34. Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis

by breavman99

learning to die

Honestly, I should be working on the final assignment for my Cree course today. And I’m not sure that Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, a sobering little book by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky, who are both poets and philosophers, belongs on my reading list. Perhaps by writing about it, I’ll come to some sort of decision about the connection between this book and my research. If nothing else, reading Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis is timely. After all, in the past couple of weeks, reports have been issued (or leaked) suggesting that global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2018, despite our half-hearted attempts at slowing them down, and that Canada itself is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, which is going to have devastating effects here. Meanwhile, our provincial premier addressed a rally of people protesting the one policy our federal government has come up with to address this catastrophe: the carbon tax. That tax, Premier Scott Moe told the crowd, will restrict the growth of our province and our economy. If only someone had explained to him that the only thing that lives in an expectation of limitless growth is cancer.

Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis consists of three essays: the first, by Robert Bringhurst, considers the fraught relation between our capitalist, technological civilization and what Bringhurst calls “the wild” (8); the second, by Jan Zwicky, turns to Plato to uncover the virtues we need to cultivate at a time when “[c]atastrophic global ecological collapse is on the horizon” (43); and the third, co-written by Bringhurst and Zwicky, attacks the work of professional optimist Stephen Pinker—especially his 2018 book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress—for playing fast and loose with the facts about the grave ecological situation that faces human civilization. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky take as given that the earth’s sixth great extinction event is likely to wipe us out as well—and, if our species, certainly our civilization. “If there are any human survivors of the next mass extinction,” Bringhurst writes, “their cultural slate will be wiped pretty clean. No one may have heard of Shakespeare or Bach, Picasso or Plato. No one may get the joke if a survivor digs up a fragment of a book and, as he rips it up for fuel, sees there beneath his dirty thumb the cheerful title Political Geoecology for the Anthropocene” (20-21). We are at an end, Bringhurst and Zwicky argue, and we need to face up to the situation we have created—not only for ourselves, but for every other species that calls this planet its home.

Bringhurst begins his essay, entitled “The Mind of the Wild,” with a comment Mark Twain made about Columbus’s landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492: “It was wonderful to find America, but it would have been more wonderful to miss it” (8). “Meditating on how good it might have been for European sailors not to discover America is one way of stepping a little outside ourselves and starting to learn to see things with precolonial eyes, and with nonhuman eyes—or, as David Abram would say, with more-than-human eyes,” Bringhurst writes (8). The people who lived in the Americas before the arrival of Europeans “knew a great deal about the wild because they lived in intimate contact with it all their lives,” he continues. “We have mountains of hard evidence that they studied it and respected it, and that it served as the foundation for their educational practices” (8). Their stories tell us that “they didn’t aspire to run the world or tame it,” that “they understood that the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). Compare that way of thinking to the one revealed in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, or at least the translated version that Columbus’s sailors would have carried, which promises, without irony, that humans can “subdue” and “have dominion over” every living thing on the planet (10). Perhaps, Bringhurst suggests, it was the speed at which the Europeans crossed the ocean that was the problem:

If the European colonists and traders had come here by meandering over a land bridge, or by paddling, over several generations, along a chain of islands, then their stories, dreams, and songs would have shifted step by step and had ample time to change. Instead, they came in fast little ships: carracks, caravels, and galleons. Like people who fly in airplanes today, they travelled too fast ever to get where they were going. So they stepped ashore and walked right by the wild. (11-12)

When those Europeans noticed the wild at all, “they routinely misconstrued it as a barrier and a challenge” (12).

What does Bringhurst mean by “the wild”? It is “everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control. It is what lives in the long term without being managed” (12). It is not “a portfolio of resources for us or our species to buy and sell or manage or squander as we please” (12). Rather, “[t]he wild is earth living its life to the full” (12). “The earth’s life is much larger than our own life,” he continues, “but our lives are part of it. If we take that life, we take our own” (12). But the wild is also inside of us, at least as a possibility: if we can see “how profoundly complete and self-sufficient, how intricate and beautiful” the wild is, “how little it can benefit and greatly it can suffer from human interference,” we will actually come to discover this place (13). And yet, 

We will never know the wild completely, because the wild is sufficient to itself—self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us. Yet because we are a part of it—and cannot, even in death, be disconnected from it completely—we always know a little bit about it, however tame or urbanized we are. The little we know is not nearly enough to recreate it if it goes—but in a sense that does not matter. When it goes, we will not be here to try. (13)

We depend on the wild. We need it, even though we typically don’t recognize that is the case. That lack of recognition feeds the rapid growth of our population and the “feverish building and trashing” that accompanies it (15). “Roughly fifty years ago, we as a species started using the planet’s accumulated resources faster than they are replenished,” Bringhurst writes, even though the wild always generates a surplus (15). “A billion more people per decade, each with machinery in tow, is more than the wild will bear,” he concludes (16).

Our planet has seen several mass extinctions. One, at the boundary between the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras, some 250 million years ago, wiped out more than 80% of all existing genera and species (17-18). Another, at the boundary between the Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras, 65 million years ago, killed three quarters of all existing plant and animal species, including the dinosaurs (18). “Depending on where you set the bar—at 50% or 30% extinction—there have been at least five, or at least nine such planetary holocausts or global mass extinctions in the last 600 million years,” Bringhurst writes (18). At least one of them was caused by cyanobacteria, which developed a form of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product, killing off the majority of species of bacteria on the planet, which could not tolerate oxygen (18-19). The mass extinction we have set in motion “by overbreeding, overbuilding, overexploiting, overhunting, overfishing, and by relentlessly overconsuming fossil fuel, can claim to be unique,” Bringhurst argues: it will be the first mass extinction “provoked by a single species”—homo sapiens.

From the perspective of geological time, Bringhurst suggests, this may not matter very much. Our sun will eventually run out of fuel, and as it does, it will consume the planets closest to it (25-26). And given the frequency of mass extinction events, it’s unlikely that humans would be able to continue to exist until that happens, some 500 million years from now (26-27). “Even if life were going to live forever—which it isn’t—all forms of life are mortal,” Bringhurst argues:

Few, if any, animal species have survived for half a billion years. No species of placental mammal has lived for more than a few million. So if we’re thinking about maximizing our future, on this all-too-mortal planet, circling that all-too-mortal star we call the sun, we should be thinking about our descendants, not ourselves as individuals nor ourselves as a species either. And those descendants are far more likely to be our species’ nieces and nephews, rather than our species’ daughters and sons. (29)

“In other words, if we want to polish our hopes for the future,” he concludes, “we should take a broader view: an avuncular rather than strictly grand-parental view” (29). 

Humans, Bringhurst argues, are “liminal creatures” who “live on the edge of the wild,” like “hive-building and nest-making and lodge-building and burrow-digging” creatures, and like lichen (because of their use of algae) and trees (because they “congregate in forests” (32). All of these creatures modify the wild, domesticate “some tiny part of it,” and therefore “contribute to its richness and complexity” (33). “The wild, you could say, is a big, self-integrating system whose edges are everywhere and whose centre is nowhere,” he writes, noting that humans have so many creatures living inside and on them “that their cells outnumber our own. Inside and out, we are dwarfed by the wild and reliant upon it” (33). If we live on the boundary of the wild, what is on the other side of that boundary? Nothing, Bringhurst replies. Death: “the lifeless world that was here before the wild came to be—and will be here still when the wild has vanished” (34).

“Because we are liminal creatures, we often get closer to the wild by pushing against it—brushing out a trail, for example, or catching and cleaning a trout, or killing and gutting a deer,” Bringhurst writes. But by pushing harder—by constructing a highway or running a salmon farm—we paradoxically find that we’ve pushed ourselves farther away (34). “We as an increasingly globalized culture have tried to turn the delicate and permeable membrane between us and the wild into a wall,” he continues (36). Now we are up against that wall, and “it’s more important than ever before that we learn to think like an ecosystem, not like a spoiled brat or a biological singularity” (36). Why? “One reason is, so we can go down singing, happy to know what we know, hopeful that the earth will go on living its life to the full as long as it can,” Bringhurst suggests. “The other reason is, so that we as individuals and small groups, with limited resources, can do what it is possible to do on the wild’s behalf—on being’s behalf—and thereby on ours” (37). Civil disobedience is one action we can take (37-38). But we can also side with older, more sustainable cultures against “the unsustainable mainstream, and with other species against our own” (38). He concludes by citing a Haida proverb that translates as “The ground might see me” (38). “It’s a moral and ethical benchmark,” he explains. A benchmark with eyes. . . . the basic moral reference is the ground beneath your feet” (38-39). Attending to that benchmark “won’t enable you to save the world, but you might just manage to save your self-respect. And that is something” (39).

In a way, Zwicky picks up where Bringhurst left off: with the kinds of moral virtues that are necessary for us at the end of our civilization. With catastrophic climate change beginning to transform our planet, and without coherent political action to stop it, and with our demand for fossil fuels increasing, we are going to go—and “take a lot of innocent beings with us” (43-45). Zwicky turns to Plato, or to Socrates, about whom Plato wrote, to discover what constitutes virtue in such circumstances. “The answer is surprisingly straightforward,” she writes: “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life” (45). 

The core Socratic virtues, Zwicky writes, are “knowing what’s what,” which means having an awareness of the world “coupled with humility regarding what one knows”; courage; self-control; justice; contemplative practice; and compassion (49). For Zwicky, “knowing what’s what,” or awareness, involves a “limpid recognition of mortality” (50). “It is to look at the world openly and to see it, and one’s own actions, and the actions of others, for what they are: gestures that vanish in the air like music,” she writes (50). “Being will be here,” she states, quoting one of Bringhurst’s poems. “Beauty will be here.” But we may not be (50-51). This recognition does not mean wallowing in despair, however. The natural world “is still, in many ways, very much alive,” and we need to remember that after other mass extinctions, “life has proliferated again” (51). 

Courage will be required to face what is coming—both physical courage and the moral courage “to continue to exercise the virtue of awareness” (54). “Humility—a deep unconcern for the social fate of the self—is the foundation of courage as well as wisdom: it frees one to see the truth,” she writes. And part of that wisdom involves another virtue: self-control. That is something contemporary humans—“consumers”—lack (55). Self-control “allows a joyous simplicity, a delight in living as lightly as possible on the earth” (55). “It is an embrace of simplicity,” a shift in our understanding of happiness (56). 

Another virtue we will need, according to Zwicky, is justice. For Plato, justice was one of the cardinal virtues, along with awareness, courage, and self-control. Those four virtues are “facets of an integrated whole” (57). Justice “is manifest in the whole soul or state, Plato argues, when each part submits willingly to the direction of the intellectual faculty or class,” Zwicky writes (57). It is interior harmony:

Justice as interior harmony effectively summarizes the internal relations we’ve already noticed among awareness, humility, courage, and self-control. Humility—getting the ego and its fears out of the way—gives one the courage to seek truth; it helps one discern where one must press further. Awareness makes self-control easy: it turns it from an onerous task into a series of self-reinforcing behaviours that allow one to feel at home. The resulting simplicity supports humility; awareness widens and courage builds. (59)

“If ‘justice’ seems the wrong name for this virtue,” she continues, “call it something else: nobility; integrity; shiningness. What produces it is the self-sustaining interdependence of awareness, humility, courage, and self-control” (59).

Compassion is also important—“compassion for those struggling to come to awareness,” that is (63). There is no point in feeling contempt for those whose fear prevents them from coming into awareness, she writes; such contempt is both graceless and damaging. It “intensifies anxiety, thereby intensifying denial” (63). I ought to feel compassion for the carbon-tax protestors and for our premier, then, instead of frustration and anger. That is a tall order. Perhaps the final virtue, contemplative practice, would help me be compassionate. For Zwicky, contemplative practice is an attention “to the real, physical world, its immense and intricate workings, its subtlety; it’s power, its harshness, and its enormous beauty” (64). It means attending to the “miracle” of the physical world, by slowing down so that we can sense its rhythms (64-65). It is also an attention “to the world’s extraordinary surprise: its refusal to quit, the weed flowering in tar, the way beauty and brokenness so often go together” (65). “The more we attend to the world, the less we find ourselves wishing to control it,” she continues. Instead, we find ourselves desiring to become a member of the community of the physical world (65). Along with the wonder we begin to feel comes respect and “a willingness to take intuitive forms of knowing seriously” (65). And contemplative practice can help us understand and acknowledge what we have destroyed, which “can free us into real and cleansing grief” (66).

We don’t possess those virtues, individually or collectively, of course. Why? For Plato, we misjudge the facts of the case. For instance, we incorrectly judge that the pleasure of immediate gratification outweighs the pain of the future suffering to which that immediate gratification will contribute. So we fly to Mexico for a holiday without thinking of the global warming that goes along with air travel (67). But ignorance isn’t our only failing. Even when we know what virtue is, that knowledge does not “seem to compel most of us, most of the time. This may simply be a brute fact about the species” (68). So people like me, citizens of the rich, technocratic nations on this planet, have been unwilling to “impose mindful constraints on our own consumption when the science came in decades ago” (68). “We knew, we knew well enough to be made uncomfortable by our knowledge, but we didn’t want to know” (69). We pretended the problem would just go away. “We see once again that there is no sharp distinction between awareness and justice conceived as integrity; it routinely takes courage and self-control—steadiness of vision in the face of fear or shock or disbelief—to admit what we know, just as it takes courage and humility to admit what we don’t know,” Zwicky writes (69). For virtues to be virtues, in other words, they must be practised together. “Becoming an excellent human being requires one to adopt a moral ecology,” and “[m]oral ecologies, like biological ones, are organic wholes, whose distinguishable aspects—the virtues—stand in internal relations to one another” (69-70). In other words, none of the Socratic virtues “can be acquired without acquiring the others” (70).

So, Zwicky asks, “[h]ow are we to die?” (70). With a sense of humour, she answers, with a “lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal of despair. Even in the face of death” (70-71). I don’t know, though. Why would we suddenly acquire and begin practicing these virtues as we die, if we haven’t acquired or practiced them during our lives? In our last moments as a species, or as a civilization, will we suddenly change our ways? I doubt it. 

Do these two essays—I’m skipping over their critique of Pinker’s optimism, his lack of awareness, and his inability to sympathize with people “who sense that a genuine connection to the natural world is fundamental to human flourishing” (90), because I haven’t read Pinker’s work and so cannot measure their response to it—connect to my research? I wasn’t sure before I began writing this summary, but now, I am convinced they do offer something. Perhaps, by walking, I can begin to become aware of the wild, in Bringhurst’s term, or “the real, physical world,” in Zwicky’s (64). At the same time, I will likely come to understand the degree to which the ecosystems through which I will walk have been damaged. Perhaps that walking could become a form of contemplative practice that could lead to “deep acknowledgement” and “cleansing grief” at what we have wrought (66). And no doubt my attempt at learning Cree will help me, even in a limited way, come to understand the notion that “the land has a mind of its own, that the wild is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination” (8-9). I don’t know. I feel a connection between my project and this book, and while I am aware of the need not to let my research sprawl out of control, at the same time I want to remain open to important connections and possibilities, and those are what this little book offers.

Work Cited

Bringhurst, Robert, and Jan Zwicky. Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. U of Regina P, 2018.