When we set out to create this new issue of Atmos, we knew that the subject was going to be “Flourish.” Perhaps somewhat selfishly, we wanted a breath of fresh air amid all of the complexities that the climate crisis has to offer. We intended to capture the unadulterated abundance of the Earth—a reminder of what it is that we are striving to protect. But if we are to understand nature as an embodiment of holism—a whole picture—how could we hope to capture her beauty without her bane? For what is nature if not a delicate balance of life and death, growth and decay, creation and destruction, Flourish and Collapse?
Interestingly enough, the story did not end there. We consider Atmos to be an ecosystem that is brought to life as much by its contributors (and readers like yourself) as it is by the team behind it. The stories we tell are a direct result of hours of ideation between individuals around the world. Even after we committed to both Flourish and Collapse as the theme of the issue, we still found ourselves trying to steer our contributors in the direction of the former rather than the latter. Meanwhile, it felt like everyone was only interested in capturing Collapse. Why?
Humankind has always attempted to make sense of the world through stories. Whether by mythology, the media, or the mundane act of talking to a friend, we use words, images, and symbols to grasp for wisdom about the world in which we live. This is perhaps the source of our fascination with stories of destruction: They represent our attempt to integrate catastrophe. If we understand ourselves as an expression of nature, then we might say that we are trying to comprehend our own destruction as well our growth.
Integration is the process of making and recognizing something as being whole. What the stories in the issue tell is a truth that is in some senses more simple and more complex: that Flourish is Collapse, and the other way around. When we examine the timeline of mass extinctions throughout history, we see that life invariably begets death, making way for new life. We can understand them as opposite ends of a wheel that are always seeking one another, making that wheel turn—but they are by definition part of the same wheel.
In “The Amazon Is a Woman,” Eliane Brum paints a clear portrait of how the violence committed against the rainforest is no different than the violence committed against the indigenous peoples who are risking their lives to defend it—the story of the forest is their story. “Rebel Yell” tells the tale of another band of warriors—the members of Extinction Rebellion—who have taken the threat of annihilation and transformed it into a movement of hope. And at the heart of the issue rests our “Stewards of the Wild,” those incredible individuals and organizations who are fighting for conservation, whether in the field or the lab.
The remaining pages include a line of inquiry from Elizabeth L. Cline about the future of fashion (“Reaping and Sewing”), a poetic exploration of personal loss by the UK’s poet laureate Simon Armitage (“Hooked Up to the Morphine”), a lesson in space archaeology from the man who coined the term (“Is Anybody Out There?”), and life advice from a death expert (“Living Like a Death Doula”). In “Two Futures,” Paris Climate Agreement authors Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac present two potential outcomes for our future, as explored in their new book. Alongside these stories, nine artists offer their own visual interpretations of Flourish/Collapse around the world.
I wish I could offer simple answers for how to more easily integrate what is happening in our world, but I can’t. What I can tell you is this: If we are to be agents of change and balance, then we can’t anesthetize ourselves to any of it. We have to be brave and make space for the stories of Collapse as well as Flourish, as they have both been part of nature’s story since the beginning. Therefore, they are also our story, the one that we are authoring right now. And stories are the best hope we have. As Richard Powers once wrote, “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”
Nature is a delicate balance of expansion and collapse, flourish and famine, growth and decay. Have human beings permanently disrupted this cycle, throwing the wheel off its axis, or are we just paving way for the next species to thrive? Is it still possible for us to return to a point of flourishing without collapse? Explore these questions with the Extinction Rebellion, the women warriors of the Amazon, and more of our heroes on the frontlines of conservation. Featuring contributions from Sylvia Earle, Elizabeth L. Cline, Ben Toms, Sam Rock, Stefanie Moshammer, Liliana Merizalde, Kristin-Lee Moolman, Gareth McConnell, Pieter Hugo, Simon Armitage, and more.