Part 1: Mutual Aid and Human Nature
Early this week, a man who stopped at the booth spoke to me eagerly and passionately about the rescue of blueback herring in RI, with which he’s been involved for several years. “There’s this dam that they can’t get over,” he told me, “and we scoop them out and bring them up above the dam so they can get into the 10 Mile River and the spawning grounds above that. The Omega Pond dam is over a hundred years old, and they still come back every year to spawn, during the month of April — toward the end of March, the beginning of April, we start looking out for them. I work two jobs, and I still make time to do this. One guy’s been doing it for 40 years.” Another man had come up to the booth while the first was talking to me, and he said something like, “It weeds out the weak ones”* –which, considering that humans actually lift the fish up over the falls in laundry baskets, seemed like a loose statement–and began to make some kind of analogy to the people he saw around him in Kennedy Plaza.
“Or,” I said when I could, “you could look at it like, the herring get to survive because another species helps them.”
“But who’s gonna help us?” he said. And I said, realizing it as I said it, “We’re already being helped. The trees help us breathe, the water helps control our temperatures, plants and animals help us eat, birds help us not get totally destroyed by insects.”
I hastened to add that I didn’t mean I thought they were doing it on purpose, or for us. It would be easy for this perception to go down an 18th/19th-century Christian road of humans as the pinnacle and purpose of creation, when the reality I’m describing is the opposite: we are wholly interdependent, wholly dwelling in ecologies, even ecologies we’ve disrupted. A dirty, messy house is still a house. And the most Ayn Randian, Rand Paulian, rugged individualist is wholly dependent in a thousand ways on the respiration cycles of trees, on the reproductive organs of plants, on the muscle tissue of animals, on the filtration systems of water and soil.
Later this week, another person used the phrase, “Only the strong will survive,” and though she qualified it later as adaptive strength in general rather than physical strength or endurance, that’s an interpretation of Darwinism that seems everpresent in the DNA of American thought. In some senses, of course, it’s true: in dangerous and destructive circumstances, physical strength and endurance and determination will help you survive; ferocity may well be of use; fragility or rigidity may be your downfall. This is the narrative of the zombie apocalypse and the doomsday prepper. But–just like humans ourselves–it’s part of the story, not the whole. Thinking and behaving assistively, mutually, interdependently, is also a strength.
When other creatures and chemical processes go about their ordinary occasions, it reaches us as care–accidentally, contingently, but necessarily. We will die without it. It’s necessary, and it’s right, to actively return the help we have been given. In the most emotional, infantile, touchy-feely terms, it’s also okay. “You need a special permit to even touch them,” said the blueback herring man. “It’s illegal to catch them, to possess them, to sell them. But we’re allowed to touch them to save them.”
Part 2: Language and Action
People often give me a thumbs-up in passing. What does it mean? I’m worried too? I want more people to be worried? I’m glad you’re talking about it so I don’t have to? I have to assume these thumbs-uppers are thumbs-upping the word “climate” and what they think it means, plus my presence here at all, but they don’t stop and ask. Someone who gave me a thumbs-up last week passes me a second time, exchanges greetings and keeps walking fast. What are you afraid I’ll take away from you? Time? How little do you think you have?
“You’re very much not alone,” said another person at the end of a long conversation, meaning that I wasn’t alone in my fear and my grief. Judging by the conversations I’ve been having at the booth, that’s true. As I’ve described above, it’s true in a larger sense, too.
Another question I’ve been asking a lot this week is: Who else do you talk to about this? Many of the people who talk to me, both at the booth and away from it, envision themselves as alone, as isolated, in their fear and grief and in their desire to shift or slow the advance of a grim future, of partial or total extinction. That’s one face of the “What can one person do?” question that keeps popping up, sarcastically or seriously. I wrote it at the top of a page of notes. “Q: What can one person do?” And then I wrote, “A: Be more than one person.” I don’t know what that means yet, but I hope to devote Week 4 to finding out.
*Perhaps ironically, I’ve found that it’s very difficult for me to record accurately when two people are talking at once, which happens a lot.
Money raised to date for the Environmental Justice League of RI: $60.07
Rhode Island sites for which people have expressed concern, either in conversation or on the map:
Sea level rise and pollutants in Greenwich and Narragansett Bays
Litter and garbage in Dexter Park