate change is difficult and too few seem to be getting the message. It seems to me that all of the experts let things spiral so out of control that we are now relying on politicians to have capital-v Vision. It’s almost as if no one has actually studied politics or history or public policy and come to any sensible conclusions. The same question I already asked applies — can this really be true? That most of the people who have devoted their lives to studying these things missed the point, and haven’t figured out how the legislative change process actually works?

To deal with my confusion and frustration, I’ve been attempting to come up with a cynical joke about how the rise of cricket-flour-based foods coincides with a decrease of crickets in what still is yet the great outdoors. I’ve been stuck for about a week. All I have to show for it is half of a punchline about “cricket flour futures.” Intellectually, I know this joke has comedic potential, just as a there’s a potential environmental joke about mercury in retrograde and in fish. I just don’t have the heart to tell either.

At other times, my thoughts circle back to the Japanese concept of Mono No Aware, which describes “the awareness of impermanence” and roughly translates to the gentle sadness felt when perceiving the unique ephemerality of life. Move on over, geologists: psychologically speaking, the first part of the Anthropocene era has ended. Some propose that it started with the Trinity Nuclear Test in 1945, though other scholars date it far earlier than that. Either way, until very recently most of us were unaware that we were, in fact, living in the Anthropocene. In 2019, we are no longer blind. The general population is starting to move on to Anthropocene part deux. As far as I can tell, its defining features are twofold: a Mono-No-Aware sadness that comes from being aware that the world is going to crash and burn, and being able to understand that no one has a coherent proposal for how to even approach building a real steering wheel.

II: Denial, Anger, and Bargaining are for Suckers (as they can’t change the facts)

butterfly
The lack of butterflies flapping in a German forest will have more chaotic effects than most of us could have ever foreseen. Photo by Marcel de Jong.

You have probably heard the news by now, but in 2017 a paper was published in the scientific journal PlosONE with the title “More than 75 percent decline over 27 years in total flying insect biomass in protected areas.” In 2019 the journal Biological Conservation published a paper entitled “Worldwide Decline of the Entomofauna: A Review of its Drivers.” The authors provide the following highlight section at the beginning of the paper:

  • “Over 40 percent of insect species are threatened with extinction.
  • Lepidoptera [Butterflies], Hymenoptera [Wasps, Bees, Ants], and dung beetles (coleopteran) are the taxa most affected
  • Four aquatic taxa are imperiled and have already lost a large proportion of species
  • Habitat loss by conversion to intensive agriculture is the main driver of the declines
  • Agro-chemical pollutants, invasive species and climate change are additional causes.”

Try taking out 40 to 75 percent of a system (or subsystem) you rely on and see if it still works. Imagine your world without 40 to 75 percent of the traffic lights in your city, or driving without 40 to 75 percent of your car engine, or 40 to 75 percent fewer foods in your favorite supermarket. The lack of butterflies flapping in a German forest will have more chaotic effects than most of us could have ever foreseen. The only thing I can think to do is mourn, and accept the state of the world — as by definition no one can change the present moment — and maybe pretend to blame Roger and Francis Bacon for helping inspire the wrong modern definition of “science” when accepting things gets hard.

I propose calling the second psychological part of the Anthropocene “The Twilight of the Bugs.” Yes, this designation is a bit arbitrary, as our new era could easily be called the “Twilight of the Fish,” “The Last of the Toucans,” “We Killed the Mockingbirds,” or other trite and vaguely pun-based names that attempt to illustrate the plight of the home in which we live. However, bugs help us understand nature is all around us; that we are of and not separate from it. The problem with using Toucans or Mockingbirds is that most of us don’t encounter specific animals flying, or swimming and jumping out of the water every day. Whether we are indoors, hiking, picnicking, playing in a yard or merely walking outside, bugs are concrete and often needling reminders that we are part of larger ecosystems. And who doesn’t like the sight of tiger swallowtails, orange monarchs, or blue morpho butterflies fluttering through the air?

III: A Reverie for Times Past

Half Dome at night
I think all of us know that we don’t have to be in Yosemite to revel in the lambent way light reflects off the ocean’s waves or a flower’s petals, or in the sound rain makes. And the reason — if there is one thing I’ve learned — is that at their core, hearts are uncomplicated. Photo by Bodey Marcoccia.

When I was young and shorter, my family used to go to Yosemite to be awed by the trees, rocky cliffs, and the natural splendor. My mother, brother, and I once took the bus that circles the Yosemite Valley floor, where we met an exhausted and friendly Italian man who had just gotten back from climbing Half Dome. I think we talked about how we were going to go stargazing, because it came to light that his girlfriend had worked on the Hubble space telescope. In the process of telling us this, he missed his stop. He was too tired to get off and walk, he decided to ride the whole loop again. Later, we joined my father and spent a while looking up into the night sky.

Every time I remember seeing the stars above Yosemite, I think of that fellow nameless passenger on Spaceship Earth. There’s a real chance that I will turn into him one day, exhausted from climbing Half Dome, riding the bus, giving a kid who likes stars and space a smile. The only difference is that it is highly likely that the kid will be aware of the decline of life on planet Earth. Or will we not tell our children about the state of the world until they reach a certain age, in a painful variant of the Santa Claus tradition? For what it is worth, when I imagine taking my future kids to Yosemite so we can all wonder up at the sky, I picture myself having the following mental conversation: look Mom, there’s The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia’s Crown. They haven’t budged an inch since that evening on the valley floor. Did you see that shooting star? I also like to imagine that any kids I have will one day grow up to discover themselves having a very similar thought when they think about taking their kids to Yosemite.

One of the great, early discoveries of maturing happens when we find out we love things we never could have imagined as kids. But a later, more mature discovery is that some loves are timeless, and they don’t change, regardless of whether we are five, fifteen, or fifty. Mine include the simple love of finding unpicked blackberries, of rearranging rocks in a river to make its current slightly swifter, of feeling the moist coolness of forest air, of scrambling from rock to rock to better see a waterfall, of biking through a warm wind on a path raised above a meadow, and of going for soft-serve ice cream in summer’s afternoons (which one could do near the Yosemite Lodge pool).

I think all of us know that we don’t have to be in Yosemite to revel in the lambent way light reflects off the ocean’s waves or a flower’s petals, or in the sound rain makes. And the reason— if there is one thing I’ve learned — is that at their core, hearts are uncomplicated. They do not distinguish between nature or people. Effortless in their movement, all they know is love. Specifically, how much they love whatever it is we happen to be in contact with. Other parts of our minds are responsible for recognizing the content and context of what we love, and in many cases, clouding the process. Even when it comes to loving something as natural as a rabbit or a peach tree.

IV. How Do I Really Feel?

tree in sunlight
The same thing that prevents us from falling in love (with nature) too deeply is the same thing that prevents us from wanting to cry (for Mother Earth), and vice-versa. Photo by seyed mostafa zamani.

Why would we ever develop an ability to cloud, add layers to, and complicate the simple act of loving? If I were in a hypothesizing mood, as I frequently am, I’d say one reason is that such fog prevents us from grieving and mourning. The same thing that prevents us from falling in love (with nature) too deeply is the same thing that prevents us from wanting to cry (for Mother Earth), and vice-versa.

My point is that because the core part of our hearts are essentially blind, discovering how to love nature more deeply is the exact same thing as learning how to give and receive love more profoundly both with other people, and with oneself. Reason further from this premise and the logical conclusion is that further developing one’s capacity to love and be moved these days requires feeling the inherent sadness — beneath any anger, rage, and righteousness — of our era. Call me sane; I believe doing so is equally as important as regular cardio for the heart.

This implies that the only people who seem to fully realize what the word Anthropocene concretely means must be the ones who are far along in their process of grieving; most people have yet to discover they carry this grief. Instead, they reason about their relationship to the planet and global warming abstractly. What a stupid and sad shame that Al Gore and climate scientists are not renowned for their ability to help people cry.

V. Questioning and Envisioning the Future

We speak for the trees. We need bugs  - Melbourne climate strike
Like many people, what I am really wondering about is the difference between incremental, within-the-box progress and more fundamental, radical shifts. Photo by Takver/Flickr.

When Marvin Gaye sang about fish full of mercury he implicitly assumed that the future included plenty of fish. At the moment, this is less clear than ever before. Baby elephants, adorably capable of tripping over themselves and who clearly enjoy a good mud bath, are growing up in a world that is getting harder for them to thrive in. Just like fish. Both groups of animals don’t know why.

Apparently, we don’t really know why either. We seem unable to develop so thorough an explanation that would allow us to actually solve the problem. Once, the world came together and banned CFCs with the Montreal Protocol, to help fix (metaphorically speaking) the hole in the ozone layer. A parallel movement with carbon dioxide isn’t a bad start. Some sort of carbon tax is definitely better than no carbon tax. But what about the pressures people feel that make them to want to, say, own a car in the first place? Who is working on concretely rethinking the social systems we interact with and which support how we live?

Like many people, what I am really wondering about is the difference between incremental, within-the-box progress and more fundamental, radical shifts.

One advantage of generating an action plan for each major city is that doing so could show us how life could be different. Though we’ve designed our buildings, we have not designed how we live in our urban metropolises. Systems-thinkers, be they scientists, academics, or entrepreneurs (and anyone who can understand how competing sets of incentives interact) might be some of the best people to help think this through. Currently, designing and running an organization whose goal is to last into the future and, say, avoid going bankrupt — whether it’s a university, city, company, or something else — doesn’t mean the same thing as a running a self-sustaining organization.

As long as the IPCC is calling for “rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings) and industrial systems” we might as well do it right, and attempt to solve more than one problem at once.

For example, consider communal farms on building rooftops, the modern iteration of The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield once remarked that the loneliest people he has ever met live in cities. So could we have communal farm projects to both be green and give city-dwelling people more of a chance to connect with each other? Maybe it would take some people working on the farms full time, and other people working 30-hour work weeks so they could spend 10 hours farming. No, I don’t know what else you’d need to to do make it work, or how it would scale in Los Angeles, one of the biggest urban metropolises in America. But maybe it could start in small and medium-sized cities; it would be nice to see a map of potential locations within a given city with a full explication of how said urban farms would work and how they would fit into existing incentive and economic structures.

It would also be nice to see any other well-thought-out reimagining of how people could live in, say, San Francisco, Witchita, Spokane, Santa Fe, etc., to pick some cities at random. How could people go to the bank, or get those same underlying financial and interpersonal needs met? What types of errands do people run, and how can those be done more greenly? So on and so forth.

To be honest, I actually don’t know if communal urban farms are one of the better solutions to pursue. What I do know is that I’m just a person attempting to come up with decently radical questions in the face of terrible tragedy. Some of which include: Is there any way to reduce the impact of Americans’ desire to fly home for Thanksgiving, and would this necessitate a set of regional cultural holidays instead? What are the best ways to combat the network effects — and therefore induced congestion during peak demand (in traffic systems and in, say, powerlines) — of most work and school hours happening at the same time? Are time-zones too wide and coarse-grained by a factor of six, ten or twenty?

While I like asking questions, I’m not an expert in combating climate change. However, there are those who do know or can figure it out, some of whom are likely to be found in higher education, and who in a series of working groups could come up with 10-, 20- or even 100-point plans. Surely a working group can be formed in every city and county, which all can probably stem from a working group whose purpose is to set up such working groups. So on and so forth. Funding will be easy to get once a plan is in place and credible people are on board.

Just don’t ask me to explain why I’m the one writing about this, two years into the Twilight of the Bugs. Loving and mourning don’t seem to be so hard.

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