Our Great Reckoning
Eileen Crist On The Consequences Of Human Plunder
BY LEATH TONINO • DECEMBER 2020
Eileen Crist knows more than a person should, more than seems healthy, about dying birds and dying watersheds. She’s keenly aware of the global crisis of biodiversity loss and ecological collapse, and she sees what’s driving it: direct causes like climate change and what she calls the “ultimate causes” — population growth, overconsumption, and technological power. But the thing that really interests Crist, the thing that she’s been studying and publicizing for the past three decades as a professor and radical environmental thinker, is an even deeper question: Why is so little being done to address this planetary emergency?
She attempts, with a mix of intellectual rigor and lyrical passion, to provide an answer in her 2019 book, Abundant Earth: Toward an Ecological Civilization. The cause of our inaction, she says, is “human supremacy,” a largely unconscious belief that Homo sapiens are the masters of creation rather than just one humble species among millions. This worldview sanctions not only factory farming, clear-cut logging, mountaintop-removal mining, and bottom-trawl fishing, but also more commonplace behaviors such as cruising along in cars that slaughter wildlife and emit carbon dioxide. As long as human supremacy prevails, Crist writes, “humanity will remain unable to muster the will to scale down and pull back the burgeoning human enterprise that is unraveling Earth’s biological wealth.”
Crist is a synthesizer of statistics and ideas. (The bibliography for Abundant Earth cites sources ranging from philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler to the United Nations Environment Programme.) She holds a PhD in sociology from Boston University and recently took an early retirement, at the age of fifty-nine, from twenty-two years of teaching in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech. Since the publication of her first book, Images of Animals: Anthropomorphism and Animal Mind, in 1999, she has coedited a number of anthologies on topics ranging from overpopulation to wildlife conservation to the holism of the Earth. Her writing has appeared in Science, BioScience, Environmental Humanities, and Environmental Ethics, and she helps edit the online journal The Ecological Citizen.
I’ve been aware of Crist’s writing for quite some time, but it wasn’t until I’d read, and then reread, Abundant Earth that I felt compelled to request an interview. Due to the pandemic, our conversation had to be conducted via phone. Crist resides in Charlottesville, Virginia, with her husband, who is president of an international Tibetan Buddhist organization, and their two dogs. At the start of the conversation I asked for a description of her surroundings. Crist said she was on the basement floor, looking out at the garden on a rainy, overcast day. I pictured a ground-level window that put her eye to eye with the grass and the flowers and the vegetables, not above them.
Tonino: What are we talking about when we refer to the “global ecological crisis”? What’s actually happening on this planet — to this planet — right now?
Crist: What’s happening is the collapse of the web of life: biological diversity, wildlife populations, wild ecologies. We’re in the midst of a mass-extinction event. It’s called the “sixth extinction,” because there have been five others in the last 540 million years. Mass extinctions are extremely rare. They’re monumental setbacks, not normal events. It takes 5 to 10 million years for life to recover from one. Species would be vanishing approximately one thousand times slower without the human impact. They’re going extinct primarily because the environment is changing so rapidly, so catastrophically, that they can’t adapt. If we keep going as we’re going, we will likely lose 50 percent or more of the planet’s species in this century.
So that’s huge, but there’s more — or, rather, more is happening en route to that bleak future. We’re also seeing the loss of entire ecosystems and biomes, such as coral reefs and grasslands. Freshwater systems and tropical forests are being hit hard. Biological phenomena are disappearing — for instance, migrations. And in addition to outright extinction, there are wholesale eliminations of local populations of plants and animals. The killing of wildlife is so profound that scientists have coined the term defaunation to capture it. We’re emptying out the planet. Big or small, herbivores or carnivores, marine or freshwater or terrestrial — it’s happening across the board.
Tonino: The environmental ethicist Holmes Rolston describes human-driven extinction as “superkilling,” saying it kills “essences,” not just “existences.” How do you interpret that?
Crist: Rolston is spot-on to call it a superkilling. There’s a sad and facile view circulating that extinction is natural, so what does it matter if it’s human-caused? What this ignores is that the vast majority of species becoming extinct are robust, meaning they’re well adapted to their surroundings. These are healthy species experiencing overwhelming pressure from the human onslaught. And they’re usually experiencing pressure from more than one driver. Eighty percent of the species looked at in one study were found to be under pressure from multiple directions: pollution, nonnative species, poaching, climate change, and so on.
When we drive a species to extinction, we’re prematurely taking out of existence a unique, amazing manifestation of life that has never existed before and will never arise again, and we’re extinguishing all possibilities of its evolution into new forms. “Superkilling” is a good way to put it. Killing an individual is one thing, but killing a species — let alone 50 percent of the species on the planet — is something else entirely. It’s murder that reverberates farther than we can see or imagine.
Tonino: You mentioned multiple drivers, but let’s talk about just one for now: What role does agriculture play in all this?
Crist: Agriculture is huge. Much of the damage it inflicts is through habitat destruction and fragmentation: something like 40 percent of Earth’s ice-free land is given over to agriculture. Farming isn’t inherently wrong or evil, but large-scale industrial agriculture drives populations of native species off the land. That’s the way it’s practiced: a kind of takeover, an invasion. It also kills species that are perceived as a threat — for example, carnivores. Another aspect is that agriculture claims about 70 percent of the fresh water that humans use. And it’s a fierce polluter. With its artificial nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides and everything else, it’s arguably the greatest polluter of air, land, fresh water, and estuaries. It’s responsible for a substantial portion of greenhouse-gas emissions, too. So agriculture, and the food system overall, is a significant factor in climate change.
Tonino: Climate change is often portrayed as the environmental problem — like, if we could wave a magic wand and fix the climate, everything else would sort itself out. What are your thoughts on that?
Crist: Climate change is massively destructive, and the situation couldn’t be more urgent. It will bring, and has already brought, a lot of suffering to both humans and nonhumans, and it’s feeding into ecosystem collapse because the changes are occurring so swiftly.
But the reason climate change has penetrated public awareness is because an overheated planet directly threatens humanity and civilization. Mass extinction, the unraveling of the web of life, isn’t seen as so grave, because it isn’t viewed as an existential threat to us. It’s happening to them: the insects, the fish, the frogs, the birds. Putting aside the fact that these animals have inherent worth, we are making the typical mistake of thinking that humans are somehow separate from, and not dependent upon, the Earth’s natural systems.
Another thing to notice is that there are some potential technological solutions to climate change, and our society loves technological fixes. Many people feel we could get a handle on this monstrous thing if only we shifted our approach to how we produce and use energy. Mass extinction, on the other hand, doesn’t have a technological silver bullet. If we want to address mass extinction, we have to find a different way of life. We have to scrutinize human expansionism: the endless expansion of our numbers, our consumption, our infrastructure, our use of the lands and seas. But that’s a tall order. So talk about mass extinction is muted.
Viewing climate change as the root problem is dangerous because, even if we do manage to address it, there’s no guarantee we won’t continue to run down the planet.
Tonino: So you see human expansionism as the root problem?
Crist: There are two sides of the coin. One is what we’ve been discussing: the collapse of life’s diversity at all levels, from biomes and ecosystems, down through species and subspecies, and finally to genes. There’s so much reporting, so many articles about specific threats — imperiled mangroves, amphibians, migrating birds, and so on — but rarely is the whole picture conveyed. These are all one story with a single overarching theme: devastating loss. It’s important for us to know where we’re headed, to know the predicament life is in — not lives, but life itself.
The other side of the coin has to do with expansionism — the colonization of everything, the humanization of the planet. We’re turning the planet into a human monoculture. Of course, no monoculture is literally homogeneous. What we’re seeing is a population of 7.8 billion Homo sapiens, along with the billions of livestock and cultivated plants that feed us; some token wild species that are kept in restricted spaces and whose numbers are tightly managed; and some species that can parasitize our way of life. And the human monoculture continually replaces landscapes with constructed environments. All told, it’s a crisis of domination.
Tonino: Back in the 1940s Aldo Leopold, the pioneering ecologist and conservationist, said we should change the role of Homo sapiens “from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.”
Crist: That passage is one of the most frequently quoted of Leopold’s, and rightly so, because it captures the horns of the dilemma: we can dominate the planet as if it were human-owned, or we can participate in life’s beauty, in the wider world — which doesn’t mean we stop manipulating or impacting, only that we do so with care and a respect for limits. Actually it’s not a matter of can but of must. Leopold wrote that so many years ago, and here we are, still wrestling with this issue.
The most important thing to expose and dissect is human supremacy. It often gets referred to by the gentler term anthropocentrism. I view it as a widely shared, unconscious worldview that tells us we are superior to the rest of nature and thus entitled to treat nonhumans and their habitats however we please. Human specialness, human aboveness, and the sanctity of the human prerogative — those are key elements, along with our seizing the power of life and death over nonhumans and our aggressive control of all geographical space.
I don’t think human supremacy is an explicit ideology, though it can take that form. Mostly it operates as a kind of background assumption about what humans are, what the rest of the world is, and what the relationship between the two should be. It’s a worldview that isn’t looked at directly but nonetheless shapes our attitudes and governs our actions.
Take factory farms, which are on the rise globally. In these spaces animals are treated with abysmal cruelty and indifference. Treating sentient beings as though they have no inherent experience, feeling, or interest — how can something so extreme occur without the mandate of human supremacy? Another example is converting entire biomes to human use. A poster case is grasslands: 98 percent of the tallgrass prairie here in the United States has been converted to farmland to grow mostly corn, wheat, and soy. What gives us the right to take over and destroy an entire biome? It’s one thing to cultivate a piece of prairie and grow some food. It’s very different to seize, repurpose, and essentially destroy the whole thing. But, you know, that’s taken as normal, because it’s perfectly acceptable from a human-supremacist point of view.
Another example: some 97 percent of the world’s oceans are legally open to fishing. Industrial fishing strips them of their life and has the gall to call fish and their habitats “fish stock” and “fisheries,” as if they were human property — an outrageous example of our sense of entitlement. Again, it’s an absurd level of appropriation that passes for normal, or at least inevitable.
We could go on down the line with examples: mountaintop removal, killing contests of animals such as coyotes and sharks, poisoning the world with [the herbicide] glyphosate. The bottom line is that this huge gamut of attitudes and actions and institutions is what makes human supremacy a worldview, albeit one that isn’t fully conscious. For me, there’s a good bit of hope in that last part: If it is made fully conscious, it will be seen in a different light. Its normality will be disrupted. We can become revolted by it. And revolt is linked with revolution.
What gives us the right to take over and destroy an entire biome? It’s one thing to cultivate a piece of prairie and grow some food. It’s very different to seize, repurpose, and essentially destroy the whole thing.
Tonino: You’re linking human supremacy with agriculture. What’s the cause-and-effect relationship there?
Crist: When humans settled and devoted themselves to the domestication of animals and plants, more and more wild nature was converted into cultivated nature, into engineered nature. Wild animals were now seen as adversaries, competitors in the field or predators of the flocks.
Over time human beings became almost exclusively focused on human affairs. This intensified with the building of walls around human settlements and increasing urbanization.
With agriculture human populations started to grow, and soils became depleted. This put pressure on societies to expand their search for food. Around the same time, hierarchy and social stratification were becoming entrenched. Some classes of people acquired more wealth and power than others, and more control over land. Others worked the fields or in crafts.
So, on the one hand, there was population growth and soil degradation. On the other hand, there was greed for power and wealth among the elites. These two things colluded, and armies came into existence. The history of civilization is the history of war. War, or the threat of it, became the chief instrument for acquiring land, slaves, loot, and tribute.
The separation of humans from the wild, our antagonism toward wild animals, and our growing power over domestic plants and animals all started to foster a human sense of pride, of being in command, of being superior. By the time the classical era rolled around, philosophy and political theory were asking, “How are humans different from animals?” Through this inquiry, which was kept up over many centuries, humans elevated themselves to a distinguished level of being: the only entity with reason, language, culture, ethics, or what have you, all of which animals supposedly lack.
So human supremacy was established in this twofold manner: geographical takeover on the one hand, and disparagement of the nonhuman world on the other. The nonhuman world became regarded as devoid of inherent meaning. It became dispensable, forgettable, and killable.
And this continues. For example, nation-states and companies are gearing up to start the commercial mining of the deep sea for gold, copper, cobalt, rare earths, and other minerals. The deep sea is one of the last places on Earth that is relatively undisturbed by human activity, but the occupation machine spares nothing; it has no sense of restraint.
Tonino: As you’ve become more aware of supremacist thinking in the world at large, you must also be grappling with it at the personal level. Do you recall any specific moments when you were shocked to see a form of supremacy inside yourself?
Crist: I’ve never told this story to anyone, but when I was eleven years old, I killed a crab. The crab was hiding in some rocks, back in a crevice, and I reached in with a knife and stabbed it between the eyes. I remember the crab looking at me, trying to make itself small. I remember its eyes, and I remember the knife.
I was living in Greece at the time — my mother is Greek, and we spent several years there during my childhood — and we were fishing as a family, so it was normal to kill marine life. Still, I felt sick with remorse the moment I stabbed the crab, and incredibly ashamed. It changed me, because in that moment I saw that I was capable of acting almost mechanically.
I learned something else from that crab: that there is a deep part of us that knows the difference between good and bad. Goodness isn’t a thing we humans arbitrarily assign to the world, but something inherent in the world. The world, if you will, prefers life and life-affirming behaviors. When we follow goodness, we’re in the flow of life, and when we violate goodness, we experience a painful disjunction. That’s the source of the remorse and shame I felt, that disjunction.
Human supremacy was established in this twofold manner: geographical takeover on the one hand, and disparagement of the nonhuman world on the other. The nonhuman world became regarded as devoid of inherent meaning.
Tonino: How do we wake up from the trance of human supremacy? Do we need a different story, a different set of values?
Crist: Human supremacy is a historical inheritance that we’ve been saddled with through conditioning, and once the conditioning is removed, reality will have a chance to come into view, and we’ll then have the opportunity to align ourselves with it.
There are aspects of Earth’s reality that we could emphasize, and interdependence is a place to start. We are completely dependent on this living planet for every breath we take. And we are beholden to the planet not just in terms of survival but in terms of who we are. Whatever attributes we claim as unique to the human species, such as our propensity for art and science and spirituality — these are gifts of the ground. Curiosity and exploration and awe require a world — a ground — to grow up from and in conversation with.
I take hope from the thought that human beings are, at a primordial level, in love with the Earth, our source. This love is obstructed by our sense of specialness, the sense that we are meant to own and control. When we remove the human-supremacy story, however, what comes through will be what already exists: love for this oasis in the cosmos, this mystery that we will never re-create or even fully comprehend. That’s the real story.
Tonino: You mentioned that we are looking for technological solutions to climate change. Is the environmental movement healthy and strong, or has it been co-opted by a technological approach to solving problems?
Crist: Mainstream environmentalism is quite infatuated with technological solutions. Oftentimes it’s not critical enough of consumerism and economic growth, and for the past twenty years or so it went silent about the human-population question. It puts a lot of emphasis on the renewable-energy transition. Yes, solar and wind are part of the solution, of course, but much more important is degrowth — slowing the economy, decreasing production, downscaling global trade. Our global trade system shuttles inordinate amounts of stuff around the world, lots of which is unnecessary, and enormous amounts of greenhouse gasses are released in the process. Extolling the merits of solar and wind is fine, but it’s nothing compared to creating a downsized, mindful material culture that is locally and regionally oriented.
So, no, in my opinion the mainstream environmental movement appears unwilling to go deep enough. That said, it isn’t wise to constantly heap criticism on mainstream environmentalism. It has played a very important role. The big environmental organizations of the twentieth century made some impressive achievements on the ground, and they’ve succeeded in raising awareness and knowledge. I often go to the World Wildlife Fund’s website, for example, to get facts about a specific place or species. These groups are like a bridge between mainstream culture and radical ecology.
As I’ve been saying, many of us don’t consciously subscribe to the belief that Earth is human-owned or that nonhuman life lacks inherent worth and is dispensable — but we live in accordance with this stance regardless. Radical ecology takes the offensive, refusing to stand by and watch. It calls attention to the fact that all life has inherent value. It insists that justice means not only justice for humans, but justice for all species.
Tonino: You’re saying Americans cannot continue to live as we have lived. We must change. Period. And yet we have to make breakfast each morning, put the diaper on the baby, get to work, survive another day.
Crist: In the developed world, as long as we’re plugged into electricity and everything that entails, we’re pretty badly tangled up. I’m talking to you on my phone right now, but I don’t know where it was made, who made it, under what conditions, or where the materials for it were sourced. I don’t know how much destruction it has left in its wake or what garbage bin it’s ultimately going to end up in. And this is just one object: I could say the same about my toaster, my refrigerator, and on down the line. So I’m caught in the system — like pretty much everybody I know — and it’s from within this tangle that all of us have to try to make changes.
Speaking generally, what we can all do is prepare for a transition, and that has as much to do with altering our expectations, our thinking, as it does with altering our behaviors. COVID-19 really blindsided us and is a reminder that change can arrive suddenly. Environmentalists have been saying this for decades: expect the unexpected. The twenty-first-century world is incredibly complicated. There’s a huge acceleration on every front, including the collapse of nature, and this can mean only one thing: uncertainty. We’ve got to expect the unexpected and be ready to shift in response.
To my mind, the most important thing we can do is learn about our food and how it’s produced. Food is so basic and is tied to everything. It might sound idealistic, but there’s no way around it: humans must inhabit food communities that are ecological and ethical, that grow wholesome food in friendship with the natural world — and this nutritious food has to be available for all. These are the kinds of communities that we need to start building or, where they already exist, learning from and supporting. What would happen if some global catastrophe — a climate-related problem or a war or a more virulent epidemic than COVID-19 — disrupted our food system? In this current pandemic the fear and upheaval drove Americans to hoard toilet paper and guns and ammo. Try to imagine a food shortage instead of a scarcity of toilet paper.
Recognizing our participation in destructive, human-supremacist systems may bring up rage or grief or guilt on a daily basis, and that’s OK. We can acknowledge those feelings. We can allow those feelings to tell us something true about the world and about ourselves, and we can move through them into action. The most important thing we can do is to create alternative communities where we model a different way of living, and the core of these communities will start with food, because when was the last time you passed a day without eating?
Tonino: Does history or anthropology provide us with any particularly inspiring or useful examples of alternative communities?
Crist: Many Indigenous communities are good models — not necessarily of exactly what a life on the land should look like, but models of principles. What do Indigenous people do? They live within the contours of the land. They live within a place, making themselves a subsystem of it. In terms of what they eat and how they eat, what they use and how they use it, the land is their guide. They don’t take over and impose their structures. They don’t continually expand and conquer, as is the habit of colonial and human-supremacist cultures. Rather, they adjust to their surroundings, devising techniques for living within their regions.
Also, Indigenous communities have regular celebrations of the natural world — greeting the seasons, greeting the berries, greeting the salmon, whatever it may be. These are both a form of grateful acknowledgment and a tool for remembering. In colonial, resource-hungry cultures we don’t know what was here before us, and in some cases we don’t even recognize that there was a “before us.” Every generation assumes its surroundings are the norm, even if previous generations have degraded the land. This is referred to as the “declining ecological baseline.” It’s invisible, because there’s no memory of a different time when, for instance, you could drink water straight from the stream or eat fruit straight from the tree. If you have ceremonies — techniques for observing, stories about your animal and plant neighbors — you can at once honor the more-than-human world and remember it.
One more thing we can learn from Indigenous communities is animism, the worldview that sees everything as alive, as wondrous in itself. A major component of human supremacy is the tacit idea that animals don’t see us. We are the active agents — we see them. In an Indigenous culture a human sees the animal and, simultaneously, sees that he or she is being seen. There’s a mutual recognition not only with animals but with plants, rocks, everything.
I want to make it clear that I’m not looking to Indigenous communities as a literal model: “Oh, we’ll mimic such-and-such people, and then things will be fine!” It’s the principles of living within the affordances of a place, the ceremonies of gratitude and remembering, and the awareness that everything is alive. We have to learn to embody these principles in our own unique places.
Tonino: To change our way of life we require some sort of program, a regimen that will break down old habits and replace them with new habits, right? I’m interested in the pragmatic aspect of all this.
Crist: Decolonizing our minds and breaking habits of supremacy requires critical thinking: look at what the culture’s throwing at you, see it clearly, and then decide whether to accept or refuse it. A simple idea, though difficult to enact, is slowness: only by creating some time and space in our lives will we have a chance to pivot from blind acceptance to critical thought. The dominant cult of speed is, for me personally, something to target and try to undermine. Why is it that we drive too fast, eat too fast, walk too fast, get out of bed too fast? Why do we jam our to-do lists with so many chores and believe they all need to be taken care of ASAP? Why are we multitasking, looking at our screens as we’re cooking or exercising? This relentless acceleration is reinforced by so much that surrounds us that it’s easy to fall back into speed even if you’re aiming for slowness. But you can chip away at it. Do something slowly on purpose. Then do it again. Eventually things might begin to open up.
Tonino: What’s your take on the common argument that human nature is to blame for the ecological crisis?
Crist: It’s a dangerous view and often boils down to an excuse for resignation, continued destruction, and cynicism. It fails to appreciate the power of socialization, which is the biggest determinant of how people think and act. People comply with the values, norms, and actions they learn from their societies.
Human nature contains the capacity for all sorts of things: from the coarsest kind of selfishness to a lifetime of selfless service.
Tonino: I can imagine a person saying, “We all have to use nature — eat it, affect it in various ways. That’s not supremacy.” How do you respond to that?
Crist: Yes, we have to use the natural world, as all animals do. Though I prefer to avoid the word use, because of something I heard [eco-theologian] Thomas Berry say in a documentary. He said: “What’s the worst thing that one person can say to another? ‘You used me.’ ” He’s right. That’s as bad as it gets. Then Berry said: “What would the Earth say to us if the Earth could speak? ‘You used me.’ ” Right again.
We have to work with the natural world, to source from it, but there’s a huge difference between growing food through industrial agriculture versus agriculture modeled on ecological principles. The former demolishes biodiversity, dislocates and kills the nonhuman, degrades the soil, and pollutes the world with pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. The latter, called “agroecology,” is mindful of diversity, both cultivated and wild, and seeks to preserve it. It appreciates the nonhumans and natural processes that have made the very soil that grows our food. It builds up the soil. Agroecology works with wild nature and tries to find artful ways to negotiate with wild nonhumans who may pose a threat to the cultivated plants or to farm animals. Practitioners of agroecology do not automatically choose the options of poison and killing — far from it.
We can also think about this question of “use” in terms of scale. Scale matters. Think about cars, for example. Cars are not going to be uninvented. Humans seem to like them — at least, for now. It’s one thing, however, to have 1 billion cars in the world, as we do now. It’s a whole new level to have 4 or 5 billion cars, as we might in this century. So how about a world with fewer cars and a lot more restraint in terms of roadbuilding?
Tonino: How big a problem is capitalism? If capitalism disappeared, but we were all still under the spell of human supremacy, would nature be any better off?
Crist: Capitalism is a core driver of ecological destruction. It gobbles up the world as “raw materials” and turns them into commodities, with immense waste at every step along the way.
The destructiveness of this economic system goes hand in hand with a huge and growing global middle class, an increasingly global culture of consumerism, and over-the-top global trade. In qualitative terms, middle-class status comes with electricity, expendable income, and participation in the global economy. The size of the global middle class surpassed half the total human population in 2018, and it’s expected to reach about 5 billion people by 2030. The fundamental socioeconomic phenomenon of our time is mass production and mass consumption at a global scale, for billions of increasingly affluent people. This means extreme drawdown of resources, unsustainable pollution, and ecological ruin.
Making capitalism more equitable would be good for humans, but nature would be no better off, as long as mass production and mass consumption remained essentially unchanged and the natural world continued to be treated as human property.
So it is not only capitalism that has to go but also human supremacy. We must reenvision our relationship with the Earth, recognizing its intrinsic splendor and letting its inhabitants be free, letting them have the space to be who they are.
Tonino: Near the end of Abundant Earth you write that no art museum could ever rival a forest unless the museum’s walls began breathing.
Crist: It’s been said — I think it was Paul Ehrlich — that nobody would ever dream of bulldozing the Louvre in order to build a parking lot in its place. But how many forests have been felled for cars and livestock feed? How many breathing trees?
Tonino: With regard to “waking up” from the trance of human supremacy, what do young people, specifically, need to know? Do you have a dream curriculum, a pedagogy for the future?
Crist: One thing that children and young people (and the rest of us) need to get away from is the constant and prolonged exposure to screens. Life in front of devices is linked to attention-deficit disorder, depression, and, of course, nature-deficit disorder. The screens are running people’s lives. Just as Henry David Thoreau said, people “have become the tools of their tools.”
Also, learning environmental history is indispensable in order to see that an impoverished world, taken over by one species, is not normal. No matter how painful, young people need to understand the damage we have done. Challenging the normality of the status quo also frees us to imagine an altogether different future.
Another thing that bears repeating is that children have a natural sense of wonder about living beings and nature. This sense of wonder must be kept alive and cultivated through education and an outdoors curriculum.
In an ecological civilization — that is, a society not oriented toward competition, social success, and materialism — the role of education is to cultivate each person’s talent or deep personal inclination. We need to help children find what that is and be able to pursue it as their life’s work.
Tonino: Hopefully something other than domination! You write, “Humanity will not advance by taking over the biosphere, but, on the contrary, will stagnate in the debased identity of the colonizer.” What is it about domination that is so destructive?
Crist: When you dominate, you cannot win. You lose no matter how things turn out. Look at the message of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The protagonist thought he could become king by killing the current king and instead lost everything: the respect of others, his self-respect, his wife, his friends, and ultimately his life.
We have to understand that we cannot perpetrate a mass extinction and come out winners. Mass extinction will not “kill the planet,” but it will impoverish it irrevocably. That knowledge will weigh heavily on the human soul.
Even if humanity survives an anthropogenic mass-extinction event, even if humans go live on Mars or fully subjugate Earth by technological means, the question will never be evaded: Who will we become if we exterminate, en masse, our nonhuman cohorts? We cannot pass on to our descendants that burden of sorrow by not paying attention to this catastrophe now. Instead we must embrace the idea of Earth citizenship and disavow the identity of conqueror and master.
This is the consciousness shift that’s needed. After that comes the practical work of scaling down the human enterprise, economically and demographically, and pulling back from large portions of nature.
Tonino: Can we ever fully dominate the world? No matter how many wrecking balls we swing, isn’t the world still the big boss, calling the shots?
Crist: Ultimately yes, nature calls the shots. The forces of Earth’s big systems, like the hydrosphere and the climate, are way bigger than we are. But the side effects of our actions are sometimes delayed, so humans can think for a while — even for a long while — that we dominate, that we are in control. But when climate change hits home, and when wild fish and coral reefs give way to an ocean of plastic, humanity will find out that our domination was a hollow illusion.
In the meantime domination destroys precious things that cannot be recovered. It hurts beings and disrespects the inherent order of the world. It not only impoverishes nature but produces a world of fear, in which most wild animals avoid us. It also disenchants the world, making it monotonous, less diverse, and more barren of life.
At the same time that domination does so much harm to the other, it also disgraces humans by making us mindless and callous. Factory farms and industrial fishing are ugly ways to provide food, unethical and ecologically destructive, and they demean humanity profoundly.
Tonino: You quote John Rodman, the political theorist and radical environmentalist: “The ecology movement, to the extent that its central worry is the rapid extinction of ecological diversity, is essentially a resistance movement against the imperialism of human monoculture, roughly analogous to the earlier resistance movements against particular totalitarian regimes.” Nobody thinks it’s crazy when a group of resistance fighters take up arms against their oppressors — it seems rather sensible. But to do so on behalf of nature is seen as the craziest form of ecoterrorism. Do you see a need for violent resistance in the future?
Crist: I think John Rodman was entirely correct. Resistance against oppression of humans is widely embraced. What is not yet recognized is the legitimacy of resisting the oppression of nonhumans and the natural world. That oppression is a form of colonialism. Rodman and others have called nature colonialism the last bastion of colonialism.
I am partial to [writer and environmental activist] Wendell Berry’s definition of colonialism: destroying one place to be extravagant somewhere else. This is a straightforward description of our way of life. We are destroying large swaths of the planet to be extravagant somewhere else. Soybeans grown in the Amazon to feed pigs in China. Oil-palm plantations in Southeast Asia for added palm oil in packaged foods everywhere. The tall-grass prairie sacrificed for animal feed, biofuels, and corn syrup. Mangroves for cheap shrimp. Continental shelves for cheap fish. Coming next: seabed habitats for lithium batteries. The list is endless, and it will be ongoing unless we recognize what it’s all about, which is that our way of life is based on nature colonialism. When enough people see that, there will be a chance to transform how we live.
On the question of violent resistance, I do not believe in it. When has violence not perpetuated violence? Nonviolent action is powerful. It has soul presence. It is centered and filled with equanimity and righteousness. If it is quashed with violence, it exposes the violators as being in the wrong. Nonviolent action also exemplifies another way to be in the world. Nonviolent action is both the means and the end.
Having said that, I do not see activists’ rescuing factory-farmed and other abused animals as violent action, even if it involves breaking and entering. I think the torture of animals is an egregious violation that deserves a direct-action response. Rescuing animals from violence is nonviolent action.
Tonino: What are some alternatives to our present civilization? What would an “ecological civilization,” as you call it, look like?
Crist: The human system, especially settlements and food-production areas, should inhabit a modest portion of the Earth rather than claiming the lion’s share. Free nature, or wilderness, will be the sea within which human habitats are nestled like islands.
For that to happen, our consumption patterns and waste output must be substantially lowered. One means of achieving this is lowering the human population. This can be done by investing in women’s empowerment, educating girls and young women, and bringing family-planning services everywhere. We also have to change the economic system — slow it down, so we produce much less. We need to get rid of superfluous, luxury, and throwaway goods. What is produced must be made durable, fixable, recyclable, and biodegradable. We also need to pull back our presence from large areas of nature. Minimize infrastructure spread. Setting nature free on a vast scale will enable the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life to return.
Human beings will have an equitable standard of living that is modest but high-quality, with nutritious food, clean rivers, ancient forests, and abundant wildlife. Let us imagine human life within a verdant and lively world. Wild nonhumans will be respected and allowed to live free, while domestic farm animals will be allowed natural and long lives. The planet is our ground, and an ecological civilization will be in loving alignment with all its beings and processes.
Tonino: The best conservation science — and this includes a 2019 report from the United Nations — is calling for half the planet to be set aside as biodiversity preserves. What are your thoughts on this 50 percent idea?
Crist: The proposal to protect 50 percent of Earth’s area of land and seas is inspiring. It’s known as Nature Needs Half, or the Half-Earth Project. It is bold, visionary, and necessary. It was an idea first formulated in the early 1990s, and it is gaining attention and traction today.
Large-scale nature conservation is a low-tech and, if embraced by humanity, eminently doable approach to addressing the planet’s dire predicament. The only way to stem the extinction crisis is generous protection of habitat. This will enable the preservation of viable populations of animals and plants and sustain the integrity of ecologies like rivers, grasslands, forests, deep seas, and coral reefs. It’s not just about large size but also connectivity, to enable animal movement.
Large-scale nature conservation is also a profoundly effective way to counter climate upheaval. Scientists are calling this approach “natural climate solutions,” and it is so important. Protected and restored forests, grasslands, and wetlands can sequester substantial amounts of carbon. Additionally, phasing out industrial agriculture will help mitigate climate breakdown.
When we think of conservation, our mind often goes to the land. I want to emphasize the imperative to protect the ocean and restore its abundance of marine life: from the microscopic plankton that make so much of the planet’s oxygen, to the krill, to the masses of small prey fish, to the big fish, mammals, reptiles, and sea birds. We have lost touch with the inherent richness of marine life, which industrial fishing, especially, has decimated. Large-scale protection of 50 percent or more of the ocean will support the restoration of the sea’s abundance of life. Of course, we must also hasten to deal with climate change. Otherwise we will lose most of the world’s coral reefs, which harbor so much of the sea’s biodiversity.
In the twenty-first century there will be a reckoning with how we’ve lived, what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves, and that reckoning will set in motion an awakening: a different way to go about things.
Tonino: You said earlier that there are approximately 7.8 billion humans on the planet. What would be an ideal number of humans?
Crist: Many analysts are thinking of a provisional goal of around 2 billion. This figure is for a human population enjoying roughly a European standard of living, sustained by organic food production, and eating far less fish, meat, and animal products than the average Western consumer.
Of course, there is no “optimal” population number in an absolute sense, because a lot depends on the level of consumption people gravitate toward, their dietary choices, and unknown variables having to do with technological developments. But 2 billion is more optimal than where we are now and where we are headed. Two billion is what the global population was about a hundred years ago. It is a big-enough number to enable a connected global civilization to continue, with achievements in the sciences, humanities, technology, and so on. In other words, 2 billion can sustain a lively “conversation of humanity.” But it’s a low-enough number to enable the substantial protection of nature that we are discussing.
According to Cornell agronomist [the late] David Pimentel and his colleagues, 2 billion people is the estimated number that can be sustained on organic, diversified, mostly regional agriculture, with farm animals living on the land and people eating a mostly plant-based diet. This way of eating would not only be wholesome for people but good for the planet and for all other animals as well.
You might say: “Fine, 2 billion sounds good, but how do we get there?” We get there by fast-tracking two important human rights: One, full gender equity and schooling for all girls, through at least secondary education. And, two, affordable and accessible family-planning services for all. If we could bring the global fertility rate — voluntarily: I do not support coercion of any kind — to an average of one child per woman, the human population would start to approach 2 billion within four generations.
Tonino: The ecophilosopher Arne Næss said that he was pessimistic about the twenty-first century but optimistic about the twenty-second. How do you think about the future?
Crist: What Næss meant, I think, is that in the twenty-first century there will be a reckoning with how we’ve lived, what we’ve done to the planet and ourselves, and that reckoning will set in motion an awakening: a different way to go about things, a different relationship between Earth and humanity. It’s quite possible that things will play out that way — get bad, then better. In some respects it’s an optimistic prophecy. But obviously there’s no guarantee that the future will follow this trajectory. We don’t even know where we are with respect to climate change. If runaway heating happens — or a nuclear war or some other unimaginable disruption — this trajectory that Næss outlines will be impossible.
I try to avoid predictions, because the future always manages to surprise. That said, we can and should talk about certain trends and where those trends are likely taking us. For example, follow the population graphs, and then ask: What does it look like if there are 10 billion of us on the planet, all trying to fill our bellies? What does it look like for people in different countries, at different latitudes? What does it look like for wolves and monkeys and forests and seas?We can’t predict the future, but it’s more useful to focus on the past anyway. It’s the past that has delivered us to this present moment, which we’re trying to understand and navigate. One thing to note about the past is that human supremacy has been a constant since the emergence of agriculture. I like to envision human supremacy as a baton that’s been handed forward for millennia: from the Neolithic village to classical antiquity to Judeo-Christian and Muslim cultures to our modern mechanistic era. By coming to understand this past, we can begin to understand that our current struggle isn’t simply to expedite an energy transition, to save some acres and wildlife here and there, or even to stave off the extinction of Homo sapiens. To put it accurately, our struggle is to change the course of history. To break with our history. To drop the baton.