The Big Green Issue, Series 3 No.10

By David Constantine, Helen Constantine

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Genesis 1:28 is a bad start, for sure. That and the demonization of women – first Lilith, then Eve: altogether a very bad beginning. Dominion over the earth and misogyny, it is no accident that at the outset they get coupled up. Hard to recover from a start like that. Millennia trying to grow out of it, and still not clear. Of course we can’t just blame our religions – Rome was emptying Africa of its beasts, for the Circus, even without a Holy Book as premise – but among the uncivilized, among the primitive, there have been attitudes towards Mother Earth which, to put it mildly, would have done less damage. But Civilization arrived on their shores, pushed into their forests, spread over their plains, rose over their mountains, with weaponry, diseases and a quite peculiarly murderous cast of mind.

The harm we do the planet increases with our ability to do it. You can get a long way in the destruction of forests with fire and the axe, and our ancestors did. But thoroughly to poison the rivers and the seas and to clutter up space with toxic debris, only Progress can manage that. Know-how, cleverness, the inventions that are, in Oppenheimer’s phrase, ‘technically sweet’. He said, ‘When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you've had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.’ Perhaps we need some primitive taboos, things we would never do? For the planet, once thought to be big, turns out to be small. So ‘Trash, and move on!’ won’t answer any more. There’s nowhere to go. This is it, earth, our dominion. (Though bet your life there’s an elite somewhere, the real avant-garde, the Elect, the Righteous, even now preparing a Starship Free Enterprise, to lift off for pastures new, bide there a while, trash them, move on.)

Editing MPT, we never know what to expect. We may think we do, but come the contributions, come the surprises. That was certainly the case with ‘Palestine’. And some of the surprises are in the gaps: what we expected and didn’t get (hence, in ‘Palestine’, our Instead of an Editorial, to fill a gap). Striking in the postbag this time were the number of pieces, understood by their authors as ‘green’, which had to do not with saving any of our fellow creatures – cod, tiger, aquatic warbler – but with the unkindness of humankind towards its own immediate kith and kin. So a good deal in this ‘Big Green Issue’ treats injustice, the unfair distribution and use of land, hateful oppression. Peter Kropotkin, anarchist, revolutionist and natural scientist, appalled by the application of the Darwinian law of the survival of the fittest to human affairs, to the socio-economics of our living together, searched the animal kingdom for instances of survival by ‘mutual aid’. That was his way of answering back. He knew that without mutual aid we, as a race, cannot prosper. A century later we know that without mutual aid we will die. We will cause a mass extinction and be extinguished in it.

The harm we do one another is inextricably connected with the harm we do to the rest of the living planet. In the frequent wars of the Ancient Greeks there was a convention – doubtless not always observed – that you would not poison your enemy’s wells nor grub up his olive trees. The olive became a symbol of peace precisely because it needs many years growing in peace before it will crop. And without clean water we die. Consider then the policy – for it was a policy – to exterminate the Native Americans by exterminating the buffalo on which their lives depended. General Sheridan, asked should he not urge the white hunters to go easy (they killed three and a half million buffalo between 1872 and 1874), replied, ‘Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance.’ The Native Americans (who killed c.150,000 in the same two years) used almost all of the buffalo. The whites only wanted the skins. They left the rest lying, along with the Indian ponies which they also made a point of slaughtering. Civilization, pushing West, was very good news for the vultures. 

There is a passage, which at times has seemed very easy, from idly or deliberately wiping out another species to wiping out our brothers and sisters in humankind. Think of other humans as animals and do to them what you usually do to animals. The British arrivals in Tasmania hunted the natives to death. They organized hunting parties, wore the jackets, blew the horns, and hunted the Tasmanians into extinction. All that remains of the Ancient Prussians, exterminated in a crusade by the Most Christian Order of the Teutonic Knights, is place-names. And who knows what lore and languages were erased with their peoples in Amazonia? So, here, a poem about Buchenwald is ‘green’ in the sense that it shows what humans will do to other humans – in a place overlooking the humanist heartland of Germany, where there was a beech forest. The Camps, Oradour, villages in Vietnam and Palestine, battlefields and mass graves world wide, these are indelible marks we have made on the lovely face of the earth.

It is both encouraging and chastening to see how well the earth does when we, having done our worst, get out of the way. Involuntary parks spring up. There was a nice one along the Berlin Wall, on the western side at least. There’s another still in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Best of all though is Chernobyl. Such biodiversity now on the poisoned land! Earth recovers, Earth does better without us. From Nature’s point of view, we don’t matter. In time – infinitely spacious time – Earth will even recover from our final deed, another mass extinction, and homo sapiens, evolution’s unhappy error, will have been one little incident in a very brief passage. 

Only from our own point of view do we, as a species, matter. Nothing else cares whether we live or die. And really that ought to encourage us to participate in survival rather than in extinction. In one form or another life on earth will go on. Whether we are part of it or not, is up to us. Our famous technology will help – but only if our consciousness (awareness and conscience) changes first. We have to change our minds.

The earth is beautiful, wonderfully complex and beautiful in its interdependencies, its myriad ways of living together. For many centuries (a heartbeat in geological time) the arts have been a medium of its admiration. Nothing else we know of in the universe is equipped to love, admire and cherish the earth as humans can. We can love, pity, cherish, admire in a way that no other creature as yet thrown up by evolution can. So if we die out, if we exterminate ourselves, earth will survive, recover and continue lovelessly – a huge deficit, which itself will go unfelt. It’s a strange thought, an earth going on without love – unloved, and with no memory whatsoever of all the good and wise and beautiful things we did and all the love we felt.

David and Helen Constantine
August 2008

David Constantine

David Constantine

David Constantine was born in Salford in 1944. For thirty years he taught German at the Universities of Durham and Oxford. He...

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Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine

Helen Constantine read French and Latin at Oxford. She was Head of Languages at Bartholomew School, Eynsham, until 2000, when...

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Nothing else we know of in the universe is equipped to love, admire and cherish the earth as humans can. We can love, pity, cherish, admire in a way that no other creature as yet thrown up by evolution can. So if we die out, if we exterminate ourselves, earth will survive, recover and continue lovelessly – a huge deficit, which itself will go unfelt. David and Helen Constantine

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