It feels splendid to leap into the writing life after a year of absence. Thank you, dear readers, for your interest across this span of silence.
The diagnosis was cancer and the treatment that knocked it off was brutal. Together they left me stunned, wandering in the valley of the shadow of death, at times truly fearful.
Coming now into the light of life, feeling the beginnings of vibrance as I emerge from the shadows, I keep thinking of Lazarus. Not the guy who was raised from the dead, but the other one. Jesus told the parable of a sick and destitute beggar named Lazarus who lay before the rich man’s gate asking only for the crumbs from the table. The rich man turned his back, slamming the gate shut so that no food, care, comfort or goodness could cross over. Behind the closed gate the rich man and his brothers continued their self-satisfied, hard-hearted, opulent and comfortable lives. Lazarus, abandoned and alone, died at the gate. Abraham himself came and took Lazarus away to a better place.
Not long after, the rich man died. From his place of torment in Hades he called to Abraham, asking that Lazarus come to give him relief. Abraham said no: the barrier between the two places was impassable, he said. So the rich man asked if Lazarus could go back to earth to tell the brothers what had happened to him. He thought that if they heard about it from Lazarus they would change their behaviour and avoid the brother’s fate. Again, Abraham refused. He said that the living brothers already had Moses and the prophets. If they would not listen to all the wisdom that was already given, they would not listen to anyone.
This is the true wisdom of the face-to-face: goodness toward others gives life its value, and all anyone needs to know is right before them.
The first part of this powerful story concerns hard-heartedness in the face of desperate need. We are today deeply familiar with the social and spiritual demands of strangers at the gate. Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of them. Michael Ignatieff recently wrote about the disasters pushing people to flee Syria: ‘Assad’s barrel bombs, Russian and American air strikes, ISIS beheadings, militia murders and persecution’. Ignatieff argues that generosity toward refugees is both ethically good and politically prudent. Far better that people be given the opportunity to make good lives for themselves than that they be pushed into utter, nihilistic desperation. And multicultural experience shows that in general nations are enriched as newcomers settle and flourish. None of this happens without effort, but this is the real work of life’s goodness: to reach out in care and responsibility.
The second part of the Lazarus story also speaks powerfully to life on earth today. Abraham said that all we need to know is actually before us. For him, Moses and prophets held the keys to knowledge. Other times and places hold other keys.
These days I find myself thinking of the animist vivacity that permeates the goodness of earth life. Part of the horror of the shadow of death is that one feels that life’s goodness is being obliterated. In contrast, to see clearly is to see that goodness arises all around us – in the rain, air, ground, light, warmth, the light winds of morning and the golden glow of dusk. Alfonso Lingis explains:
‘We do not relate to the light, the earth, the air, and the warmth only with our individual sensibility and sensuality. We communicate to one another the light our eyes know, the ground that sustains our postures, and the air and the warmth with which we speak. We face one another as condensations of earth, light, air, and warmth ….’
All creatures are the beneficiaries of elemental goodness, and all creatures participate in the webs that nurture and support on-going life. We are face-to-face with goodness all the time, and that goodness gives rise to creatures’ capacity to flourish. It speaks in all the vast exuberant generosity of earth life that flows through birds and bees, predators and prey, flowers and nectar drinkers, creaturely generations, air, sun and water. All around us is this great flourishing. All one needs to know as a grounding for wisdom is the coming forth of diversity, beauty and integrity. The goodness of a human being is here: in becoming a conscious contributor to the generosity of life.
Perhaps the funniest words on Earth come from Mundari, a language spoken by tribal peoples in east India, Bangladesh and Nepal. One of the greats is ribuy-tibuy. It means ‘the sound, sight, or motion of a fat person’s buttocks rubbing together as they walk’. Another fine term is rawa-dawa, ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no-one is there to witness it’. The Mundari terms belong to a terrific word category that seems to be lacking in English – the ideophone. These words encode sight, sound, smell or feelings within one encompassing term.
Human language is a marvellous capability, both biologically based and socially learned. One of the markers of our being a species is that we humans can all learn each others’ languages. Along with that capacity comes the sense of kinship – we (all of us human language participants) can appreciate the others – their humour, their complexity, their obscurities, their differences, their occasional bizarreness. And of course we appreciate (or just as often grumble about) the changing vivacity (or, to some, the lack of respect for tradition) of our own language(s).
The capacity for learning is built into our brains, just as the capacity for speech is built into our larynx and windpipe. Actual languages, though, are incredibly diverse in both their structures and their vocabularies. There are languages that pack whole sentences into a single complex word, languages that use sounds that are difficult both to make and to distinguish, languages like signing that don’t use sounds at all, languages that have whole categories of words that other languages don’t have, and a thousand other variations. Of course we love our languages! We learn them and develop our skills with them throughout life; we play with them, and express many of our deepest thoughts, fears, loves, emotions and dreams in them.
In many ways we become ourselves, as individuals and as members of cultural and social groups, through language.
It is not surprising that for many people language is another of those markers of a boundary erected to separate humans from other living beings. But here again, not all humans take a human-centric view of languages. One of the books I keep coming back to is The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Alphonso Lingis takes this broad and inclusive view of language:
‘Of course the language of gregarious insects, ants and bees, is representational, is governed by correspondence with the layout of things, and is a kinesics of truth. But language begins with the evolution of organs for vocalization among insects not socialised into colonies, whose vocalizations consist entirely of a seductive chant. Their organs … [are] reiterating and reaffirming the forces of beauty, health, and superabundant vitality.’
In brief: human language is one mode of expression within the wider eloquence of Earth life.
Many of the Aboriginal people who taught me were quite clear that other creatures have their own languages. It is not surprising that we cannot understand them; they are who they are and we are who we are. Thinking of them as language creatures is part of the wider mode of understanding the others as creatures not so unlike ourselves.
‘Brolga Talking’ by David Jenkins (CC)
Not only language, then, but other forms of culture as well may be part of Earth life. One of the old people from whom I have learned so much in North Australia was Doug Campbell. In his words: ‘birds got ceremony of their own – brolga, turkey, crow, hawk, white and black cockatoo – all got ceremony, women’s side, men’s side, … everything.’ Plants are sentient too, and, according to many Aboriginal people, the earth itself has culture and power within it. In this line of thought, we are all culture-creatures: we are intelligent, we act with purpose, we communicate and take notice, we participate in a world of multiple purposes. It is a multi-cultural world from inside the earth right on through.
My friend Richard Nelson spoke with and from Indigenous perspectives in his recent speech on Earth languages (view here). In totally engaging manner and style, he was making the profound point that Earth’s expressivity includes much that is not alive in the usual sense of the term, like wind and ice. He concluded:
The whole Earth is one great language family.
I can almost hear the sceptics saying that at the very least, our languages are more complex than those of others. Perhaps this is so. A major new study of human languages concludes that we are the only known species whose communication system varies fundamentally in both form and content. The caveat is that very little is known about other nonhuman languages. But does it follow that love of our kind of language means that it is somehow the best of all possible languages?
The poet Peter Boyle addresses these questions as part of a fascinating article called ‘Being Job – In Three Parts’. He is musing on the Biblical Book of Job, and reflecting on the fact that Job addressed G-d, and G-d answered Job. But in what language? Peter writes:
‘It seems reasonable to suppose that G-d has no intrinsic preference for English over Urdu, Pashtun over Aramaic, Sanskrit over Pitjantjatjara. The language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands would seem as close to his heart as Homeric Greek or old Slavonic. It would be difficult not to assert that G-d would be equally at home in the elaborate grammar of turtles as in the speech of finches, that the soaring discourse of the eagle carries no more and no less charm than the meditative vibration of hornets.’
As with G-d, so with Earth: expressivity is the way of life, and we are all part of it.
If language is a mode of expressing and affirming forces of beauty, health, and vitality, as Lingis tells us, must we limit our attention to sounds? After all, some human languages are soundless, so why not other creature-languages as well?
Martin Burd is an evolutionary ecologist at Monash University. Recently he published a report on research carried out by an international team: ‘Colourful language – it’s how Aussie birds and flowers “speak”’. He notes that much of the colour we see in the nonhuman world adorns flowers and birds. But, he says, ‘we are accidental eavesdroppers on the visual conversations in which they are engaged’. Colourful birds are signalling to potential mates. Colourful flowers also search for mates, Burd tells us, but they do so by first communicating to pollinators, many of whom are birds.
The flowers that appear red to humans have evolved to appeal to the visual system of honeyeaters. Burd concluded that: ‘… many flowering species had evolved to “talk” to birds using a very particular set of colour “words”.’ The scientists concluded that this convergence of flower colour and bird visual system had probably evolved independently far more times than would be expected if it were random, and the next phase of the research will investigate these relationships on other continents with other bird-flower mutualisms.
I love the thought of us humans being ‘accidental eavesdroppers’. It is such a wonderful reminder that the great communicative, expressive Earth is not all about us. At the same time, of course, some creatures do, from time to time, address a human. The invitation to play is well known, while the growl that says ‘back off’ is a readily identifiable example of a great scheme of expressive messages saying ‘don’t touch!’. We are probably hard-wired as mammals to get many of these messages without having to stop and think too closely.
Much of our engagement with the expressive languages of Earth, though, calls on our imagination, knowledge, and, as Richard Nelson would say, our wisdom.
To be part of the world in which others also communicate in their own languages is, for the human, an opportunity to imagine one’s self sharing worlds with others. We do this all the time with stories, jokes, songs, images, and, of course, poetry. Most of the time, it must be said, we do it on our terms.
One of my favourite poems by Peter Boyle refuses the temptation to draw others into our worlds. ‘Cicada’ comes from the prize-winning book Apocrypha. This is a complex book in which poems are presented as the work of various imagined poets whose own imaginings find their way into both lyric and prose poetry. The great theme of expressiveness runs through all the work. The (imagined) author of ‘Cicada’ is Irene Philologos, and her poetic imagination takes her into an insect world.
Hanging upside down
perched in its own
the cicada sings:
“I have eaten and am full.
Does it sing for us?
If we too have been touched all over by fire
If we have balanced for hours
on the infinite porosity of earth
and know what it’s like
to be the casket of a time-beat
ticking away at metamorphosis
If at times our head and arms have wavered
like a delicate carapace flooded
by all the sky wants us to take in
If we can imagine the dryness of wind
caressing our black shell
all through the hot days
all through the fire of nights
when our eyes are beads of hard blackness
and our frame
breaks open to the homeless language of wind
If we can imagine ourselves
an assemblage of shell and flesh
scattered by the serene indifference of life
If we can call all this
It is now official: Australia has just experienced its hottest year on record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, ‘2013 will go down as the year that registered Australia’s hottest day, month, season, 12-month period – and, by December 31, the hottest calendar year’. This was the year, it will be recalled, that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to the temperature maps. Deep purple and pink joined the colour coding to indicate maximum temperatures of 50-54°C (122-129°F).
In case that was not enough, another report tells us that climate scientists at the University of New South Wales have published the results of a study showing that global warming is almost certain to be more extreme than previous models indicated. They have developed a method for analysing the effects of clouds on global temperatures, and their results show that on current trends we’re looking at global warming of at least four degrees by 2100. If you are in any doubt about whether four degrees really matters, Mark Lynas’s book Six Degreesis well worth reading. In 2100 the earth is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the world we now know.
The year 2013 also saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s latest book. InOil and Honey McKibben takes on the fossil fuel plutocracy. His data are as bleak as ever, and lead directly to the point he has been making for some time: that we are in the midst of irreversible, unfathomable changes. Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg discussed this sense of impending doom in his review of the book. Klinkenborg contends that we are living in the midst of a rolling apocalypse that is changing pretty much everything. Our language, and our sense of time and destiny, aren’t up to the task of communicating this new, accelerating, event. For example, the great floods in the US in 2013 were described as ‘Biblical’. Klinkenborg offers the awful reminder that these floods are NOT Biblical. There is ‘no wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.’
It is too late to avert global warming completely, as McKibben (along with others) has been telling us for a while now. Our political systems are not responsive to the need for quick and strong action, and the fossil fuel industries are at this time well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on government is a sign of the subversion and retreat of democracy. On the one hand, scientists have determined that if we are to keep global warming to a manageable degree, we cannot put more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by mid-century. On the other hand, the fossil fuel magnates plan to extract, sell, and burn every skerrick of oil, gas and coal. In McKibben’s words, the crucial number is 2,795 gigatons. That is ‘the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies…. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.’ In sum, ‘we already have five times as much oil and coal on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.’
McKibben continues to urge humanity to try to contain and reduce carbon emissions, and to ‘re-democratise’ our societies so as to require governments to act in the interests of the people rather than the mega-rich fossil fuel magnates. Most importantly, though, he urges us to acknowledge that tough times are all around us and are going to get worse, and to respond to that knowledge by fortifying ourselves and our communities to face these tough times. The safer places, he says, will be in ‘strong communities’, so a wise response to global warming will involve building and sustaining such communities.
This advice leads directly to the question of community. Is a strong community a fortress, or is it a web? Is it strong in the sense of unyielding, or in the sense of resilient? Who is in, and who is out? Aside from politicians and a certain type of populist, it seems clear to all that in times of change individuals and communities need to be flexible, adaptive, resilient, and capable of quick, intelligent, organised responses.
In the context of community, as in the context of climate change, it is necessary to ask if our languages, values, and sense of solidarity are up to the task of imagining and building the necessary strength. Nestled within these questions is the deeper question of ethics. This question involves the assumption of response, responsibility, care, concern, and the refusal to abandon others.
Traditional ways of thinking about community are based on what we have in common. A community is made up of people who share language, values, and understandings of the world that enable them to sustain their commitment to working together for their common (shared) goals. This type of community is called the ‘rational community’. If those shared elements are lacking, then community building involves finding ways to develop shared values, and to accelerate the power and resilience of groups of people who work, communicate, and celebrate together. Many people are addressing these questions, and there are excellent programs in existing towns, neighbourhoods and social groups that work to develop resilience and the capacity for transformation.
In the years since World War II a number of philosophers have been addressing the question of ethics and community. Do communities demarcate a domain within which shared values, norms and belief systems prescribe ethics for action? If so, how can we imagine or understand an imperative toward ethics that arises and commands us from outside the domain of shared values and goals? What of the strangers, the excluded, the refugees, the helpless?
Alphonso Lingis has written an excellent book on this subject: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing In Common. This ‘other’ community does not come into being through what we have in common. Rather, it is made of people whose lives brush against each other without necessarily having anything in common. In these encounters, meaning arrives mysteriously. We often do not, and may never, understand others with whom we do not share the qualities of the rational community, and yet we recognise their personhood. We recognise our shared vulnerability, and it follows that although our ethical responsibilities have no clear rational command, they nonetheless make claims upon us. Lingis’s phrase ‘nothing in common’ is used in opposition to the rational community where what holds people together and gives them cause for care and concern is based on what they have in common. Breaking free from that which is shared, the analysis asks how ethics command us in the absence of shared religious and economic interests, and the solidarity of shared values.
This brings me to the conjunction of ethics, climate change, and multi-species communities. Concepts of community for this time of massive change must challenge our traditional concepts, as the philosophers are doing. At the same time, they must be far more inclusive. Climate change impacts on the lives of many, many species. In this rolling apocalypse of climate change, earthlings are enormously vulnerable. We are mortal, we experience meaning in life, we suffer, we struggle to remain alive. These are creaturely conditions that are inherent in the lives of all multi-cellular organisms, and perhaps of many single-celled creatures as well.
Multi-species communities arise in recognition of creaturely vulnerability. It needs to be said again and again that many of our fellow earthlings are at or near the edge of extinction. An incredibly large number of them are affected by climate change. Although the factors that push a species toward extinction are complex, climate change is not only a factor in itself, but also further impacts on creatures’ capacity to adapt to the changes that are now happening.
Probably everyone is familiar with the image of a polar bear on an ice floe, and has heard about coral bleaching. Other creatures are affected by other aspects of climate change – rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme weather, and much more. In addition to specific climate change impacts, almost all creatures now also experience a great number of other, more direct, human impacts. Violence is a large and visible factor, as I have been writing about recently. So too are numerous others: loss of habitat and related issues of over-crowding and urbanisation, plastics, toxins, ocean acidification, and many more. Of course these and other impacts affect humans as well. This is the point. Earthlings today have one great thing in common (with a few exceptions): extreme vulnerability to the unstoppable damage now in process. Our species is not exempt, but at the same time, our species has huge responsibilities.
My current research is dedicated to exploring questions of multi-species communities that form around animals that are vulnerable to extinction. I am interested in communities of care, by which I mean communities in which humans acknowledge and act upon their ethical responsibilities toward other (non-human) creatures. There is no single model for how such communities come into being, and how they work. The research is on-going, and involves a number of people including many of those in the Extinction Studies Working Group.
Here are just two examples of the kinds of multi-species, ethical, responsive and responsible communities I am talking about.
Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons
Scientists tell us that there are seven species of sea turtles on earth, and six of them are endangered. These ancient and beautiful creatures are experiencing a huge number of threats some of which are directly attributable to humans. Hunting, pollution, plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and other hazards have driven many species of sea turtles into the zone of the endangered – they may not survive the rolling apocalypse. The problems are all interconnected, but at the same time, climate change poses a number of quite specific threats. It is difficult to imagine in the abstract, but the specifics are arresting: sea level rise that wipes out beaches and nesting habitats; weather extremes involving storms that damage beaches and seagrass beds; hotter sand from increasing temperatures leading to death before the eggs even have a chance to hatch. Bear in mind that the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop. With increasing nest temperatures, there are likely to be more females than males, thus threatening genetic diversity.
It is impossible to think of turtles without also thinking of plastics in the ocean. The long slow death of a turtle that has eaten plastic is almost too terrible to contemplate. In the midst of all this suffering, people are rescuing sea turtles, creating protected areas for them, healing their wounds, protecting their nests, and developing hatcheries where nest temperature can be controlled.
Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.
A WWF initiative that brings scientists together with Indigenous Rangers in North Australia is a great example of human action in the face of the many disasters afflicting sea turtles. Long live the turtles and the people who work so hard to help them survive!
A second case study brings us from sea and beach to land and air, in order to consider the vulnerability of flying-foxes to climate change.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Of the four species in Australia, two are endangered, while world-wide a large number of species is threatened. We know from experience here in Australia that when the temperatures hit 40°C, approximately, flying-foxes start to suffer severe heat stress. Wherever possible they camp in rainforest gullies, mangroves and other heat-protected areas, but the combination of habitat loss and rising temperatures is lethal. According to Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox scientist, in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’
Most vulnerable to heat are the females and juveniles — bad news indeed for endangered species. In urban areas, volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can.
In spite of all the help, it seems that some 50,000 flying foxes have died of heat in the last fifteen years, and the number will grow as temperatures rise. Welbergen concludes that flying-foxes are showing us a glimpse of the future, when not only more flying-foxes but also many more species of animals will be affected by heat stress.
Sydney flying-fox rescue volunteer Storm Sandford was interviewed last year (the hottest on record, it will be recalled). Her inspiring story is a perfect example of a multi-species community that arises in response to vulnerability. Her actions emerge in recognition of the needs of others. Her human response to that need is an exemplary demonstration of the generous spirit of all the people who rescue and care for flying-foxes, She gives us a glimmer of how life can be ethical, committed, and engaged in the midst of terrible and unstoppable events.
Multi-species communities in the time of climate change are made of this: the recognition of vulnerability, the responsiveness of love, the capacity to act, and the refusal to stand by and do nothing.
Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of native flying-foxes have died as a direct result of the weekend heat event with temperatures of over 43°C. The deaths will continue over the next few days as surviving orphans from dead mothers will slowly die of dehydration.
Many colonies across South-East Qld have been severely affected including those at Camira, Mt. Ommaney, Pan Pacific Gardens, Regents Park, Boonah, Bellmere, Pine Rivers and Palmwoods. Reports indicate all Western Suburbs colonies and inland, and colonies from Gympie down to Yamanto have been devastated.
Deaths include Grey Headed Flying-foxes which are on the vulnerable to extinction species list and Black Flying-foxes. Flying-foxes are Australia’s only nocturnal, long-distance pollinator and seed disperser.
Volunteer rescuers have been overwhelmed with the mammoth task of collecting dead bodies and tending to survivors as part of their service to the community. Currently there are over 200 baby flying-foxes in care “We have never seen this type of heat event devastation before and the massive amount of casualties as a result. From the initial call onwards, the camps fell like dominos.” says Louise Saunders, President, BCRQ.
“A huge thank-you to all the dedicated volunteers who rallied to the call and worked so hard in the diabolical heat to save the bats that were still clinging to life”. Bat Conservation & Rescue Qld wish to thank the many residents adjacent to colonies who came to the carers and offered their assistance and support.
“Never try to perform your own rescue. For your safety and for the sake of flying-foxes, always call a wildlife rescue service,” BCRQ president Louise Saunders said.
“A frightened flying-fox is likely to bite or scratch, potentially exposing a well-meaning rescuer to Australian Bat Lyssavirus. Less than 0.5% of bats may have the virus, there is a safe vaccine to protect anyone who may be exposed. Anyone exposed to a scratch or bite must seek prompt medical attention. “That inevitably means vaccinations for anyone bitten or scratched, and death for the flying-fox because Queensland Health requires them to be euthanased for testing.
for the full text, see: http://bats.org.au/uploads/news-events/media/press-releases/Heatdisastermr6012014.pdf