The Evolving Language of Conservation

This essay was originally published in Zyzzyva magazine, issue 113, Fall 2018. The theme of the issue was Restoration and I was invited to also contribute a portfolio of paintings to decorate it throughout – the paintings are interspersed in this reprint of the original version of the text. – Obi

The Evolving Language of Conservation


The Post-Environmental Movement

By Obi Kaufmann

Spring 2018


Words and painting are all I have. They are all any of us have. Since the cognitive revolution, seventy thousand years ago at the dawn of art, at the dawn of fiction, humanity finally exchanged its true instinct, its connection with the natural world for the transcendent ability to deposit that instinct outside the body into words and painting, into narration. The Sixth Extinction, as defined as the world-wide collapse of biodiversity, the likes of which has only happened five times before in the three and a half billion-year history of life on earth, started about then too. The unprecedented, weaponized ability to construct the verbal and pictorial concepts is at the causal core of both our alienation from and our license to decimate those bits of nature that don’t offer immediate utility. It may be this same ability that steers us away from inducing some manner of ecological collapse we can’t escape from. It may be that with the right configuration of this, the most powerful of human tools – the ability to convey and to receive meaning – we might be able to reverse the unraveling that had begun so very long ago. This uniquely human ability is not only our best tool, it is our only tool.

We don’t generally believe that it happened in one day, sometime in our distant ancestry that words spontaneously fell out of some early-person’s mouth. Most traits, including neural processes, only emerge over great expanses of evolutionary time. That be said, we don’t know for sure. What if it was the lightning bolt? What if it was some psychotropic, fungal reaction that prompted the first poem to be uttered, the first song to be song, the first story to be told? Maybe the origin of communication, regardless if it happened quickly or not, wasn’t from without but from within? Is it really a reach to imagine such a historical event? In these days, just an eyelash of geologic time from not only the agricultural revolution but the industrial revolution, we stand in an onslaught of raining paradigms, and we are capable of understanding and internalizing all of them. Our minds are that fluid and that able. There are so many new paradigms, so many emerging worldviews popping and pinging around the media universe that the effect is like so many flash bulbs attempting to capture the celebrity of absolute truth as she aloofly meanders down the red carpet. If one of these paradigms, these exclusive systems of linguistic truth that define the norms of our culture, were to catch, and if this new story was about living in ecological accord with the carrying capacity of our natural world, might we then find ourselves in a post-consumer society, full of restored ecologies free of industrial-age pollution?

New paradigms reveal themselves as revolutions – fundamental shifts in the way humans organize and govern themselves and their resources. The three major, historical revolutions that have determined our course as the world-changing species that we are have been the cognitive, the agricultural and the industrial. One way or another, we will soon be ensconced in the fourth great paradigm-shift: the ecological. It will be a new world view that we realize and thrive in, or it will be a time of unilateral destruction. I certainly don’t mean to offer some doom and gloom prophecy, nor do I want to necessarily echo the end-times scenarios that the environmentalists have been going on about for decades. My concern is with the linguistic and pictorial mechanisms that trigger the deepest shifts in our collective psyche. Is it possible to clear the fog of alienation from the natural world that has plagued our society for so many thousands of years? I think the possibility is there and I have found an orientation through this dense forest. It is a simpler path than you might think, dependent on a linguistic determinism, or how the words people use determines the way people think.

I realize I am being rather absolutist when I’m talking about one cultural paradigm, one societal relationship with the natural world. There are certainly different degrees, most notably among indigenous cultures around the globe and across millennia who never experienced, or were delayed in experiencing, or for whatever local reason didn’t need the agricultural revolution, for example. Although I reject the outright idea that somehow indigenous cultures, as a rule, are somehow more in tuned to nature. There are valid examples, even arguably more examples of the rule than exceptions to it, where an indigenous mindset created a local culture where resource extraction doesn’t exceed the natural processes of replenishment within that system – perhaps the single-most qualifiable metric for a society in tune with nature – but I am not concerned with the past on this micro-geographic, societal level. I am concerned with the larger, macro-patterns across the global-human phenomenon. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a consciousness singularity, a unity of culture, despite the form of language and tradition, is more possible now than ever. Above and perhaps even because of the rhetoric, the political vitriol, and the polarized attitudes that exist within any given, contemporary culture, the trajectory towards the next tipping point is coming into focus.

With the world’s current world population of humans at 7.6 billion, we are seeing something unexpected: the diminution of many of the social plagues that have hounded humanity since the birth of civilizations. Most notably, these trends are evidenced in two areas: global war and global poverty. Both these terrible forces seem to be ebbing in the decades since World War Two. It is doubtful that the concurrent facts of both an extended period of statistically relative, worldwide peace and the downward trend of extreme poverty are both anomalies. What is clear is that the modernist paradigm of economic affluence is based on resource extraction, both energetically and materially. The way that both these agreeable trends will end is over the systemic inability to satisfactorily allocate natural resources to the ever-upward, exponential growth of our population.

If you face one direction, you can hear humanity’s cry of despair – a common lament, based in a pervading fear that seems hardwired into the human condition, that all society is inevitably headed to the eschaton. There is a cry even that we have the license to strip the last of the world’s otherwise pristine, living systems and all the treasure they hold, on our way down into the pit. It is as if there is a cultural pathos, perhaps rooted in capitalism ideology, that whatever we can take, we should take. You can hear the indulgent and unwise voices gather in a chorus against the possibility of a vibrant, and abundantly biodiverse future – that the world is not alive unto itself but a pool of material for us to burn, to continue this illusion of plenty, where we can forever keep our lights inefficiently bright, and our cars unreasonably thirsty for gas. This is the dark, shadow story of who we are and what we deserve. This is the world’s worst story.

I am a child of the west, specifically California. I was born in 1973, the same year as the passing of the Endangered Species Act, in a brief time in the early 1970’s called by some “the Golden Age of Environmental Legislation.“ Since then, in my country, I’ve watch the slow estrangement of one half (the Republican party) of our government turn from any policy deemed environmental. And I ‘ve witnessed the other half (the Democratic party) co-opt the environmental movement, glomming it into a so-called Leftist agenda, adopting a no-compromise, line-in-the-sand posture. The whole dysfunctional system resembles a family squabble and the entrenched vocabulary we use to describe the political dynamic exacerbates the situation, infecting it to such a degree that often arguments, rooted in punditry, become an ineffectual din for only the deaf.

The language of this cultural polarization which has trickled down from our government, particularly with respect to all things having to do with the environment, is rooted in capitalist salesmanship. The relativism of the moral context, where all evil is defined by what may undermine any special interest, is exploited by professional politicians to the detriment of the common good. The core idea that the health, robustness, and resiliency of the natural world inexorably means the same for the human world is so basic an idea that to argue it politically is to expose a system, so laden with an obsession for fractionating profit, that its heart must be rotten and deserves to be cut out. We begin with the words and the art; remember, they are all we’ve got. Two words need to be remade: both Environmentalism and Sustainability have been appropriated by the antagonists of what the words signify. The (the environmental and the coming post-environmental) movement itself needs to abandon them. They now are employed as dog-whistle words for propaganda against the movement to designate a whole set of dogmatic baggage unrelated to the movement itself. To again approach the moral imperative of how to best steer the ship away from the tyranny of its extraction-over-replenishment vector, we (all of us) need to uncouple the movement from any other order of the day.

The legacy of one hundred thousand years of storytelling is reflected in both, our individual minds and the collective mind we each tap whenever we speak, create and love. Our society is built on stories. A story, either composed of words or pictorially rendered in art, transmits apprehendable information – a flower well rendered in paint, for example, transmits viable immediate beauty, everything a human could know, or at least needs to know to identify and appreciate the reality of that flower on some, almost metabolic level; something core revealed and celebrated – a communion and an atonement with that flower’s world. We change the story, we change the world. Depending on how we fare the coming, inevitable paradigm shift, we will be charting a course not only of our continued human residency here over the next one hundred or five hundred years, but over the next ten thousand years. Let’s go ahead and trust each other enough to begin that conversation.