Earth Day 2022: Poetry and Prose Reflection
fauna, humble to grand.
No one protests.
flora, barren to lush.
No one questions.
rock, brittle to strong.
No one travels.
water, droplets to waves.
No one drinks.
air, thin to dense.
No one breathes.
We cannot hunt
We cannot farm
We cannot travel
We cannot drink
We cannot breathe
We shall endure
you stumble upon
bereft of trees
you starve beside
bereft of fish
you suffocate under
bereft of atmosphere
you explode beneath
bereft of mercy,
They are you
They are me
As I did for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I wanted a prose and poetry reflection for Earth Day 2022. In the spirit of Emperor Nero demanding attention and applause for his own musical recitations, I am analyzing my above poem. Unlike the unfortunate Romans subjected to the mercurial Nero’s whims (if the gossipy Roman historian Suetonius is to be believed) you can simply stop reading and I’ll be none the wiser :p.
In my lexicon, sapience refers to sapient beings. There’s much confusion between sentience and sapience, to the point the terms are incorrectly treated as interchangeable. Merriam-Webster defines sapience as wisdom or sagacity.
“A sentient being has consciousness, the capacity for sensation, and a subjective experience. Many animals can be described as sentient, although it’s hard to know for sure what’s going on inside a fish’s head. Sapience, on the other hand, is marked by a higher level of cognition and intelligence. Human beings are sapient creatures.
Science fiction plots often explore the possibility of sapience in other life forms. For example, the film Planet of the Apes shows a world in which gorillas, orangutans and chimpanzees are self-aware. The book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov includes a number of short stories about artificial intelligence. In a review of the collection published in The Guardian, reviewer Jiyon writes, ‘In all the short stories, you will begin to notice that the robots become more advanced and increasingly independent….’ This work of fiction provides an example of man-made sapience.
Some people confuse the word sentience with the word sapience, but there’s a simple trick to remember the difference. Homo sapiens, also known as humans, are sapient beings. We possess wisdom and self-awareness beyond animal sentience.”
Ms. Johnson goes on to note overlap exists between sentience and sapience, so we cannot be absolutely sure that dolphins are sentient rather than sapient. Nevertheless, the terms allow us to categorize beings based on a gradience of existence.
As far as we know, human beings are the sole sapient species on this planet. Therefore, sapience in my poem is a synonym for homo sapiens.
My use of sapience can both be respectful and sarcastic.
Because of centuries of agricultural, cultural, organizational and technological developments, which allow me to write this post and bring it to an audience cities, states and countries far away without a physical medium such as a scroll or book, humans have demonstrated their wisdom and sagacity.
Because of humanity’s relentless conquest to consume everything in service to it, regardless of how consumption could affect them, we have demonstrated folly masquerading as wisdom. As Sigmund Freud and other psychologists have theorized by looking into history and mythology, humans possess a ‘death drive’ towards themselves and society. We have embraced death and destruction many times, especially in how we treat those different from us.
“First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out- because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out- because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me- and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Long has the idea of ‘the other’ existed- this group- whether at the tribal, clan or national level- is not like me so therefore they aren’t human. We denied sapient creatures sapience and the privileges associated with this state of being.
Although we have come a long way, much work remains for all sapient creatures to receive fair and equal treatment, to possess the same fundamental privileges across cultural, linguistic, political and religious borders.
Although this battle is not yet won, we must embark on another- treating the environment as an extension of ourselves- tying our sapience to the cradle from which it sprung.
Due to how humanity treats our environment and harvests its resources, we are fast moving to our partial or complete annihilation. Possibly because of Dr. Freud’s ‘death drive.’
The environment has come to encompass a large part of my musings these past few years. I was always a relatively eco-friendly individual, at least by suburban United States standards- recycling, reducing waste, carpooling when possible- in my youth but I have become an environmental advocate as an adult.
I commenced thinking about the environment and humanity’s impact on it in greater detail when I took “Environment and Politics” in May 2014, my last college semester. For the first time, I used an economic footprint calculator and had to write a reaction:
“My general life choices are not sustainable, regardless of a few anomalies. For everyone (worldwide population) to live like me, 4.27 earths are required. Before taking this quiz, I knew that I was not 100% environmentally friendly, but I never imagined it was this bad….I take some solace in the fact that I am below the U.S. average. However, seeing as that number is 6.35, this is a hollow victory. It is mind boggling to think how unsustainable my country and I are, despite whatever initial positives I saw. Our consumption is out of control and requires drastic changes, not piecemeal solutions.
Overall, this survey convinces me true change must be brought about from an alarmist or scolding point of view. I contend Americans, including myself, are used to our wasteful lifestyles. Without dramatic individuals to draw us away from our comforts, people have no incentive to alter their behavior. Alarmists can motivate average citizens to take this test and empirically see the results of their actions. Our consumption is simply unbelievable and requires realizing some unpleasant truths. The alarmists help us see these realities by telling us what we need to hear. Dismissing alarmists is a mistake that will further obscure our problems. Our current standard of living is completely unsustainable, which necessitates some drastic rhetoric.”
Eight years later, I did my best to find the same calculator. According to my results, it would take four Earths for the worldwide population to live at my level of consumption and my overshoot day is April 2nd. (if everyone lived like me, all of renewable resources would be consumed by this date)
Eight years later, I mostly agree with my collegiate analysis. Americans and the developed world need to be woken up out of their complacency, though I’m unsure if ‘alarmism’ is exactly the correct approach. I recall a study in which respondents were shown the results of their pollution in landfills, and they almost immediately altered their behavior because it was no longer possible to hide from it.
Most fair-minded individuals would concede Earth cannot support 8 or more billion human beings at a developed world state of living, which my poem attempts to express.
Let us return to Pastor Niemöller’s quotation and substitute natural phenomenon (rock, water, air) for the societal groups (socialists, trade unionists, Jews), along with some other tweaks:
“First they came for fauna, and I did not speak out- because I am not fauna.
Then they came for flora, and I did not speak out- because I am not flora.
Then they came for rock and I did not speak out- because I could not travel.
Then they came for water and I did not speak out- because I could not eat.
Then they came for air and I did not speak out- because I could not breathe.
Then nature came for me- but there was nothing left.”
As awful and unforgivable as the Holocaust and similar manifestations of destruction or death were, are and will be, some or most of humanity remains to evaluate, ponder and vow “never again” in its aftermath.
An environmental genocide is all together distinct. There will be no humanity remaining to pick up the pieces.
On Earth Day and all throughout the year, let us make a new vow:
“When they come for fauna, I will speak out- because I am fauna.
When they come for flora, I will speak out- because I am flora.
When they come for rock, I will speak out- because I can travel.
When they come for water, I will speak out- because I can drink.
When they come for air, I will speak out- because I can breathe.
Then nature won’t come for me- because we are one and the same.”