This summer I spent a month traveling along the ravaged Gulf Coast. Why? One reason I went was because I wanted to see the place for myself, unfiltered, instead of trusting that the national media would take me on its knee and, like a kindly uncle, tell me its version of the story. As I drove down I understood the hypocrisy of traveling eight hundred miles in a vehicle powered by a refined version of the same substance that was pouring out into the Gulf waters, and knew that I, like the rest of us, was a big fat hypocrite. But I needed to see the oil.
The truth was that at first I wouldn’t even read about the spill. I put on blinders. I wanted nothing to do with yet another dismal, depressing environmental story. But a friend convinced me to open my eyes. He knew that I had spent the last few years walking the coasts of North America, from Alaska to the Outer Banks to Nova Scotia and Cape Cod. It was as if I had been training for something but I didn’t know what.
It turned out I had been training for the Gulf. Once I was there I couldn’t have imagined being anywhere else. I have written several nature books, but have given up on the idea of the natural world as a place apart from the human world, which is to say I’ve embraced a messier nature. It doesn’t get much messier than the Gulf of Mexico. The national media has now skipped on to its next big story, but some of us are still stuck back in the old one. Mired. During my weeks on the Gulf Coast—out on the water, up in helicopters, walking and camping on the coasts—I kept thinking, This time we have really done it. I still believe that, despite the current feel-good spin on the spill. This time we have passed a certain point, and that is obvious to even the most casual observer of the natural world. Put inelegantly, we have shat ourselves.
And yet I am wary of my own lines. Wary of overstating, of evoking the language of doom. Wary of dragging out that old apocalyptic cloak. “The worst environmental event in our history,” the president called the oil spill. Perhaps—though we have had some doozies.
One of the reasons that I have never been a big fan of the apocalyptic tone is that I have made it a personal goal to keep an open mind in this time of adamancy and increased hysteria. Environmental writers are often called “prophets,” a word that, like apocalypse, makes me uneasy. The writer I am reading most often these days, Michel de Montaigne, was the furthest thing from a prophet. Montaigne created the essay form in mid-1500s. Almost three hundred years later, in 1844, another essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, would look back and write a celebratory essay called “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic.” “The right ground of the skeptic,” Emerson wrote of Montaigne, is “of consideration, of self-containing; not at all of unbelief; not at all of universal denying, not of universal doubting—doubting even that he doubts.”
I can’t imagine that Montaigne would have fared well on CNBC or Fox News. He would have peppered his interviews with howevers and buts and on the other hands. When one dons the prophet’s robes, a conscious simplifying is required. Certain rules and expectations go with those robes, and one of those rules is no public wavering. Jeremiah can’t afford to be Montaigne. In fact we are talking about no less than two distinct ways of seeing the world. To warn of coming doom is to express certainty about the future. And what is more uncertain than the future? An honest reaction to any prophet is “How the hell do you know that?”
Many have seen in Montaigne the birth of the modern attitude, questioning everything. Inherent in this attitude is the belief that we have not one self but a fluid identity made up of many selves, and that those selves are always arguing, contradicting one other, in flux. Also inherent is the belief that nothing is certain in this world, and that to reach after certainty, rather than accepting uncertainty, is almost always to overreach.
It might seem at first that Montaigne has little to offer us in times like these. After all, Emerson wrote of Montaigne: “I know that human strength is not in extremes, but in avoiding extremes.” But what good does it do to avoid extremes in extreme times? As my thoughts start turning this way, I realize I’m falling into the old apocalyptic trap, thinking of our time as the one end time. While Montaigne is famous for talking to himself up in his study, he, like us, lived in a world that seemed on the edge of doom. Disease and civil war ravaged the countryside of sixteenth-century France. Emerson again: “In the civil wars of the League, which converted every house into a fort, Montaigne kept his gates open and his house without defense. All parties freely came and went, his courage and honor being universally esteemed.” An exaggeration perhaps, but a bracing one. Openness as a reaction to crisis.
A couple of months ago, while walking out of a classroom at the university where I teach, I eavesdropped on two young women having a laugh over the apocalypse. As I walked by the common area that serves as lounge for our students, this is what I heard:
“She really believes that the world’s going to end, that, like, the warming’s going to come and the water’s going to rise and drown us all or something.”
“Yeah, like that’s gonna happen.”
I was sure the latter comment was accompanied by an eye roll, and as I passed the two girls I indulged in the internal equivalent of the same. The fools! The nonbelievers!
I then experienced a moment of happy superiority, followed by the spasm of frustration common to those who believe their great and obvious truths are being ignored, a feeling no doubt experienced by some of my fundamentalist or evangelical students when they regard me, their godless Yankee professor.
The warming! I would snicker over that with my wife later. But at the same time I thought I understood the young women, at least a little. There was in what they said, if not a grain of truth, then a grain of what is a common attitude toward any predictions of massive global change. This is an attitude not just of skepticism, but of outright disbelief. This is the way the world is, we think, the world we know, and this is the way the world will stay. To say that most of us are climate-change skeptics is not to say that most of us doubt the work of science. What we are perhaps truly doubtful of is the ability of our species to predict the future.
I am not going so far as to give the girls in the hallway, or Sarah Palin and her more cynical right-wing cohorts, credit for a deeper sort of Montaignian skepticism. The word cynical, not skeptical, springs to mind when you witness the attempt to undermine years of almost universally accepted scientific research by whatever is at hand. But there is an undeniable genius in usurping the name skeptic, in claiming the mantle of the wise doubters, especially since, for a long time, skeptic was a virtual synonym not just for our greatest essayist but for the word scientist itself. When Palin says that she won’t listen to the high priests of the environmental church, she is performing a kind of judo, attempting to flip the roles so that she is the calm, scientific, doubting mind and the scientists and environmentalists are the fervid, true believers.
It would be easier to laugh at this transparent ruse if not, again, for that grain of truth. It isn’t just conservatives who are made uneasy by predictions of environmental apocalypse, after all, and it isn’t just the fact that the predictions may come true that makes us uneasy. It is the surety and conviction with which the predictions are put forth. Humility is often held up as an environmental virtue, but isn’t there an arrogance to assuming that you know exactly how the world will end? Global warming has now been presented to us as the problem, but there is something massively egocentric about assuming that we—not just human beings but this very generation—are going to have front-row seats at the apocalypse.
Particularly troubling to those who have a skeptical bent is the way that religious and environmental languages get tangled. The way, for instance, that many of the sacred environmental texts are called “The End of” or “The Death of” something, and the way those texts depict an end time brought about by an immoral people. One problem with adopting prophetic language is that it helps further reverse the roles. While those who oppose the science of climate change are now called “skeptics,” those who accept that global warming “is coming” do so by a leap of faith, even if it is a scientific one. The scientists and environmentalists are cast in the role of Jeremiah, warning us of our coming doom. (Of course not too many folks listened to Jeremiah, either.)
In fact this thinking is not uncommon in environmental camps: we know we are right, but we are infuriated by the other side’s insistence that they are right. (The fools.) Furthermore, we have begun to understand that any admission of questioning or doubt—which is after all not just the essayistic method but the scientific one—is perceived as weakness. And so we, this being the environmental we, make grand pronouncements of certainty. But how can one be certain, when certainty requires faith rather than facts?
But for all my equivocation and doubt and wariness, I feel that something changed in me this summer. Like a lot of us, I have always accepted my own hypocrisy and complicity in the mess we are in—I drove down to the Gulf, after all—but I came back wanting to be less of a hypocrite, less easy on myself. I came back no less aware of my own limitations, no less doubtful, but bristling with the need to do something, to change something. Beyond personal lifestyle changes, I want a dedication to fighting and arguing and pushing for change.
What I found in the Gulf was that it wasn’t just me who was changing, who was finally seeing that I couldn’t put the environmental me in one box and the rest of me in another. No, my language was changing, too. It was coming out harder, cruder, and tenser. I didn’t feel the same need for lyricism to dominate that I once had. This shift confirmed in me that there are other ways to write about place and nature, ways which are right there waiting for us, or the next generation of us, and that if we embrace them we can make words about nature feel less precious and separate and more visceral, more part of our day-to-day lives. The Gulf showed me a darker and uglier nature.
“I have my doubts” might have been Montaigne’s motto. I have my doubts, too. They are the very foundation of my thoughts. But while I do not plan to abandon those doubts, and while I remain wary of pulling on the prophet’s cloak, I believe this is a time to put up or shut up. If there is anything good at all to come from the Gulf ugliness, it is that, as I have heard a hundred people say, the crisis has led some of us to a time of reckoning. Not a time of apocalypse, mind you. But a time of tough-minded responsibility, of facing, like the skeptical adults we are, the undeniable truth that our actions have consequences. Or to put it another way, I have my doubts, and always will. But I also have my convictions.