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Listening to Heart-Speech

By Margy Stewart
Opinion | October 28, 2014

Sometimes our hearts tell us things.

When we lived in town we had a neighbor who would put her hand up to the right side of her face, like a blinder, whenever she left her house. One day I asked her why. She pointed to the new buildings in the ravine at the end of our street. "Those houses--I can't bear to see them," she said. "My children used to play there. It was all woods. We had picnics--"

Her voice broke, and she didn't finish her sentence.

But her meaning was clear:

We bond with landscape just as we do with people, and the breaking of those bonds hurts just as much.

But growth is the one thing our modern capitalist society cannot do without. When housing-starts fall off, the economy is in trouble. When people stop buying consumer items, the economy is in trouble. Expansion, constant expansion, is what we need. Therefore, we are trained to suppress stabs of grief such as my neighbor felt. "Well, that's progress," we are supposed to say, resignedly, when a highway, shopping mall, or subdivision replaces the greenspace we had loved.

But our hearts keep talking.

Enter writers, whose job it is to hear heart-speech and then express it through their own creations.

One such writer was Doris Lessing, Nobel-prize-winning novelist and essayist, recently deceased. Through realistic prose and fantasy novels, she articulated the cost of "progress." "Every day there are more people everywhere in the world in mourning for trees, forest, bush, rivers, animals, lost landscapes," she wrote.

Another such writer is Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht. Through surveys of inhabitants of new mining regions, he discovered that many people were privately grieving for natural features which the new mines had destroyed. Believing we need new vocabulary to talk about such feelings, Albrecht coined the term "solastalgia." Formed from the Latin "solacium," for comfort, and the Greek "algia," for pain, the word depicts the pain people feel when they can no longer derive comfort from their environment.

Why do we need a new word? Our culture already has a term for landscape-bonding--NIMBYism. But that term has bad connotations. Not-in-My-Backyard-ism suggests selfish opposition to beneficial development, a willingness to put local preferences ahead of society as a whole.

Well, what else are people going to bond with on a daily basis if not some part of nature that's close by? If love of "backyard" nature is seen as selfish, nature-bonding itself will be discredited. Locals will suffer in silence, resigning themselves to "progress" for the greater good.

But what if the presumption is wrong?

What if the constant expansion of human infrastructure is not beneficial to human beings?

Short-term, the question seems ludicrous. Who would give up our modern world? What would we do without interstates, antibiotics, air-conditioning?

But looking at the long-term (and leaving aside the blatant mal-distribution of the benefits of current technology), the question becomes more disturbing.

One area is especially worrisome: We are "feeding the world"--and its ever-burgeoning population--with an industrialized agriculture based on fossil fuels and the chemicals derived from fossil fuels.

What will happen when fossil fuels are gone--or even when they become prohibitively expensive?

Short-term--not gonna happen. Long-term--how can it help but happen?

Some say if our agriculture collapses, we can go back to hunting and gathering. But we would need an array of species for that, and we just happen to be losing species at an unprecedented rate. Somewhere between 49 and 383 species of plants and animals are going extinct every day.

We are living in the midst of a mass extinction.

There have been 5 mass extinctions in the history of the earth, all of them before humans evolved so none of them our fault.

But now we are living through the "Sixth Extinction." In her just-published book of that name, New Yorker science writer Elizabeth Kolbert notes that extinction has always been a part of nature. In normal times the background extinction rate is low--one mammal species, for instance, every 700 years. But today there are 1375 mammal species on the verge of vanishing, all at the same time. Amphibian species are also disappearing faster than usual-- at an astounding 45,000 times the background rate. Extinctions in other classes of plants and animals are likewise spiking. The proximate causes are multiple, according to Kolbert, but worldwide they can be traced back to one ultimate cause--the ever-expanding footprint of "one weedy species"--in other words, us.

Does the absence of our fellow creatures mean that we humans will go into the future in lonely splendor, rulers everywhere, the whole earth our palace? We should be so lucky. Kolbert thinks it likelier that we will lose pathogen control, pollination services, soil fertility --the entire biological context we ourselves need to survive.

"It's hard to believe that a technologically advanced civilization would engineer its own self-destruction, but that's what's happening," she writes.

Pain, they say, is a survival tool--an alarm that draws attention to wounds before they kill us.

Is it possible that the pain my neighbor felt and that Lessing and Albrecht described is a survival tool--an alarm?

Maybe we should listen more to heart-speech.

It may be long-term wise.

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