The Success of Our Species

Still thinking about Earth Day.

I read an interesting blog post – and an interesting comment there about how humans cooperating with one another is the key to the success of our species.

I’ve been thinking. What is the measure of success here? That we’ve overpopulated the earth? Overwhelmed other species? Poisoned our own homes? Occasionally wiped out huge swathes of our fellow humans in the name of “good”?

And what is the time frame here? Will we be as successful as the horseshoe crab? The jellyfish? It longevity a criteria? Is it to literally be the last man standing when we’ve eviscerated the earth entirely to make plastic toys? When the world is quiet but for our own voices?

It’s overwhelming to contemplate. We’re too close, too small and too temporary to take it all in with any sense of context and proportion. I actually had a better sense of this as child, when I wondered where the trash went, what happens when the dead are all buried in their pretty, sealed coffins and there’s no more land. At one point I stopped wondering.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think children are wise. I do think they ask the questions we learn to choose to ignore in order to get along: to cooperate. Maybe that is the arc of wisdom – the innocent questions, the learned norms, then questioning those norms once all the ducks are in a row and you have the freedom to do so? Wisdom could be circling back to the questions with the experience to understand how they fit/don’t fit with cultural stories and a culture’s silence?

Most of us adults are not wise either. And most of us don’t have the privilege to think too hard about these things, and stay functional.

I saw a video once about a woman whose trash from one year barely filled single mason jar. She had a lot of good ideas for cutting down on waste, but (forgive me), I am wondering where she gets packages of toilet paper that isn’t wrapped in plastic?

Most of my waste from a year is from food packaging (and with the exception of curry pastes, I don’t eat processed foods). She shops at stores where it is possible to bring your own packaging. I know of two stores in my region that have produce I can buy and put in my own bags. But I would have to drive the car a half an hour each way to shop there. I don’t know how to do the math to figure out which is better for the planet.

I wonder about the energy involved in the server she is storing that video on. About the server storing this – and all my other online activities – that are basically about: See me. Let me in. Community – cooperation.

Environmentalist’s Overwhelm is a thing for sure. When a kid tugs at our hand with a question, the answer is: “Oh, it’s complicated. Let’s go get an ice cream.” I know when I start to question, I often have a glass of wine and watch a soap to distract myself from the guilt. And hopelessness.

About a decade ago I did learn what happens when the cemeteries fill up. I was living a couple of blocks from a nice one in downtown Stavanger. There is a small fenced in area with the graves of the British fighter pilots who died in a crash here during WWII. I don’t know their names.

There are some old graves with big monuments that beg for rubbings. But one afternoon I stumbled on a backhoe and a pile of broken headstones. I checked the dates and they were from the 70s and 80s.

I don’t have extended family, so these kinds of details of normal life are mysteries to me. I didn’t know (E. has since told me) that families have to pay to keep the site after a certain number of years. His father died in the 80s and already the family pays a yearly rent on the space.

We go a couple of times a year to his father’s grave and leave candles. On Christmas we take a couple of dozen candles and light up the all the dark graves in that section of the cemetery. I love graveyards. I see the graves as proof of human empathy. We will all die despite our efforts for immortality, so I think we comfort ourselves for our loss and for our own “I remember them, and someone will remember me”. We do this for each other and for ourselves. We do it for loved ones and for strangers. But even the greatest mausoleums crumble in anonymity. The graveyards in London and Paris are filled with huge monuments that are anonymous now. But someone cared. Someone bothered. Once upon a time.

When I had my tattoo done on my back (tattoos are forever – but that’s another story), we had long inking sessions and long talks. The artist told me about his friend whose job it was to drive that backhoe in the cemetery. About how his friend described sometimes lifting up a rib cage caught in the prongs of the machine.

I know there is research about how when too many people come together empathy is lost. I am not at all sure how this all works in the real world. There is that philosophical/ethical question – in real events not as a thought experiment: when you must choose do you save famous works of art or “insignificant” people.

I’m listening to the blackbirds outside the window. The sparrows, too. Sometimes I do think there’ll come a day when we won’t hear birds.

When there are no more fireflies in the fields of Kentucky.

What is significant?

a magpie quivers
on the sidewalk concrete
feathers blood and breath
what to do with a crushed bird?
a dime a dozen among cats

8 Replies to “The Success of Our Species”

  1. Oh, Ren, I love the way you think and articulate those thoughts into words that make me think as well. Thats the way its supposed to be, I think. Inspiring others to listen and perhaps change the way we perceive our world, ways better than before.
    Thank you!

      1. It’s difficult to have confidence with such an expansive topic but you do it well.

        There is a tacit understanding that the unspoken rules of convenience allow us to desecrate graves if they contain pottery and bones from 40,000 years ago. 40,000 years from now people will build on our graves but sanctimoniously say prayers on their own and built forbidden zones around theirs. They will study those “primitive” creatures and their left-over computer chips and wonder what was the meaning or those sculptures they called a “mouse.” In the microcosm, our immune system hunts for rogue cells that have multiplied too much (cancer) and kill them because they threaten the society of cells and the supervisor brain. But sometimes mistakes are made. In the macrocosm we hunt for rogue individuals who threaten the multi-brained creature of the society of Earth. However, the billion-lobed brain has difficulty communicating information between its billion-faceted left and right hemispheres of the ubber-brain, the hemispheres of Art and of Cognition, of Spacial and of logic skills. And who would be a proper supervisor, and who are the hunters and the cancers? Who are the mediators between the conscious and subconscious aspects of the symbols of art and of math? It is all a simple matter if we are biochemical machines without a soul. If not, there is a problem of purpose. And the answer is… oops, I think the phone is ringing. I have to go now and solve Fermat’s last theorem or my last best obfuscation et. al..

  2. I wonder if there are other species who were so biologically “successful” in proliferation that they damned themselves into obliteration by overrunning and toxifying their own environment. Or are we the pathbreakers there? The confounding thing about the species is our gifts at art AND war, music AND torture, kindness AND assholery. We exhaust me.

    1. This has happened many times over millions of years. When chloroplasts evolved in microorganisms to use the sun’s energy and then full blown advanced plants with photosynthesis evolved, the Earth’s atmosphere was poisoned with the “toxin” Oxygen. Many creatures were killed by oxygen or went in to hiding in oxygen-free niches. It was their descendants who poisoned them. And then there has been many predator-prey balances, some of which went out of balance. If a predator kills all of its prey, it starves to death, and if the prey multiply too much, they eat all the vegetation and they starve to death. But there is the story of the “squirrels and the acorns”. For many years the Oak tree produces few acorns and the squirrel population stays low. Once in a while there is a “surprise” year when the tree produces an abundance of acorns and the squirrels eat as much as they can but are unable to eat all of them. So more oaks trees grow. The following year the tree produces few acorns and many of the overpopulated squirrels starve. … Many plants and bacteria produce “toxins”. So there is nothing unique in history about the production of “toxins”. Our toxins are part of another predator cycle but etc., and perhaps like the bacteria, our evolved future selves will poison our then ancestors. And the Sun is an insufficient source of energy…

  3. The things we see come from human intellect, that’s what makes the world go around. If we weren’t investigating, recording, and philosophizing about it time would not exist, whether it be our time or universal time. That said, I love your stuff. Keep writing and observing the world around us.

  4. “Wisdom could be circling back to the questions with the experience to understand how they fit/don’t fit with cultural stories and a culture’s silence” –Yes, that. At least in part.

    Your observations about the cemeteries–in the USA we have supposed “perpetual care” cemeteries but they are businesses…and when they go out of business? Mt. Moriah in Philadelphia was famous in the 1870s but is a wilderness of invasive weeds and a tossing-place for old tires now.

    In Paris in the 1600s, headstones were repurposed as paving stones for the roads. Yeah, what goes around comes around, but not always according to human expectations.


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