Matters of Life and Death

 

words by william defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief William Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

words by william defebaugh

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“Death can make you so much clearer about life.” —Alua Arthur

 

This week marked the autumnal equinox, the halfway point of the seasonal calendar. After two seasons of flourishing, the flora in many parts of the northern hemisphere begins to wane as nature turns its attention toward decay. It is a moment of balance, and a reminder of the greater balance that rules us all: that of life and death.

 

Death has been at the forefront of our minds in the United States and much of the rest of the world following the news that no police officer will have to answer for the murder of Breonna Taylor. How, in the same breath, can our legal system compensate her family for her “wrongful death” and also claim that the ones who caused it are not wrong? To make matters worse, the only charge announced against the officers who killed her is for endangering the lives of her neighbors. It’s not enough that Breonna Taylor’s life was violated—her death was, too.

 

The phrase “wrongful death” is a wide-reaching one for the moment we are in, with the amount of Americans who have died by willfully negligent leadership during this pandemic having reached 200,000 this week. It also extends to how we relate to the larger ecosphere; according to the IUCN, one in four species is at risk of extinction. A recent report found that human activity has wiped out a staggering two-thirds of the world’s wildlife in the last fifty years. In the environmental movement, we often talk in terms of having fallen out of balance or “right relationship” with life. But what about our relationship with death?

 

As a reader of this newsletter, I imagine that you oppose fossil fuels. But do you know what they are? Take petroleum oil, which is formed when mass amounts of dead organisms beneath the Earth’s surface decompose and are exposed to intense heat and pressure. To put it plainly, it is liquid death. So is it any surprise that our abuse of this substance has resulted in more death? Thankfully, we may be witnessing the demise of the oil industry, with public demand plummeting and BP having announced its plans to reinvent itself as a green energy giant.

 

In Western cultures, we prefer to ignore our own death, and as a result, we tend to avoid the subject of it altogether. Healing our relationship with death was the subject of a recent feature we published by death doula Alua Arthur. In the story, she offers the following advice: “If you are really concerned with living well in integrity, then spend every morning thinking about the fact that you’re going to die—and use that as a foundation from which you make decisions and determine your actions.”

 

As Arthur suggests, death can make us much clearer about life. And what have the wrongful deaths we have seen this year brought if not moral clarity—a need for justice? “No justice, no peace” has become a rallying cry, but it’s also a fact; there can be no peace without justice, for justice is a restoration of balance, which is just a synonym for peace. And if a system repeatedly fails to create justice? Then there was never peace to begin with. Then that system needs to be deconstructed. And what is death if not another word for deconstruction?

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