words by willow defebaugh
photograph by jess gough
Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.
“We gaze continually at the world and it grows dull in our perceptions. Yet seen from another’s vantage point, as if new, it may still take our breath away. Come…dry your eyes. For you are life, rarer than a quark and unpredictable beyond the dreams of Heisenberg; the clay in which the forces that shape all things leave their fingerprints most clearly. Dry your eyes…and let’s go home.” ―Alan Moore
As you might have read in our recent feature, space archeology is a new frontier that seeks remnants of other worlds across the universe to find what we might be able to learn from the civilizations that inhabited them. For the purposes of this newsletter, I’d like to invite you to imagine an inverse scenario: what an outside culture might gleam from earthen artifacts.
Imagine a face mask, for what could be more representative of a year that will be forever marked not only by the coronavirus but those three words from George Floyd heard around the world, I can’t breathe? As far as the United States is concerned, it’s also an artifact of our flagrant irresponsibility, both in prolonging the pandemic as well as our relationship to the environment. A new study has estimated that we are putting 129 billion face masks into the environment every month. (It’s time to buy that reusable mask.)
What about a newspaper? A recent read might reveal a nation that has never been so divided, especially in its approach to climate. This week, Joe Biden put forward a $2 trillion climate plan that includes a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050, 10 million green energy jobs, a division of the Justice Department for environmental racism, protecting 30% of American land and water by 2030, and more. Meanwhile, in the same week, President Trump did away with one of the country’s most critical conservation laws that legally mandates environmental reviews of highways, pipelines and power plants.
Perhaps they might discover a remnant of rebellion: a protest sign. Perhaps it would be from a Black Lives Matter demonstration, which despite diminished news coverage, are still happening across the world—and hopefully will continue until Breonna Taylor’s killers are convicted. Perhaps it would be for School Strike for Climate, which shows no sign of slowing down either, having hit its 100th week today. Or maybe it would be from a pipeline protest, of which we have seen three recent landmark victories: against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
How about an artifact that says nothing of human civilization, yet speaks equal volumes about the resiliency of life on Earth—a geologic sample? Another story from our latest issue captures the harsh climate of the Atacama Desert, which despite being one of the driest places on the planet, is still very much alive. As photographer Jess Gough notes, “It is an extreme ecosystem, an area that experiences one of the lowest levels of rainfall in the world, and yet it is brimming with life and movement…There is a perspective and timescale in the Atacama beyond anthropocentric experience, that reveals the immutability of the natural world.”
At present, an outside perspective of life on Earth might find it to be a volatile ecosystem. And yet, the root of the word ecosystem is the Greek oikos, meaning home—the place that birthed us against all odds, vessel of miracles, at times tempestuous, the container for family, our one and only slice of stardust—a feeling once forgotten, an understanding left behind that we can still return to, that has been waiting for us all along.