Making Peace with Extinction

“What dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil.”

– William Shakespeare, Hamlet

First, it is essential that I reveal my source(s) of inspiration for this post, so you may pause and follow them, in turn. These thoughts were first sparked by the information revealed in the PBS Eons Youtube video “How Plants Caused the First Mass Extinction” though seeds were planted earlier. I’ve just finished teaching the unit on evolution to my seventh graders and, included in Darwin’s theory is the concept of extinction. We reviewed the major five mass extinction events of the Earth and briefly analyzed some data about the present moment.

Necessarily, it ended in a call to action. People, least of all pre-teens, don’t react well to being left with a message of doom and hopelessness. So the social scientists tell us. But I am also a lurker of the Deep Adaptation Movement–still not entirely convinced of their devotion to inevitability–and have wrestled with the notion that no matter our actions to follow, some level of mass extinction event is upon us. Perhaps not as bad as the Great Dying of 252 million years ago, and hopefully less dramatic than the Cretaceous extinction of 65 million years ago.

How do these thoughts cross-pollinate one another? The first mass extinction of planet Earth was caused by the flourishing of plant life, but this, in turn, was a step in the direction of where we are today. Without being forced to undergo such a catastrophic trial of death, Nature would not have selected for adaptations such as vascular tissues in plants and further complexification of other living things. The dying of billions of species and the ending of innumerable lives gave us the world we know of today. Will it not be the same after the Sixth Mass Extinction comes to pass?

It is entirely possible that human civilization will collapse before it manages to unleash its full arsenal of destruction on all life. It is possible we’ll survive, too, having already gone through dramatic events in our species’ 250,000+ year history. Humans are spread out throughout the world, more or less perfectly adapted to the climates and environments of today. Surely, they will change. No doubt local extinction events will mark landscapes with the scars of sentient suffering, much as it has marked the decline of great apes and whale species in the past.

I am interested in how to transmit this story in a way that achieves the ultimate goal of all storytelling: to restore a wider, more adaptive perspective for those who adopt it. In that hope, I make this humble offering:

An age ago, our ancestors covered the world with wonders none before them could have imagined. However, they also forgot their place in the Web of AllBeing that holds us all. They forgot how to be animal, and instead created machines that ran on the black blood of ancient ones, spewing invisible carbon into the air. The more comforts they possessed, the less moved they were by the plight of the suffering, unwilling to see the wounds this left upon themselves and society. They could not feel their own pain, their appetites so loudly demanding to be pleased. They knew no limits.

We know their limits, today, for they are the limits of AllBeing on this Earth. And Earth, though bountiful and gracious, is the Great Limiter Hirself. Praise be to the Earth!

When the time of reckoning came, our ancestors did not see the Fall that lay before them. They plunged into an abyss of untold suffering, delayed. For you see, no one suffers in their youth, at the height of power. Their fate crept upon them slowly, inching closer decade after decade, an inexorable tide. Desperate to ignore pain, to avoid the limits at all costs, they hardened their hearts and abandoned their own to suffer.

A cycle of despair consumed them, afterward. Violence reigned, for violence they know of. So often had they risen only to fall. It was easier to fulfill this pattern than to hew to wisdom and seek balance. In the end, when only some were spared, when they were no longer mighty rulers of the Earth, our ancestors stopped their futile struggle.

It was only then, when vain hope was fully extinguished, that they could see the seeds of a new tomorrow. Across the world, those with courage and wisdom in their hearts took hold of the future once more. Vistas of wild and untamed beauty spread before them, and they understood the complexity that was woven through it and through them. The marvels of Nature flourished again, once they removed the imperial heel of conquest. Our species returned to the Web of AllBeing, penitent, and over long centuries learned of a new role, wondrous and vast.

We are not the masters of the world, as we once believed, but the dutiful tenders of this Garden. Here we spend whole lifetimes to comprehend the inherent Mystery of each thing and how we might aid in its flourishing. Taking root in a specific biome, our people become as-one with the rhythms of the world around them. Above all, we are servants of the Web wherein all things thrive or die. For our efforts, we are allowed to remain within divine grace.

– A story of the future. I hope.

One thought on “Making Peace with Extinction

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