Spirit Animal

This morning on NPR: news that SpaceX* has plans to build a rocket launching site in southern Texas, three miles from the border, and pretty much right in the middle of a wildlife reserve. They have state government approval and support on this plan. In the voice recording played of an environmentally-concerned person who opposes these plans, the guy says, with a tone that I would call deadpan if it weren’t so apparent how not-joking he has reason to be, “Texas is really big. Surely they can find another place to build this other than in the middle of a wildlife reserve.”

I’ve written and deleted about the following before multiple times already, because this issue is so endlessly depressing to me that I would feel even more guilt publishing about it than I always do anyway when writing on the internet. But here goes.

Every time I hear news like this, I say my goodbyes. The first time I said my goodbyes was when I read and finished Paul Greenberg’s Four Fish, which is like the number one book I recommend to people to read no matter who or why or where. This book convinced me that the big tuna aren’t going to survive the role that they now play in consumer society (I did not know that historically it was only very recently that tuna even made it onto sushi menus as acceptable to eat, never mind as high-end, because, much like lobster, tuna’s culinary origins saw it thought of as far too indelicate to be served as a delicacy) but not before Greenberg had convinced me of how amazing these animals are in the wild. (The biggest bluefin tuna are so spectacularly muscular, so built like a lightning bolt, they are technically warm-blooded.) Greenberg also wrote about research that showed that providing those color-coded “which fish are the better fish to consume for the sake of the environment” cards in Whole Foods and other grocery stores that sell a full range of seafood did not make any impact on consumer choices that would have led to an actual alleviation of fishing pressures in the wild. All that, plus just trying to keep my eyes open and observe the world around me as well as how I function and consume within it, and I decided that I had better say my goodbyes to the tuna. Species are going extinct every day, but we (I) tend to feel the loss only when we feel some sort of connection to the species as it might pertain to us as humans–our species is a solipsist–I am only now noticing that so far every single time I try to write or talk about tuna and their impending extinction I make sure to emphasize how amazing they are, how awe-inspiring, as if their survival matters only because they might amaze me/us and not because it is inherently important that they survive. It is no coincidence that the species I have practiced saying my goodbyes to are animals like the tuna, the tiger, the polar bear: the big, gorgeous wild ones, the spirit animal ones. The ones I can see us reflected in. The ones whose extinction we might find pretty easy to discuss as a terrible loss to us.

Which is maybe why this morning, listening to this news while getting my automated parking garage ticket spit out at me and fixing to do an above-adequate job at my gotta-pay-the-bills job, when I said, automatically, “Wow, SpaceX is lobbying. Well, sounds like we should say our goodbyes,” the aftershock hit me in a very different way than it does when I think about tigers or tuna. Without a singular species to mourn, I had to understand what will be lost for the more complex reality that it is: an entire ecosystem, with growth and decay and creation and violence and death inherent. An entire world in its own right.

Look, I’m one of those people who believes in spirit animals. There. I said it. But to be honest the more I think about the entire concept I can’t help but notice how the more sincerely one believes in the concept the more sincerely one is equating her individual personhood not with the personhood of an animal as an individual but with an entire species. Any other context and I would vehemently disagree that I consider my individual worth to be equal in any way to the worth of an entire species, but it seems like sometimes strategies that we have for teaching ourselves to love other species depend in part upon that rhetoric.

But then sometimes you happen to be listening when someone happens to be reporting on the terribly commonplace event of extinction and environmental destruction and sometimes the knowledge comes that little worlds and, eventually, much bigger ones, can be totally screwed. Can be done-to. When I know that I have to know that this is bigger than any one specimen, any one individual–and I am never going to know how to romanticize or undermine my way out of that.

* SpaceX was founded by Elon Musk. If you don’t know anything about Musk you can find an essay in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2010 that is all about him. How I feel about the guy, his career, or the issues they represent is another story but, in case his more frequent appearances in media news lately haven’t yet gotten your attention, you should know that this is a person who 1) believes very very much in the rebooting of manned space exploration and the jumpstarting of space colonization and 2) taught himself actual rocket science in order to make those two things more of a reality. SpaceX is to the point where they are working on relative affordability of their rockets. If their rocket is missing a crucial component and they think said component’s market price is not kosher they will call a meeting to make the component themselves for a fraction of the cost. My point here is that SpaceX is a pretty good manifestation of what it looks like when someone has a lot of money, a lot of power, and the knowledge of how to use both to their utmost potential.

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