The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Heretics and Fools


Note; although the conversation described here is based loosely on a real event, names and identifying details have been changed.

My friend Larry was loaded for bear that night, and I never did find out why. He’d gone looking for someplace he could be contrarian, and he turned up at our table. We were discussing the role of human communities in conservation, but in Larry’s view, all our talk of empowering tribal peoples to take care of ecosystems sounded dangerously naive. It’s not that Larry has any objection to social justice, he’d just seen too much human stupidity to believe that empowered people would always do the right thing.

He may have had a point.

We had asserted our commitment to both ecology and social justice, but where would our loyalties lie if forced to choose between humans and nature? Were we prepared to use force to protect the planet if we had to, even against some already abused minority? Or did the right of self-determination extend to people determined to destroy the last refuge of some endangered plant or beast? And if we said no to both questions, did we have some rationale for such a feel-good non-choice other than mere squeamishness? There were some hard questions we were not asking ourselves. Every group of like-minded idealists needs a contrarian.

But Larry pushed his point too far. As I said, he was loaded for bear that night, but no bears showed up. So Larry just started getting angrier and angrier, never raising his voice, but still lashing out at anyone who tried to disagree with him, until he finally lashed out at the whole human race. My friend Larry is not a bad guy. Far from it; he’s a kind and sweet man who loves what he loves very deeply. But something had gone very wrong for him that night, some frustration had reached flashpoint, and Larry had no answers, easy or otherwise.

“There are days,” he said, grabbing a paper napkin and carefully folding it and folding it again, “there are days when if I had a button, and if I pushed that button I could wipe out the entire human race and just let Nature go back to doing its thing without us, I would push it. I would kill every one of us, even myself, even my little girls.” You don’t need to know Larry very well to notice how much his girls mean to him. His heart rises and sets with their small heads. But Larry had folded his napkin into a very small square, a button-sized square, and he brought his fist down on his little napkin-button with thunderous finality into the stunned silence that had once been a friendly conversation.

I have never asked Larry what had been going on for him that night. I couldn’t tell whether he knew how frightening, how out of character, his terrible darkness had seemed. He did not seem to want to talk about it, and I wasn’t about to push him. Instead, I later joked that an intelligent, well-educated man such as himself could probably find the means to wreak such species-wide havoc, if he really wanted to.

“You mean, Osama bin Larry?” he asked, taking a bite of his pizza. His face was inscrutable.

Of course, Larry would never hurt anyone deliberately. He’s a good guy. And yet, where did that pizza come from? Where did the clothes he was wearing come from? Just like the rest of us, he buys the better part of his daily bread through an economic system that is destroying the planet.

“The Fool Button” is the title of a Jimmy Buffet song that got stuck in my head that night Larry joined our discussion. “Push it! Push it! Push it!” the singer chants, daring his audience to go ahead and do the unreasonable thing, the thing with consequences, the thing that can’t be taken back. Buffet meant getting drunk and stupid, of course, but the phrase works as well, maybe better, in another context. Now, Larry is not a fool. He is indeed an intelligent, very well-educated person. He is therefore aware that the environmental movement, far from being alarmist, has, if anything, down-played the degree of disaster we face. There are no easy answers, and there might not be any hard answers anymore, either. Sometimes, an extravagant foolishness is the only option left.

Push it, push it, push it!

The willingness to take leave of sane constraint can free heroes and it can also free terrorists. The Fool Button is not evil as a fantasy, nor are the people who harbor it exactly caught in despair. People who truly despair make hay while the sun shines. Instead, the Fool Button is the mark of a last, desperate faith, a faith that the world is worth caring about, even if we don’t always know what to do to help. The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. It’s the shadow of the most dire of dire predictions about global warming, peak oil, human overpopulation… some of these predictions may well come true, but that’s not the point. The point is that these predictions sound apocalyptic because they are apocalyptic.

Though couched in secular, or even pagan terms, it is the same underlying narrative as the Christian prophesies of Apocalypse, and it is wishful thinking. No matter whether the central sin is taken to be moral, ecological, or technological, there is the same underlying assumption–

–that something is wrong with human nature

—that something was lost with the garden of our innocence.

–that our brokenness is not reparable but will soon catch fire and consume itself, and in the calm after that terrible storm the world will be made new.

How is this not the End of Days? And—be honest—who does not, in the quiet place behind the worry and concern, imagine themselves, with friends and family, making it past the tribulations to the New Earth? Who does not imagine being one of the Chosen?

Larry doesn’t. At least when Larry considers the Fool Button, he has no illusions about saving himself or his loved ones. He knows that sinners love their daughters, too. He knows there is no Chosen, only those who make choices.

The Fool Button is the dirty little secret of environmentalism. The dirty big secret is that the Fool Button is not a secular heresy; it’s orthodoxy. It’s nothing less than the logical extension of the paradigm that creates and maintains the National Park System. Consider that parks, and other refuges under other jurisdictions, seek to protect nature by keeping people out (with the exception of the carefully managed visits of tourists). We protect these little pockets, the best, the most critical, the last places. In these precious refuges at least, we assume, nature can proceed unimpeded. The implication is that nature is what happens when humans don’t interfere–but then it follows that when humans get involved, nature is necessarily destroyed, as silence is destroyed by sound. This puts us in a serious fix, for while it may be possible for humans to live sustainably, it’s not possible for us to live without having any influence. We’re large, active mammals. No sane scientist would expect us to be ecologically invisible. We incontrovertibly need this planet, and in having it we must change it. If anthropogenic change is inherently destructive, then a well-educated human being who so loves the world can only give his life—or hate himself.

Orthodoxy isn’t bad, and in presenting my friend on a bad night as its exemplar I don’t want to give the wrong impression, of orthodoxy or of him. Orthodoxy was originally a religious concept, and my sister, as a Catholic, would remind us that religious orthodoxy is the product of an ongoing lineage of extremely intelligent people all thinking very carefully together about very important questions. Orthodoxy is only the insistence that newcomers to the conversation not ignore what has already been said. Orthodoxy is a rule against continually reinventing the wheel, and if its champions object to heresy it may be simply that they would rather get on with inventing the rest of the cart.

I am not interested in continually reinventing the wheel. I am not interested in creating a new, schismatic orthodoxy where contrarians are not welcome. I am interested in getting on with building the cart, and I am interested in hard questions. But I suggest that if the logical extension of the dominant paradigm is suicide, then there is something not quite right with that paradigm. I, too, have daydreamed about the Fool Button, that’s why I recognized Larry’s version of it as kindred to my own thoughts. I would never actually hurt anyone on purpose, either, but I have bad days. Mine is a desperate faith, too.

And it is faith, the faith of a heretic, that tells me there must be another way, that the existence of the Fool Button, even if never pressed, is a warning sign that some important point has been missed. I pick up the trail of that missing piece with a question; how could human beings, who are the product of the biosphere, actually be outside of the biosphere’s processes? How could we come to be the only large mammal with no ecological role, the only species that would not be somehow missed if we went extinct? I find no answer. Is it therefore possible that we are not outside of nature, that nature actually needs us for something?

Is it possible that we don’t need more and bigger parks so much as we need a new and all-encompassing garden?


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

3 thoughts on “Heretics and Fools

  1. I believe it was Sir Richard Attenborough who described humanity as the scourge of the planet. Things that worked when our species consisted of numerous small bands of about 150 hunter-gatherers don’t work when there are 7 billion of us and we have industrialised. But fundamental human nature hasn’t changed. A pity, because there can be only one outcome on the current path.

    • Yeah, I don’t deny that we’re collectively causing serious harm, but the problem isn’t that we are human–the problem is that there are too many of us and we live in harmful ways.Actually, even small bands of hunter-gatherers can cause disaster–there is reason to believe that humans caused the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions. But there are also places where human activity created and maintained important habitat. I believe humans do have a positive role to play on this planet, and that we are neglecting that role.

      • I agree. There is a lot of good we could do, as a species, if we put our minds to it. We don’t as a rule, alas. Ii think there’s no question about human involvement in the Pliestocene extinctions. The last of them played out in New Zealand which was first reached by humans around 1280. The evidence is that the local fauna – moa especially – succumbed within 150 years.

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