There’s a little known essay by Sigmund Freud that details his walk through a garden with an unnamed poet and a philosopher (whom some suspect to be Rainer Maria Rilke and Friederich Nietzsche).
The scene is pastoral, a summertime flush of petal and leaf adorns their surroundings.
And it’s bumming the poet out.
He “felt no joy in it,” Freud wrote in his essay, On Transience. “He was disturbed by the thought that all this beauty was fated to extinction.”
The poet could not overcome his awareness that all that is will eventually be lost. That recognition opened up a chasm between his experience of the world and his ability to feel its delight.
“All that he would otherwise have loved and admired seemed to him to be shorn of its worth by the transience which was its doom.”
These words, written in 1915 during the crush of the First World War, speak presciently to the heart of last week’s news that earth’s species are spiralling out of existence at ever-escalating rates of extinction. This new scientific assessment caused an emotional shudder the world over.
How can we possibly begin to grasp the significance of this moment, the first great extinction event to be witnessed and caused by human hands?
What the hell do we do with that?
In his essay Freud makes an important observation that is as relevant for navigating the world today as it was when embroiled in the horrors of war a century ago: fully submitting to a thing’s impermanence doesn’t diminish its worth — it intensifies it.
“I did dispute the pessimistic poet’s view that the transience of what is beautiful involves any loss of its worth,” Freud writes. “On the contrary, an increase!”
Facing the impermanent world
In September, on assignment for The Narwhal, I followed directions to the base of a wide gated driveway in a heavily treed neighbourhood in rural Langley, B.C.
There, I met up with The Narwhal’s B.C. legislative reporter, Sarah Cox, and we were greeted by two young female scientists who escorted us onto a second property that lay a kilometre away, past three more secured gates.
We were making our way to the undisclosed location of the world’s only captive breeding facility for the critically endangered northern spotted owl. With just a handful of birds remaining in B.C.’s wild, drastic measures have been taken to prevent the creature’s full and final disappearance from Canada.
Incubation chambers, robotic eggs and meticulous documentation of owly romance are all a part of this very human endeavour of species preservation.
Strangely though, the other very human activity that has led to the species’ arrival on the brink — mainly habitat destruction through logging — continues unabated in spotted owl habitat in British Columbia.
There are more than 1,800 species at risk of extinction in B.C. alone, more than any other province or territory in the country. From the mountain crab-eye fungus, to salmon, to southern mountain caribou, to the killer whale — species great and small are in a death spiral.
While the scientific community has raised the alarm on many of these species, in some cases for decades, very few have received formal listing as at risk under Canada’s federal Species at Risk Act, legislation that only came into being in 2002. It’s a slow and painful and politicized process to have a species formally recognized as at risk.
Some won’t outlast the wait.
For those lucky, or maybe unlucky enough to be caught at the brink, action can be taken to rehabilitate populations in some cases. The spotted owl’s captive breeding program relies on pairs of owls, which mate for life, to bond and breed. This can take years of awkward courtship. The wait for note-taking scientists can be excruciating. But they continue on, with the hope of releasing laboratory-bred individuals back into B.C.’s forests one day.
There is no guarantee for the spotted owl. It’s a fundamental recognition that feeds into this program’s work: the spotted owl is impermanent. Its existence now holds no promise of existence in the future.
But that’s obvious, right? How could we think of a species in any other way?
The natural world just is
Except we didn’t always think this way. For the vast majority of human existence there’s been a fundamental assumption that the world is permanent.
The original Greek term for world and being was one and the same: physis. It was one fundamental term to describe what is, what exists. It was also the word for nature.
Embedded right into the language that informed so much of our thought in the Western world is this sense that the natural world just is. Human life and thought and activity is what takes place on this more fundamental base layer that’s just, you know, there.
This general sentiment — that the natural world is more or less an infinite and permanent strata for human goings on — is also what paved the way for what’s become modern-day capitalism with its perpetual growth fetish and apparent inability to contend with the planet’s finite resources.
Nearly a half-century’s worth of ecological thought has arisen in rebellion to this notion of nature’s immutable permanence. But it was the first images of earth seen from space, the pale blue dot, that finally crystalized a sense of earth’s finitude in the broader public imagination.
“Look again at that dot,” Carl Sagan famously wrote of the image. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives … There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
But our general coming to terms with the finitude of planet earth has been harder to accomplish than many thinkers in the last century were able to grasp.
A revolt against mourning
A part of this can be attributed to how deeply entrenched our structures and systems and worldviews have become since, pretty much, the Industrial Revolution.
It’s a dirty slate problem: with no clean slate available, we’re faced with the challenge of charting a new course from within the old. And that’s proven harder than we might have imagined.
But beyond the embeddedness of our fossil fuel reliance, deforestation, consumption and accumulation that underlies so much of our invisible everyday life in the western world, Freud points to a deeper, emotional resistance to the idea that this world may not be forever.
When faced with the impermanence of the things we love, Freud writes, our instinct is to respond in one of two ways: despondency or denial.
But by challenging us to face the world’s impermanence, Freud charts a path for a third way.
Back in the garden with his poet and philosopher friends, Freud is perplexed by their sadness in response to the beauty of their surroundings.
Sure, he thinks, “A time may indeed come when the pictures and statues we admire today may crumble to dust … or a geological epoch may even arrive when all animate life upon the earth ceases.”
But these inevitabilities don’t diminish the value of art or life, do they? So what could account for the despair of his companions?
“Some powerful emotional factor was at work which was disturbing their judgment,” Freud discovered. “What spoilt their enjoyment of beauty must have been a revolt in their minds against mourning.”
They were experiencing, Freud discovers at last, anticipatory mourning. The poet and philosopher were feeling despair at the loss of something — even before it was lost.
The idea of anticipatory mourning has become a touchstone concept in deciphering the complex feelings associated with ecological grief. Stress, fear, anxiety, alienation and solastalgia are common responses to the disfiguring and erosion of the world as we know it in the Anthropocene, or the ‘age of man.’
Scientists describe dramatic declines in biodiversity as one of nine critical breaches in the earth’s planetary boundaries alongside climate change, pollution, loss of freshwater and ocean acidification.
The world-as-we-know it is radically transforming. While the Holocene, the geologic epoch in which the entirety of human history has taken place, was characterized by its stability, the Anthropocene is a time of fundamental instability, unpredictability and change.
Even now as the world’s official bodies deliberate on what to call our new epoch — the Anthropocene? The Capitalocene? The Catastrophozoic era? — it’s becoming more clear that the gut instinct reactions of despondency and denial won’t get us far.
But just as the view of earth from space prompted a radical conceptual shift in our understanding of this planet, so too can our evolving understanding of extinction offer a radical renewal of our sense of what it means to be human in this shared world.
But in order for that to happen, we must overcome the resistance we mount to our own mourning.
Mourning is something of a riddle, Freud says. And yet it’s critical to understanding where and how we invest our love (our, ahem, libidinal energies).
Imagine for a moment, you’re watching your children play in the front yard. An errant ball makes its way to the street and your daughter runs after it. A car is coming her way. With your voice stuck in your throat you begin to cry out as the car swerves, only just sparing her life. In the moments and maybe days that follow you are highly attuned to your child’s impermanence, maybe your entire family’s impermanence. Maybe too, your own.
It is a nauseating moment of recognition. But that foretaste of loss allows you to see with raw clarity how truly mortal, fleeting life is.
It’s the acknowledgement of that mortality that allows you, for a moment in time, to properly regard your daughter for the transient creature she is. She is a garden in bloom.
To see her or that garden in any other way is to not see them at all.
The Extinction Report offers us a similar moment to hold the world’s riches in this proper regard.
In his essay, Freud writes that the war “showed us how ephemeral were many things that we had regarded as changeless.”
What becomes crucial is our ability to attune ourselves to the world in its ephemeral state.
For otherwise, have we really ever loved the world at all?