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Environmental Payback and The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I happened to see The Rise of the Planet of the Apes this past Wednesday night after reading some of Wendell Berry’s essays in The Art of the Commonplace (2002). The final scenes of the apes wreaking havoc on the police on the Golden Gate Bridge and then escaping to Muir Woods’ Redwood forest hit me especially hard.

Seeing the film after reading Berry and hearing news reports of the latest environmental screw-up—the West Virginia water contamination—led me to this reflection: If we don’t change our ways soon and take more seriously the advice of people like John Muir, E. F. Schumacher, and Wendell Berry, we’re heading for catastrophe. Apes may not overcome police on Golden Gate Bridge, as in the movie. But our belief that we are “the lords of creation” and may do with the rest of animal life and our environment as we wish will come back to plague us.

In regard to environmental mini-crises (as well as school shootings), we are becoming like the proverbial frog in the pot of water who would not jump out if the water was brought to a boil only gradually—another example (besides the use of apes) of the arrogant treatment of animals for research purposes. We have become so accustomed to these mini-crises—e.g., the 2010 BP Gulf oil spill, the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant calamity, 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, continuing melting of the polar ice caps, extreme climate changes—that rather than becoming increasingly alarmed, we are becoming increasingly blasé (see here for more on our increasing indifference). Ho-hum, what else is new?

But I keep hearing the voices of Muir, Schumacher, and Berry. They all criticize our modern industrial capitalist consumer culture for destroying our environment.

Listen to Muir in 1908:

For everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where Nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul. This natural beauty-hunger is displayed in poor folks' window-gardens . . . and in our magnificent National parks—the Yellowstone, Yosemite, Sequoia, etc. —Nature's own wonderlands, the admiration and joy of the world. Nevertheless, like everything else worth while, however sacred and precious and well-guarded, they have always been subject to attack, mostly by despoiling gainseekers, — mischief-makers of every degree from Satan to supervisors, lumbermen, cattlemen, farmers, etc., eagerly trying to make everything dollarable.

Listen to Schumacher who warned us against the hubris of “science for manipulation,” which leads us to think we can become “masters and possessors of nature” and “tends almost inevitably to advance from the manipulation of nature to that of people.” Who wrote in the 1970s that our “present-day industrial society everywhere shows this evil characteristic of incessantly stimulating greed, envy, and avarice.” Who, in the same decade, told us that “no degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances [nuclear materials] which nobody knows how to make ‘safe’ and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages.” And who declared that “scientists and technologists have learned to compound substances unknown to nature. Against many of them, nature is virtually defenceless. There are no natural agents to attack and break them down. . . . These substances, unknown to nature, owe their almost magical effectiveness precisely to nature's defencelessness—and that accounts also for their dangerous ecological impact.” (See here for sources of Schumacher quotes.)

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And listen to Berry, who in 1981, several years after Schumacher’s death, delivered the first of the Schumacher Society's Annual Lectures. In his 2002 essays found in The Art of the Commonplace he warns us, as did Schumacher, of hubris, of that “pride that attempts to transcend human limitations.” He states that “many of the occurrences that we call ‘acts of God’ or ‘accidents of nature’ are simply forthright natural responses to human provocations. . . . By living in opposition to nature, we can cause natural calamities of which we would otherwise be free.”

Berry praises William Blake’s belief that “everything that lives is holy.” Berry’s attitude toward nature, including all animal and plant life, is one of reverence and respect. Although a frequent reader of the Bible, and one who believes it contains much wisdom, he criticizes modern Christianity, which

has become willy-nilly the religion of the state and the economic status quo. It has, for the most part, stood silently by, while a predatory economy has ravaged the world, destroyed its natural beauty and health, divided and plundered its human communities and households. It has flown the flag and chanted the slogans of empire. It has assumed with the economists that “economic forces” automatically work for good, and has assumed with the industrialists and militarists that technology determines history.

He criticizes Christian churches for refusing to point out that our economy “is destroying us and our world” and that it sees “the murder of Creation as the only way of life.” This economy, he believes is “firmly founded upon the seven deadly sins and the breaking of all ten of the Ten Commandments.”

walter moss

After reading Berry, watching The Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and recalling Muir and Schumacher, another old favorite of mine came to mind—Pete Seeger—and his haunting refrain from “Where have all the flowers gone”: “Oh, when will they [or we] ever learn?”

 Walter G. Moss