Earth ethics has to do with the ontological condition of interdependence and “symbiosis” (mutual flourishing) in the systems of life on Earth. Indeed, our planet is noteworthy for possessing geophysical conditions suitable for sustaining complex life forms and ecosystems. Moreover, some climate regimes in Earth history—such as the most recent millennia of the Holocene—have been characterized by large temperate zones and relatively stable climatic conditions.
Shane Gero has lowered a waterproof microphone overboard. We’ve been hoping to hear sperm whales, but through the headphones I hear—faintly—a humpback whale singing in the deep distance. Sperm whales are very fussy about who they will speak to, using code-talking clicks to identify their family members and determine which other families are in their social clan, and which others must be shunned. By contrast, the humpback is broadcasting his egalitarian canto to anyone, everyone, and to no one in particular.
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We are floating down the Tiputini River. My son sits in the front of the canoe, listening. He is fourteen. He turns his head slightly, lifting his ear to the concert pulsing around us. We are in Yasuni National Park, the most biodiverse corner of the Amazon. He listens a little more, then whistles a haunting, three-point song. He pauses, listens, waits, and then, out of the canopy, the whistle returns. My son is singing with a Panguana, an Undulated Tinamou. Their call and response last for over an hour.
The environmental movement, it might be said, was born in silence. In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson issued a dire warning about the silencing of nature through indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides that laid waste to birds and insects. Carson’s ominous title was inspired by the closing lines of John Keats’s ballad, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”: “the sedge is wither’d from the lake/And no birds sing.” In the book’s opening fable, Carson depicts a small bucolic town turned eerily quiet. In the farm fields and countryside, “there was a strange stillness,” Carson writes.
Many of us experienced a ripple in the fabric of chronological time during the calendar year of 2020. We (humans) may know (intuitively) that time is a relative thing and that chronological time is an imposition upon the ebb and flow of bodies in movement through space. For a young child, a day might seem like forever, and the anticipation a child has during the few weeks leading up to a holiday or birthday may make that time seem as long as the rest of the entire year.
The sun is rising and the sky is brazen blue. A dozen volunteers have shown up on this unseasonably cold October morning in southern Wisconsin. As a sharp wind blows from the northwest, we turn collars up, pull hoods over heads, and await late arrivals. We are standing next to a rusty chain-link fence at the entrance of what for six decades was a major U.S. military production facility, the Badger Army Ammunition Plant. Our modest group has come here today to help heal this Sacred Earth.
It is high summer in eastern Australia in January 2020. I have meteoranxiety. The red, orange, and yellow colors on the satellite weather screen indicate the intensity of precipitation. Yellow is moderate; red is heavy rain. I am being teased by the rain. Only the top of my head is wet, but the most savage drought I have experienced in my lifetime may be ending. All around, thunderstorms are delivering deluges, but some give nothing but dry lightning. A fire or a flood?
We started the Spring 2020 semester with two main goals for this iteration of “Ethics and the Environment”—an introductory survey that attracts diverse students from disparate majors across the university. First, our teaching team sought to further decolonize this class and the field of environmental ethics by interrogating seemingly basic concepts like “nature,” engaging with ethical thinkers not necessarily recognized within academic philosophy, and wrestling with Cornell’s implication in and complicity with settler colonialism, particularly as a land-grant institution.
I’ve been to many places
And traveled to many spaces
But of all my cases,
Your country’s are filled with the most disgrace
Cause in the US, even a virus will discriminate by race
“Conscious Covid” is spoken from the perspective of the coronavirus itself: mocking, critiquing, and advising humanity, and particularly pointing to America’s inability to contain and eradicate it. The message that the virus expresses to Americans is that the health of one is the health of all, and in order to stay healthy, we must demonstrate concern and care for the health of all people and life on this planet. I explore these ideas by drawing on concepts ranging from environmental racism to kinship and humanist environmentalism.
As pollution continues to fill the planet and temperatures increase, developing new technological tools and novel scientific research is no longer sufficient to combat climate change. Ceasing or reversing climate change must be centered around its ethical aspect. Environmental ethics embodies the relationship humans hold with the environment from a moral perspective. It allows us to develop the importance of the land’s relationship with the life it sustains.
Not everything is shared. Our home planet, our responsibility, and our humanity may be universal, but our burdens, our understanding, and our sense of shame are not. With this collage, titled Hey Ms. Green, I set out to represent an ethical dichotomy of authority and individualism in climate change. However, during the process everything blended, and the pages leaked into each other, spawning something much more massive than I had initially planned. Art is both interdisciplinary and messy in that way, just like science and philosophy; once one connection is made, the whole world becomes intertwined in an instant.
A seed planted in the soil that stretches far like a branch
Working as one, a collective, like the soldiers of an ant
In fruition does the side grow that is exposed to the sun
And it’s the other side of the tree, full of shade, feeling
that its growth is done
You know you are dreaming, but this place still feels important somehow. You move up the step. Sunlight streams through the black wire canopy that arcs overhead, the rays reflecting wildly off the orange pillars that hold the structure together. You move closer to one of the pillars and recognize that it is made out of medication bottles, like the ones that litter your bathroom from a year of taking antidepressants. The black wire spiraling around this pillar has split its plastic casing.
As we quickly approach an environmental threshold of irreversible consequences, climate change discussions are more prevalent than ever. Yet the marginalized people who are most often impacted by the detrimental effects of climate change remain vastly underrepresented. Through environmental ethics texts, we can deconstruct the intricate relationship between nature and humanity to understand our impact on Earth more thoroughly. In Through the Cracks, I demonstrate that climate change and climate justice are intricately interconnected; I suggest that climate change and climate justice can be better understood by examining Indigenous perspectives and critiquing modern consumerist society.
It’s easy when I’m running to get lost among the sound
Legs pumping, breath huffing
Feet rhythmically pound the ground
The United States of America’s reaction to COVID-19 demonstrates that we as a nation were not only unprepared for a crisis of this nature and scale, but we also prioritize the health and wellness of certain groups of people above others. The systemic racism built into the very roots of our nation has grown and blossomed into a society that idolizes the rich, famous, and powerful while demonizing the poor and powerless, a group that (not coincidentally) encompasses a large portion of the racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities in the United States.
My painting, As We Take, depicts how the current system of capitalism is inherently unjust as it causes disproportionate environmental impacts on communities and populations resulting from disparities in race and socioeconomic status. The elements of the painting represent the burden of consumerism put on marginalized communities, while wealthier and more privileged populations reap the benefits through profit and consumption. These two communities are represented through the hands painted near the bottom and the top of the painting. The skin color of these hands call to mind the racial disparities brought about from a system built on capitalism.
Carbon emissions are drastically lower due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Why? Because sheltering in place has limited some people’s ability to consume and travel, proving that human consumption has the greatest impact on climate change. Americans have been brainwashed by the belief that consumption is necessary, which has blinded them to the injustices climate change has imposed upon marginalized groups. This collage, Nightmare in Paradise, shows three pieces of the puzzle: the behavior that promotes climate change; who is unjustly impacted by this behavior; and how this behavior can be corrected.
Shortly into the COVID-19 physical distancing, a red-shouldered hawk began visiting my yard. Perhaps the hawk had been there before, but more abnormally, I was there to observe. As I sat and struggled with my new course for the fall, “Climate Change, the Environment, and the Future of Public Health,” I realized I couldn’t not struggle. I was grasping at the details of content. Could I cover enough content? Would sixteen weeks be enough for introducing students to the complexities of climate change and the intersections of human health and the environment?
Central to nature is the art of adaptation. The plant prefers not to be eaten, so it produces toxic secondary metabolites. The insect, in turn, prefers to eat the plant, evolving mechanisms to modify those toxins. There seems to be an infinite variety of ways that life can meet the challenges of living, the permutations of which are observed both macroscopically and microscopically, empirically and theoretically, by tracing the fossil record or by surveying our modern landscape.
Which of us hasn’t received a link to an animal video and at least once succumbed to the temptation of clicking through to watch it? The channels of our smart technologies flood us with animal imagery: opinionated cockatoos, orphaned vervet monkeys, otters bobbing in the water with their arms linked together, a rat lugging a slice of pizza down subway steps, and household animals from around the world in every variety of play, sleep, and exploration, so much so that compilations of cat and dog activity are available under categories like funniest, cutest, awesome, and scary.
Ecologically speaking, “erosion” has double significance: it conjures human degradation, especially of soil that underpins our food and natural systems; and, on a broader time scale, it evokes the collective work of winds, water, and the Earth’s moving surface that sculpts the planet’s varied settings and regulates its chemistry.
The week I spent reading religious studies scholar Mark I. Wallace’s When God was a Bird was a week graced by the presence of birds. Early on, I noticed the first warblers of the spring making their stop in Vancouver on their annual hemispheric pilgrimage. One afternoon, I took a break from reading and went for a hike to the high knoll lookout at Minnekhada Regional Park in Coquitlam, British Columbia. On the way back, I crossed a large beaver pond scattered with pairs of mallards and what I think were ring-necked ducks.
When I mention to people that I work on dragonflies and damselflies (Insecta: Odonata), they invariably share with me their own personal experiences with odonates: vivid recollections of odonates landing on their arms when fishing, memories of dragonflies perching nearby following a significant personal trauma, and fond reflections of childhood summers filled with damselflies. As one travels, the stories one hears of dragonflies and damselflies may vary, but the general fascination with odonates that people express seems universal.
The morning I sat down to write this review my phone rang. An old friend was on the other end. “They found a malignant-appearing mass in my colonoscopy yesterday,” she told me. “It’s ten centimeters. I need some information.”
Zelazny’s trees eat the sun. The Eyed Walnut Grove shown here is a painting of black walnut trees baking in July heat near Danvers, Illinois. That heat made humans fly into the shade, but the walnuts feasted on the radiation. Typical autotrophs; self-feeders: sun, water, carbon dioxide, and dirt. If only our lives were so simple.
“Life is fragile,” my friend, a doctor, reminds me when I ask about his experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. Later that day, his words return as I read Taiyon J. Coleman’s poetry. Early in the pandemic, Coleman began crafting a poem a day as part of Tupelo Press’s 30/30 Project. The seven poems presented in this issue of Minding Nature are drawn from this project and from what became the manuscript “Communication with the Dead”: a collection of poems written in the voices of people who died this year from COVID-19.
“Everybody can’t sing the solo,” my choir director shouts
and that was just fine with me. There was something about
the song that sounded just right when I was alone, but when
I sang it in front of others, all the words sounded staccato.
The year I was
signed the 1957
Civil Rights Act.
When we could both wear the same seventies outfits
for babies, people always asked my parents if we were
twins. My father carried my sister, and my mother carried
me on their trip to the used car lot in Skokie, Illinois,
My momma never learned how to swim
“so, if you don’t come back with my kids
you better not bother coming back at all,”
she shouted at Brother as his truck pulled
When they told me they found you unconscious
on the kitchen floor, I dropped to my knees. Alone
raising five kids, you were the strongest person I
knew, so my body knew that something was wrong.
“That thang sure is ugly,” Cheryl said,
so you know it was only the love that made
them compromise to put the blue swivel
recliner in their bedroom.
“You’re not college material,”
my high school counselor said
and lucky for me at seventeen,
self-defense was my default stance.
On the Cover: Mary Lou Zelazny, The BlackEyed Tree 2, 2017 (acrylic collage and oil on canvas 48”x 56”)