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The Flight of the Phoenix , Redux

As I read William C. Warner’s essay in “Other Voices” (Ann Arbor News, October 7), I was reminded of the 1964 movie Flight of the Phoenix and the character played by Hardy Kruger, whose cold logic infuriated everyone else but who eventually saved the people stranded in the desert. In fact, there are strong parallels between the situation the characters found themselves in and their responses, and the situation we humans find ourselves in regarding the environmental changes we’re faced with.

Mr. Warner reminds us that Earth doesn’t care at all whether we live or die as a species. We aren’t the first species, nor will we be the last, to emerge and disappear. The earth, likewise, has undergone monumental changes in the past, and beyond any doubt will continue to do so, whether we like it or not.

He points out that our view of “the environment” has changed from conservation for the sake of humans to “world-as-it-is-supposed-to-be,” approximately as it was before we began to affect it—(a.k.a. the Garden of Eden?) And he asserts that we can have little or no effect on climate change, so it’s pointless to try. We need simply to adapt.

Like Hardy Kruger’s character in the movie, Mr. Warner discounts the value of emotionally inspired decisions. However, we live not only in an uncaring universe, but in a universe of human values, in which sentiment plays a large part in the meanings we assign to life. That streak of sentimentality is as real as the logic that guides his thinking. Sentiment tells us that we “should” leave the world as good and as beautiful as we found it—individually as well as collectively. That’s not a bad thing, even if the earth couldn’t care less.

Efforts to preserve existing species have an effect on us, even if they are ultimately pointless. How to do that—how to protect the animals while not, in the process, endangering their natural prey—is a worthwhile endeavor, for it makes us more sensitive to the subtleties of the process. If I have compassion for the coyote in the field behind my home, and for the deer trying to cross the road in the glare of my headlights, those animals are not likely to feel a reciprocal kindness toward me but it will enhance my feeling about my own character. And that, inevitably, will affect my behavior toward other human beings.

Mr. Warner is right, in my mind, that we should recognize our tasks in the light of logic. However, to deny that we have been fouling our own earthly nest, or that we can do something to ameliorate the situation, is not only short-sighted, it is deadening to our most precious human values.

In a million years—indeed, perhaps in a thousand—the earth may have forgotten us humans. Paleontologists of some future species may come across remnants of our societies and puzzle over what we were like. It’s pleasant to think that they might judge us sympathetically, but of course by that time I will have blended my personal remains with the ongoing process and won’t care at all. But now I do, and I’m glad I do.

 

Donald Skiff, October 7, 2007

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