Years that Ask Questions, Years that Answer Them

In this year, we have learned beyond a doubt, what we never quite believed before — that we human beings are not in charge here.

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I WALK ALONE every morning, a couple of miles alongside the broad lawns and brick buildings on campus. I see no one, not a single person in a space designed for 30,000 people. All the students have been sent away, and professors are locked out of their offices. The empty spaces seem sad and uncertain, wary of the virus spreading this way.

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I walk first under the row of elms by the horticulture building, where flocks of evening grosbeaks have moved in, as they do each spring. Chittering and flitting, they shower me with elm seeds, green leafy discs the size of a dime, each with the kernel neatly nipped out. Then I cross the quad to the courtyard in front of the library — four floors of stored-up wisdom, and not a light on. But the granite slabs outside the door are engraved with wise and beautiful sentences, and every day I choose one randomly to stand on, the way other people might drop a finger onto a Bible verse to guide their day.

Today was Zora Neale Thurston. Here’s what she wrote:

There are years that ask questions, and years that answer them.

If there ever was a year that asked questions, this is it, I thought. Nobody knows what will happen next — who will live and who will die, who will eat and who will risk standing in line for an insufficient box of food, and will the economy ever recover, and how can a democracy survive, when the people are desperate and locked down? I walked on, wondering, under a row of magnolias in full bloom. The falling petals made me feel like a bride whose guests did not come to the wedding — that lonely, that confused. So many questions.

Finally, after decades of years that ask questions… finally, we know some things for sure.

But no, I thought suddenly. I’ve got the question-years and answer-years backward. Despite all the unknowns, this isn’t a year of questions. Finally, after decades of years that ask questions; finally, after centuries of questions — What is the world? What is the place of humans in the world? How then shall we live? — finally, we know some things for sure. Paradoxical, to find this new certainty in a time of complete uncertainty. It took civilization a long time to get here, and it took a virus with no brain to teach us, but now we have final evidence to reach conclusions in this wild, uncontrolled global experiment about the best way to live on Earth.

In this year, we have learned beyond a doubt, what we never quite believed before — that we human beings are not in charge here, not separate from Nature, superior, and exempt from the rules of cause and consequence. We are all part of one interacting system we call Nature, ruled by the same cycles of resilience and extinction that rule the songbirds and toads. Oh, we said we understood: Yes, we are animals. But secretly we believed we were the best of all the animals, and our clever technologies could master the slick trick of extracting infinite riches from a finite planet. But when a virus, this ancient unalive thing, sweeps around the world and thousands die, maybe millions, we have evidence that maybe we didn’t notice before, that Mother Nature does not love us best. Nature rules with an impartial discipline, and after centuries of getting this wrong, we are on the lip of irreversible repercussions. We have to learn, and learn fast, how to live humbly, gratefully, in community with the Earth ecosystem, and with a foresight worthy of those brains we brag about.

IN THIS YEAR of answers, we have learned that human beings, cultures, and economies can change with astonishing speed. Only a month-and-a-half has gone by, and nothing is the same. How long have we believed the fossil fuel ad-men when they told us that we can’t change, or won’t? Switching to new forms of energy to save the world would cost too much — maybe three trillion dollars! It would cost jobs! Americans won’t give up air travel, won’t stay home with their children, won’t eat local food, won’t stop consuming — and especially won’t sacrifice their own interests for the good of the whole, even for the future of the planet.

That is bullshit, and now we know it. And if we respond so dramatically to a threat that takes the elderly and leaves the young ones untouched, how much more radically can we respond to a threat like global warming that leaves the elderly and forever ruins the world for the young ones?

We find ourselves seeking, with a rare and new hunger, connection to one another and to healthy green places and singing birds.

For centuries, we have been urged to believe that human beings are naturally individualistic, selfish, competitive creatures who gain their greatest happiness by accumulating wealth at the expense of others. And so we allowed ourselves to be transmogrified into workers and consumers to meet the needs of a ruthless economy. But in this year of answers, we learn that H. sapiens is more complicated than that, and maybe better. We watch ourselves finding true happiness in helping, in sharing, in being part of a common good much larger than our own. We find ourselves seeking, with a rare and new hunger, connection to one another and to healthy green places and singing birds.

At the same time, this year shows us that our nation has not loved enough. Not the poor and fragile, not the threatened and endangered. We have systematically undermined the means of human and other animals to get food and shelter. We have poisoned their neighborhoods and meadows. We have allowed ourselves to think, what is it to me if they are hungry or cold or displaced from their homes? What is it to me if their habitat is bulldozed, their means of subsistence is destroyed, and their offspring die of hunger or despair? If extinction and misery are the price to be paid for our prosperity, how convenient that we can send the bill to animals and the poor. But then, weakened, they die, and we are astonished. We protest: We loved the butterflies. We loved the grosbeaks. We loved the wise elders with their rheumy eyes. Just not as much as we loved other things. That is disastrous failure to love — we know that now.

IT HAS BEEN a great and almost instant enlightenment to see what happens when our economy shuts down and the human heel lifts off the neck of the world. We are shocked by how many lives the coronavirus has taken. It’s equally shocking to learn how many more lives the virus saved, by forcing us to reduce pollution, habitat loss, garbage, and greenhouse gases — truly an epic plague. The very same behaviors that are flattening the curve of the coronavirus can flatten the climbing curves of global warming, species extinction, and ecosystem collapse.

The answers to questions asked by the years do not come out of thin air. It’s no surprise that the answers always seem to serve the ambitions of the era. We see now the consequences of believing the worldview that serves rampant extractive capitalism — the dangerous, perhaps fatal, diminishment of the world and of our expectations of ourselves.

But every once in a while, history provides us the chance to look straight at the consequences of those fundamental beliefs, to see how they fit or do not fit with our ideals of who we might become, we human beings. If the new ambition of this era is to find just and long-lasting ways to live on the grievously wounded and still generous planet, what shall we believe about who we really are and what we must do? This year has given us a chance to get the answer right.

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