Living in Chicago, I see few creatures other than humans. Plenty of dogs walk their masters, and lurking window cats probably spy me leaving my building. I see a few rats and countless pigeons surviving on Chicagoans’ waste. Near the L down the street, a solitary bunny hops about, but none of them count as wildlife. In a city you begin to believe only humans matter. Little here isn’t from us, about us, and beneath us. We might as well occupy the planet alone.
We don’t, of course. If you watched Life After People on the History Channel or read The World Without Us, you know unpainted bridges rust, roads will grow grass, and tendrils pull even glass buildings down. Nature can reabsorb us, and, occasionally, I derive consolation from knowing human works aren’t permanent. Our effects have limits, so we needn’t take ourselves so seriously. We can’t destroy nature, only our ability to survive in it.
George Carlin used to laugh at overestimating our importance so stupidly. “When the planet is finished with us,” he sneered, “it will shake us off like so many fleas.” We may face the same options confronting every animal soiling its own nest—adapt or die.
Yet seeing human civilization in proper proportion doesn’t spare me worry. Like any organism, I’m hard-wired to desire survival, and, while I wish I could be as blissfully ignorant as some pundits, I know 2012 was the hottest year ever recorded in the US by far, that parts of the country are in the midst of year-long droughts, and that Chicago is on its 330-somethingth day without more than an inch of snow. Meanwhile, the other side of the globe freezes and freak storms rip spaces between. Account for climate figures as natural variations if you like, but, to do so successfully, you have to be the worst sort of groundhog, assuring your safety by never looking outside.
I worry that, despite knowing the causes for global climate change, we have no brakes powerful enough to stop them. What we call progress is mostly consumption, comfort, and carelessness. We express smiling optimism we will get ourselves together when we need to. We place faith in science. It will save us from our errors, we say, just wait and see.
Sometimes science seems to create new dilemmas as fast as new solutions, however. And, though we like to see our age as more enlightened because it’s no longer beholden to blind religiosity or foolish superstition, we’ve also lost much of our belief in anything bigger than ourselves. We’ve never been more self-absorbed. When did self-interest become the best standard for our choices? Is humanity—by nature—capable of sacrifice? Can we give up our own ease to ease a stranger? Do strangers, not being us, truly matter?
My culminating lecture when I studied non-fiction in MFA school was called “Going to Hell in a Hefty,” and it concerned jeremiads, specifically the perverse appeal of writing that embraces readers’ worst cynicism, doubt, and pessimism. Looking back, however, I never truly took jeremiads seriously and instead regarded them as an anthropologist might a fascinating culture on the frayed edge of civilization. I liked to think myself unflinching. I could hear the worst news without a hint of alarm, could greet a herald of a coming apocalypse with a hardy, “How interesting!”
I’m trying to take the same perspective now. In idle moments I think about the city greening and the prairie touching the lake. I picture how lovely the world may be again, without us. But, the truth is, I’m failing. I have children, and so an unaccountable ire rises—how, after all our glories, all the art and heroism and discovery and beauty, can such ignorance damn us?
Maybe nature never intended to make us supreme at all.