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Philosopher and pianist reflect on extinction

Image by Oregon State

Image by Oregon State

This article was originally published on Oct. 5, 2015.

“Life begins like music,” Kathleen Dean Moore offered from the stage, pausing for Rachelle McCabe to join in with delicate piano. She continued, describing the ways ecosystems developed from “gelatinous themes,” and McCabe’s soft instrumental followed, the notes becoming more enriched as though representing each species coming into being. The moving collaboration, titled “In a Time of Extinction, a Call to Life,” was performed at the Rockford Theatre on Monday, Sept. 28.

Moore, an author, philosopher and environmental advocate, is one of the most well-known nature writers of the Pacific Northwest. Her most recent book, Moral Ground: Ethical Actions for a Planet in Peril, was co-edited with Michael P. Nelson. McCabe, a Professor of Music at Oregon State University, has performed numerous solo recitals in addition to being heard on NPR, the CBC and PBS.

Moore and McCabe traded words and music, at times overlapping each other. Sharing this experience with a public audience allowed for a communal silent reflection on such a big and scary topic as extinction, something we were all complicit in. There were a few moments of everyone pausing after Moore made a particularly powerful point, and the audience audibly sighing.

Referencing environmental and cultural thinkers such as Derrick Jensen, Gus Speth, Mary Catherine Bateson and Daniel Quinn, Moore guided the audience through how to think about extinction, our own values and leave with a sense of urgent hope.

Many scientists argue we have entered a new geological period called the anthropocene, in which humans have an unprecedented influence over nature. Evidence of that influence appears in catastrophic climate change, and the sixth extinction. Studies predict that Earth will lose 20 to 50 percent of all living species within this century.

While it’s true the Earth has had five mass extinctions, and they have clearly had positive impacts, like allowing for humans to evolve, the anthropocene is different. During the two peak dying times of the Ordovician-Silurian extinction event 443 million years ago, 85% of life, most of which was in the sea, was killed. Then about 349 million years ago the Late Devonian extinction wiped out three quarters of the planet’s species. Next, the Permian extinction removed 96% of all species 248 million years ago, and every species alive today evolved from the surviving 4%. The Triassic-Jurassic extinction occurred 200 million years ago, and lastly, the dinosaurs and other species went extinct 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous-Tertiary period.

These extinctions were caused by a number of factors, including climate change, asteroids, volcanic eruptions, changes in the sea level, and so on. There is overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are indeed causing the drastic changes in climate, largely because of burning fossil fuels releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Studies project a rise in overall global temperature of 2 degrees Celcius in the next few decades, leading to catastrophic effects. “There’s a distinction between extinction and destruction,” Moore said. “It’s the difference between death and murder.”

Every loss of a species is a “diminishment of creativity,” she continued, a “profanity.”

Artists have been responding to climate and other environmental crises for the past few decades, with a recent uptick in major galleries curating specific exhibitions around climate change. Some have broken out of traditional art gallery spaces as well, opting for community-based interactive workshops. Artists around the world are already creating work in anticipation for the U.N. climate talks in Paris beginning in November. Another musician and environmental advocate, John Luther Adams, creates compositions based off of the surrounding environment. Some albums include songbirdsongs, Become Ocean and The Wind in High Places. In an article published in Slate, he writes that “music has the power to inspire a renewal of human consciousness, culture and politics. And yet I refuse to make political art.”

Indeed, art has a world all its own, and audiences will do with it what they wish. Evoking poetic, personal and debate-style rhetoric, Moore’s words were deliberately unbiased. Still, it was more than just a rousing speech; the complement of McCabe’s piano allowed for an honest reflection, a valuable pause to digest the information.

This destruction is easy to ignore, especially for the privileged classes in the developed world, whose lifestyle causes the worst effects in underdeveloped countries. And yet, we are all in this together. “No one should assume humans come out on top in this mess,” she added.

Our culture relies on an “economy of dying,” she said. “It’s madness, this consumption,” she continued. “We trade wetlands for a Kmart parking lot.” Listing off more examples of unique natural resources being traded for selfish trivialities, she illustrated the absurdity of this culture of excess.

At the end, she offered three things we must do to respond to this moral crisis, saying we must do all three, as opposed to just one. In between each directive, McCabe shared a mounting musical narrative, building into a passionate portrayal of small notes struggling like ecosystems as they gain complexity, competing cultural values, the individual versus the system.

The first was to “stop the madness, stop making it worse.” To do that, we must “leave carbon in the ground.” She urged everyone to ask what destruction they could stop. Not everyone can be everything. “Choose one, act fast, and bring art.”

Second, she urged us to protect, grow and preserve what’s left, referencing the story of Noah’s Ark.

Lastly, we must start over. “The problem is our way of life itself,” she reminded us. Our culture of selfish growth and greed led us to this predicament, and “the real challenge is to save the world from this way of life’s destructive power.” Through this crisis, we must “recreate humanity,” she said. Again evoking the metaphor between music and life, she ended by saying we must “learn what it means to live in concert with the Earth.” The audience was silent for a few moments before applauding.

It was refreshing to hear this particular climate discourse that named the problem, and didn’t merely default to small, individual actions like recycling. Moore’s critique of the culture itself, the broader infrastructural systems of power, is what more people need to confront. People need to hear the truth, but they also need to be given reason for hope.

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