There’s a discussion that my wife, Beckie Kravetz, and I have periodically about the nature of our respective lines of work. Beckie is a figurative sculptor: She renders the human form in bronze and ceramic, and she’s also a theatrical artist. For years she was the resident mask-maker and a principal make-up artist at the Los Angeles Opera. If you attended in the 1990s and early 2000s and saw Plácido Domingo morph into Don José, Otello, Samson, Rasputin, and many others, that was her handiwork.
When the aforementioned discussion first arose, she was working on a production of Pagliacci directed by Franco Zeffirelli, whose lavish staging included sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, a live donkey, and a 300-pound transvestite. I was then a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, where my most recent piece was on the spraying of coca and opium plantations in Colombia. It became a messy assignment; there was gunfire from army helicopters, and at one point I took a face-full of glyphosate from a crop-duster. This aerial persecution of small-plot growers of ilícitos drove them and their hatchets deeper into the forests, so the plants being eradicated were mainly the irreplaceable kind. Previously, the magazine had sent me to Antarctica’s ozone hole, to vanishing wilds in Guatemala and Mexico, and around Europe and America to see if any examples of sustainability actually existed.
“Your work is so important,” Beckie said. “You’re trying to save the world, and what do I do? I paint divas and tenors.”
I replied that to see Domingo alchemized into vivid character, and to hear him gloriously evoke his persona’s humanity, was exactly the kind of thing I need to restore my spirit when it drains away in yet another missing ecosystem. “I would no sooner live in a world without art and music and poetry,” I told her, “than live on a planet without trees. What you artists do justifies the existence of our species. It’s what makes me still proud to be human.”
For most of my career, I’ve been covering what Bill McKibben once described as “the end of nature”: the sobering fact that there’s nothing left on the surface of this planet that doesn’t bear our mark, because the entire Earth is now bathed in air whose chemistry we’ve altered. This world is now a human artifact, redesigned by us. Even if we stopped expelling our wastes into the atmosphere tomorrow, that will be true for millennia. In our lifetime – and possibly in our species’ lifetime – there is no returning to a pristine state.
Our world is now indelibly our creation. The question is whether we’ll continue to maul it into something unsuitable for life as we’ve known it, or if we’ll shape it into something that, like our greatest sculpture and symphonies, reflects our finest expression and potential. Metaphorical as that may sound, that’s our real choice. However much we mourn Earth’s tragic losses at our own hands, no one reading this journal is ready to quit – or for our species to go extinct along with the others whose departures we’ve hastened.
So what do we do? I suggest we begin by thinking not only like aggrieved environmentalists, but also with the imagination of artists. I watch how my wife faces new challenges in her studio: Even as she muddles over solutions, trying to coax her subconscious to guide her hands, she’s readying materials and reaching for tools.
What tools do we have to craft something fine from the chaos we’ve wreaked, and from the life that remains?
For starters, we can muster all our collective political might into seeing that henceforth all decisions that scientists are best informed to make are in fact made by them. Let politicians make other decisions appropriate to their expertise (if you discover what that might be, do tell). Just as my wife turns to the bronze foundry to help realize her visions, ecologists, physicists, and climatologists form the tech support team that has been awaiting our call. In the past two years, I’ve been to more than 20 countries, and in exactly none of them were leaders placing that call. So we must insist until they do.
And then we imagine the world we want. Equal rights for every species. Equal opportunity for every human. Worldwide access to contraception for every woman, so that we might return to a reasonable relationship with the rest of nature.
And finally, the care and nurturing of our aesthetic selves. This is not a new notion, but one that got buried beneath all our glittering hardware. We’ve battered nature badly, yet much of it is still so beautiful. We’ve built monstrosities, yet much of what humans fashion is still so lovely to behold. There’s material here to work with, breathtaking amounts of information at our grasp, and passion still in our souls.
If we have no choice but to dwell in an Anthropocene, let us create our new world in the image that we would dream for ourselves.
Alan Weisman’s most recent book was The World Without Us. His next, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? will be published in September by Little, Brown and Company.
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