Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Apocalypse Never

Photo by Esben Bog

I was delighted today to see that The New York Times ran my “Letter to the Editor” in both its print and web editions, in response to the excellent op-ed piece by Professor Denis Dutton “It’s Always the End of the World as We Know It” from January 1, 2010.

Much of my work has been about trying to reconcile Deep Ecology and fundamentalism. I grew up in a Southern Baptist tradition that portrays the earth as “skewed” and a temporary habitat – or as the hymn says “This World is Not My Home I’m Just A’Passin Through.” But because I was raised my early years in a pristine wilderness on a national forest lookout station on the High Sierra between California and Oregon, I was also blessed with the abundant living world as my spiritual tradition. And my father, who worked in the U.S. Forest Service, made sure we kids knew that the vast forests were to be respected as The Standing People; that the other animals were our “brothers and sisters under the skin” and that we were not to be in dominion over the Earth, but to be stewards of God’s creation.

So nature was never a place we visited as if we didn’t belong. It was not a park or well-kept yard. It was our habitat, wild, tender, and shared with fellow creatures. You might say that the forest got to me before the faithful or the True Believers who were always talking about paradise as a disembodied afterlife or heaven. As a novelist and nature writer, my life’s work has been in celebration of the living world – whether it’s gray whale birthing lagoons in Baja for the National Geographic Society book, Sightings or the ocean realms in my novel, Animal Heart.

Imagine then my dismay when I began to witness an unsettling echo of the religious EndTimers among my own environmentalist allies – what I came to think of as Apocalyptic Greens. Using fear and tragedy as a rallying cry, both camps issue their evangelical calls to their faithful followers. But this tragic vision – extinction or Rapture -- doesn’t serve us when we’re trying to find our way into a future.

This religious and environmental focus on tragedy and apocalypse pits man against nature – and both end with transcending through death. “I’ll leave it all behind,” as the hymn says. If we can embrace our lives and our natural world without our tragic projections, either environmental or religious, we open up a vast future for all species.

I am not saying that the way forward is through denial. Yes, we face global warming, yes, we are consuming our world at an alarming rate. But how about a little balance, some celebration, some new stories? And most of all, a sense of humor! Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? John Stewart and Stephen Colbert come close and bless them for it.

The great scholar and mystic Simone Weil once said that there are two ways to Truth: suffering and beauty. I’m choosing the beauty way, as indigenous peoples have always taught us. I’m choosing rapture here on earth and other teachers than terror. I’m choosing, as the wonderful poet W.S. Merwin wrote in “Place”:

On the last day of the world/I would want to plant a tree


  1. I was surprised to see that the Times published seven substantial letters in response to my op-ed. My vote for the most interesting and provocative of them all was yours!

    Many thanks,

    Denis Dutton

  2. Very well thought out. So glad your thoughts were shared!

  3. Thank you for this enlightened perspective that allows all of us to move from our polarized positions to finding common ground. I agree, I'm tired of the doomsday visions from those who believe we are on the brink of destruction---whether for religious beliefs or environmental reasons.

    I wonder what would happen if each of us went out and planted just one tree, and shared the experience with some one whose religious beliefs differed from our own.