Thursday was Earth Day. I know this because my son came home with a crayon colored cut out of a globe pinned to his shirt. “Don’t look now”, I yelled, “but someone violated a tree and stuck its caramelised lifeblood onto your chest!” He rolled his eyes and in his most patient voice told me it was Earth Day and I needed to show more respect for the planet. A little later he was tearing through A4 paper at twenty rips per second and insisting he wanted a bath instead of a shower. So our children have now acquired the paraphernalia of another belief system without internalising any of its lessons.
What are the lessons of Earth Day anyway? That we should use cloth bags instead of plastic bags? That we should know our carbon footprint as well as our shoe size? That we should not tell our tree hugging friends we don’t really care about topsoil when they have big sticks in their hands and are within whacking range? That the planet is bleeding and we need to feel for it? But is it feeling for the planet that provokes random bouts of mass environmentalist hysteria or feeling for our place in it? Novelist and blogger Amit Varma said it best when he wrote recently that “we speak of global warming as endangering the earth. But we forget one thing: we are not the earth. Even if the most alarmist claims about global warming are true, then all that it endangers is humankind. The earth has been much hotter and much colder than it is now and will go on merrily without us.”
The fact is, the human race is as worthy a candidate for extinction as any predatory species that ever was and if I was the earth, I’d be working overtime to rid myself of it too. What is it of value that we have contributed to the cycle of life anyway, apart from new and exciting ways to kill things? The light bulb? Plankton was glowing undersea eons before Thomas Edison said eureka. Sharks were honing in on prey by the electric impulses they emitted before we learnt how to plug our TVs in. The stars were shining down on us before astronomers decided to point upwards and chart them. Dolphins probably had 78 words for herring before Eskimos put together a few for snow. As for love, that predictable justification for human existence offered up as a penultimate defence, wolf packs had established ties that bind, bear sows were charging threats to their offspring and swans were mating for life centuries before men and women began debating the finer points of identity, society and monogamy.
This brings us to the ultimate defence itself, religion. Or rather, monotheistic religion, which according to the interpretations generally offered by its clerical class is based on the presupposition that out of all the creatures of sky, sea and land, mankind is the most fair and worthy of preservation. We are not ‘of’ the earth, apparently, but ‘on’ the earth. The world is our oyster, water our ambrosia and the land our chicken wing.
The pantheistic religions that predated mans' elevation to a being apart made no such distinction. Divinity is everywhere, in everything, hence all creation is sacred. Nature is accorded the deepest reverence as the ultimate symbol of the beauty and complexity of creation. The way lay in recognising oneself as an infinitesimal part of it, as subject to its ebbs and flows as an ant, a leaf, a blade of grass. The Tao Te Ching poeticised decay and renewal as an acceptance of the eternal cycle, and advised gently against wobbling too much while you were riding it.
Now, we live in a world where age is arrested on sight, renewal is probably the name of a skin cream and it is pantheism and not arrogance that is sometimes considered blasphemy. The perfect world, in fact, to pitch an aspect of a product that enshrines the notion of life is elsewhere. After death, in fact, when you’ll no longer have to worry about the toxic cloud from the power plant outside your city wafting through your open windows, the fruit trees won’t whiter and fall because of pesticide in the soil, and your neighbour won’t ever build a dam that cuts off your water supply.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I didn’t offer to help my son write a speech on Earth Day.