Toward Meaning: Who are “we” anyway? (Part IV)

This is part IV in a series of posts that come from thinking on how we often use the word “we.” In particular, it came from many readings of Derrick Jensen’s essay “Beyond Hope” in Orion Magazine and wondering, “Who are we? How do we find meaning?” Read Part I, Part II and Part III.

IV. Who are “we” anyway?

What some people now call the Anthropocene – the age of humans – might come to an end in its vast industrial form. David Orr wrote that the crises we face come from the confluences of our social traps, economics bent on unlimited economic growth, the will to dominate nature one way or another, an evolutionary wrong turn, or some flaw in that thing called human nature. And those things have come together and continue to come together in ways that are making the parasite’s host respond. Gaia, as James Lovelock calls our terrestrial home, is making life much harder for us.
But I don’t know if that means that we’re fucked. And neither do you. Neither does Jensen. No one knows. Middle world us just cannot know that.

And who are “we” anyway? Environmentalists? The poor? Americans? The industrial north? Literate people?

On top of all that? Where? When?

What does it mean to be fucked? Extinct? Homo economicus has precipitated the sixth extinction. As many of us doom smiths sing out in gravelly tones, the extinction background rate is 1,000 times the normal according to gaggles of biologists, ecologists, and wildlife and conservation organizations. If going extinct is a category of “fucked,” then some subset of humans has really fucked a lot of other species right out. Predictions being what they are, there a bunch more some subset of humans will take down too. Great apes might be on the chopping block with other large mammals – polar bears, walrus, a few tiger species, cetaceans – and then there are bleaching coral reefs, toxified waters poisoning amphibians, and birds who can’t lay eggs in Alberta because the tar sands are being turned into a collage of toxic sludge, machinery, pits, and roads. We might not call that fucking actually, but murder.

No one knows that every species will go extinct. Open up the we from anthropocentric to ecocentric and it’s hard to believe that there will be no life on this planet. Don’t get me wrong; I can fetishize the doomy sci-fi metal song scenarios I wrote about above. But if massive asteroids didn’t extinguish all life at the Permian or Cretaceous, I remain skeptical that industrial humans will either.

Our senses, expanded by science, show us that we are in a perilous place—the sixth extinction. Our ethics of care or justice could help us by expanding the circle to include more of nature. It is time to grant rivers, forests, estuaries, prairies, and deserts have moral and legal standing. It is far past time to grant future generations of people such a place. In law there is precedent. Maybe we need antecedent. We need a new sense of we.

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