by Tom Bailey
In medieval European literature, it is a theme in commentaries on the Apocalypse that, before the day of God’s judgement, animals, plants and stones are all endowed a voice, through which they cry out to God. One poem, the anonymous “Quindecim Signa ante diem Judicii” (‘The Fifteen Signs Before the Day of Judgement’), describes a scene in which all creation laments the sins of man:
“The same day, a wondyr it is,
As the prophecy tellyth it truly:
That all thynge shall speke then,
And cry in the earthe aftyr the stain of man,
And bemoan themselves of our sins
Right as they may speke.” [Spelling partially modernised]
Likewise, in similar commentaries all manner of inanimate objects from the vegetable and mineral kingdoms rise and do battle with one another, before lamenting the sins of man in a language that only God can comprehend. Whether or not man can understand this language, it is unspecified.
Whether we agree with the severity of their tones or not, a legion of climate scientists and journalists has been warning us that we are on the cusp of a similar apocalypse. Indeed, different kind of judgement has also been called for, that of Wild Law, the concept of a South African lawyer, Cormac Cullinan. He provides an interesting critique of a grossly anthropocentric legal system, in which the interests and fictional ‘rights’ of humans dominate above all other concerns. Since other species are outlawed by this system, when the opposition between land development and ecosystem preservation comes about, the former inevitably wins. Cullinan proposes a framework of Earth Jurisprudence, whereby the members of what he calls the “Earth Community” must be granted similar rights as humans in legal cases. Working under the aegis of ‘Gaia’ theory, scientific holism and the interdependence of all species for the sustenance of life on Earth, Cullinan attempts to assign a right to anything which fulfils its evolutionary function on Earth, and that helps to develop a balance of life within a web of other beings. These other beings, rather than remaining natural objects, become legal subjects. And this is not simply theory: there are legal firms practicing along these lines around the world – for instance, Client Earth, based in London. Despite the importance of Cullinan’s expedient thinking, it is a cruel reminder that, at the point of granting the natural object legal subjectivity, it is we who are speaking for the other species.
Until recent times, Western philosophy has concluded that there is one, insurmountable metaphysical attribute which separates man from the animals: language. This is not simply denying other species the ability to communicate – for all species clearly do – but denying the ability for others to communicate in a means as complex as human language, or communicate in any way that remotely approaches intelligibility or proximity to the human language. It is a remarkable and sometimes unnerving thought to think that humans have evolved on such a path that we do not understand the language of other species; that there is an (as of yet) unbridgeable cognitive gap between us and animals and plants. More to the point, can other species speak amongst themselves? And why is it, perhaps, that evolution is means whereby the signs of another species are only vaguely intelligible, if at all, to another?
Problems arise when a species begins to consider its different quality of communication as a mark of its own superiority, and such has happened with mankind. The ability to speak human language has become synonymous with the ability be conscious, to reflect upon oneself, and to contemplate death. Animals, because they do not speak, are considered to be less reflectively conscious. A concept which epitomises this idea, and which has become an axis for debate and contention within the humanities during the last two decades, is the following tripartite division by philosopher Martin Heidegger:
The human has a world
The animal is poor in the world
The stone has no world
Briefly, Heidegger defines the ‘world’ not as a physical entity such as the earth or a tree, but as a state of poietic, metaphysical revelation of the truth of those objects, earth or tree. And these things reveal their essence through human language. The animal, because it theoretically possesses no language, is only poor in the world – it perceives the existence of objects, but the true essence of these objects is not revealed to them. Needless to say, the conscious-less stone has no world.
Another Modernist philosopher and critic, Walter Benjamin (although opposed to Heidegger’s ideas) demonstrates a similar emphasis on human language being the highest form of communication among all species. His theological arguments are stylistically dazzling as they are enigmatic, and here is not the space to do this writer critical justice. Suffice to say that he grants all things, animate and inanimate, an essence of linguicity, all of which find their essential truth in the human act of naming. One of Benjamin’s most scintillant essays, ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man’ (1916), provides the following short review of Genesis, naming, and what Benjamin identifies as the muteness of nature:
“The life of man in pure language-mind was blissful. Nature, however, is mute. True, it can be clearly felt in the second chapter of Genesis how this muteness, named by man, itself became bliss, only of lower degree. Friedrich Miller has Adam say to the animals that leave him after he has named them, 'And saw by the nobility with which they leaped away from me that the man had given them a name'.
"After the Fall, however when God’s word curses the ground, the appearance of nature is deeply changed. Now begins its other muteness, which we mean by the deep sadness of nature. It is a metaphysical truth that all nature would begin to lament if it were endowed with language. (Though to ‘endow with language’ is more than to ‘make able to speak’). This proposition has a double meaning. It means, first: she would lament language itself."Speechlessness: That is the great sorrow of nature (and for the sake of her redemption the life and language of man – not only, as is supposed, of the poet – are in nature). This proposition means secondly: she would lament. Lament, however, is the most undifferentiated, impotent expression of language; it contains scarcely more than the sensuous breath; and even when there is only a rustling of plants, in it there is always a lament. Because she is mute, nature mourns.”
Benjamin’s poetical criticism and the conviction of his language can make some immediately sceptical to his truth claims. Yet without doubt he best identifies articulates the sadness felt by man amidst a nature that does not respond to language. Perturbed by the lack of a response, the human is reminded of its loneliness, and a melancholy disposition becomes inescapable.
The feeling is often intensified in relation to biodiversity loss in the face of climate change. The Anthropocene Extinction, as it is termed, the sixth great extinction event in the history of the planet, is already under way. If emissions do not undergo immediate and radical cutbacks, then the background rate of species extinction may be one hundred times faster than it already is. Without anywhere near as many species with whom we can share our planet, it will become a far lonelier place.
The loss of species is of course reason enough for grief. Inarticulable grief. In denying other organisms the same superior levels of consciousness as humans, man has made the profound mistake of forgetting his compassion towards the suffering of others. French philosopher Jacques Derrida has gone as far to call the mechanised mass-slaughter of animals for meat and other purposes deserves no other term but genocide:
“No one can seriously deny, or for very long, that men do all they can in order to dissimulate this cruelty or to hide it from themselves, on order to organize on a global scale the forgetting or misunderstanding of this violence that some would compare to the worst cases of genocide…
"the annihilation of certain species is indeed in process, but it is occurring through the organisation and exploitation of artificial, infernal, virtually interminable survival, in conditions that previous generations would have judged monstrous, outside every supposed norm of life proper to animals…”
At the heart of Derrida’s enquiry is a prolonged enquiry into the barbarity with which Western philosophy has approached the concept of ‘the animal’. The conceptualisation of the myriad of species into ‘the animal’ or ‘the animal kingdom’ is exemplary of this stultifying inability of man to empathise with that which does not speak his language. Derrida’s concern is that humans must attempt identify with their own animality, our own animal nakedness, in order to relearn how to live amongst other species. It’s his contention that in the immediate moment of human nakedness before an the gaze of an animal, the true experience of the both limit of the human and a deeper sense of what it is to live with a another entirely separate species emerge:
“As with every bottomless gaze, as with the eyes of the other, the gaze called animal offers to my sight the abyssal limit of the human: the inhuman or the ahuman, the ends of man, that is to say the border-crossing from which vantage man dares to announce himself to himself, thereby calling himself by the name that he believes he gives himself. And in these moments of nakedness, under the gaze of the animal, everything can happen to me, I am like a child ready for the apocalypse…
"When the instant of extreme passion passes, and I find peace again, then I can relax and speak of the beasts of the Apocalypse, visit them in a museum, see them in a painting…”
After the experience, he will speak of animals as conceptual objects (in art, in a museum, etc.) but for that moment of nakedness he began to relearn what it was to be of the human species.
In the above passage Derrida also mentions the “abyssal limit of the human” felt when face to face with an entirely separate species. The mention of ‘abyss’ is important here, because it recalls the vitally important relation between human melancholy and space. The melancholic oscillates between the exposed sadness and agoraphobia of an abyssal and limitless space, and the claustrophobic dread of a living within prison. It is these two paradoxical attitudes towards space that I believe haunt the contemporary human consciousness. On the on hand, the science of the last two centuries has revealed to us that we are living in a limitless expansion of space. The again, as the climate change scenarios and prophecies proliferate throughout the media, we are experiencing a resurgence of the Malthusian argument which underpinned Darwin’s understanding of evolution. As a population expands, it will exhaust its resources, which will lead to keeping this expansion within its natural limits. Malthusianism, at heart, is about reasserting spatial limitation. We are told that 3 planets will be needed to feed nine billion humans, and we recoil at the thought of such unthinkable claustrophobia here on Earth. From another perspective, the excessive urbanisation and technologisation of the planet creates an increasing cognitive distance between man and nature. An inability to connect the trees in the forest or the cows in the field to mass-produced furniture or burgers develops. Humans no longer know what nature is, other than its own empty appearance. According to another modernist philosopher, Theodor Adorno, in such a situation “nature turns into an irresistible allegory of imprisonment.”
Then again, the idea of an abyssal, limitlessness nature has given rise to the dread of the inescapable purposelessness and futility of human action, a wallowing insignificance that the more we think about our relation to vast universe, the more we are as motes of dust in the sunlight. This is a purposelessness to which writers such as Dawkins stoically refer, and which is softened by evoking the wonderful and creative mechanism of evolution that has occurred amid a sea of nothingness. A similar argument can be seen in an article by George Monbiot:
“Like other life forms, we exist only to replicate ourselves. We have become so complex only because that enables us to seize more energy. One day, natural selection will shake us off our planet. Our works will be forgotten. There will be nothing capable of remembering.
"But a curious component of our complexity is that, in common with other complex forms, we have evolved the capacity for suffering. We suffer when the world becomes a less pleasant and fascinating place. We suffer because we perceive the suffering of others. It seems to me that the only higher purpose we could possibly possess is to relieve suffering: our own and that of other people and other animals. This is surely sufficient cause for any project we might attempt. It is sufficient cause for the protection of fine art or rare books. It is sufficient cause for the protection or rare wildlife.”
Amid an apparently meaningless universe, where things are not conscious of any purpose they already fulfil anyway (such as self-preservation), humans, who as a species are burdened with a necessity for purpose, must relieve suffering through an appreciation of aesthetic brilliance. Monbiot’s article is titled ‘Natural Aesthetes’, and in it he addresses some reasons why conservationists and others find it such a difficulty to express the deep importance of biodiversity. He laments the state of conservation when all it can do, in some cases, is to stress the utilitarian value of a species (this frog’s poison might one day provide a cure for cancer). Instead, Monbiot argues for conservation on purely aesthetic grounds:
“The legacy of exclusion makes conservation look harder to justify on the grounds of aesthetics. But it seems to me that this is the only sensible argument that can be made. It is surely sufficient to say that wildlife should be preserved because it is wonderful”
The argument here is resoundingly similar to an influential essay by biologist N.J. Collar, titled ‘Beyond Value: Biodiversity and Freedom of the Mind’, which attempts to confront the problem of how the argument for species preservation must make its case in line with the economic value of that species. Instead, like Monbiot, argues for an inherent link between biodiversity and a mental freedom to wander and to imagine possibilities:
“The diminishment of nature is the diminishment of man. Extinction is the negation of the possible; it creates poverty in the mind. Our capacity to experience, to imagine, to contemplate, erodes with the erosion of nature, and with it we forfeit piecemeal — landscape by landscape, site by site, species by species — the freedom of mind which yet we cherish as ultimately the greatest feature of our human identity.”
There is indeed virtue in this argument, and I believe that Collar is right that in addressing conservation we must begin first of all to reconsider our underlying mental attitude towards the natural world. But within both his and Monbiot’s articles there is nonetheless the saddening sense that notions of ‘wonder’ and ‘poetic mental freedom’ which biodiversity inspires are palliative aesthetics, somewhat decadent and aware of their own futility as an argument for co-existing with another species.
Conservation is indeed a melancholy science – it is burdened with the task of defending the right of a species not to die. Without ever communicating with its defendant or comprehending what it truly feels, it must plead to a jury which is hand in hand with the executioners. Perhaps, as Collar argues, conservation needs to reassert its foundations as to why it is doing what it is doing, to arm itself with a greater and more irrefutable arsenal of arguments that it already has at its disposal.
Another problem with halting ecosystem destruction, I believe, lies with human melancholy itself. In one sense, climate change is a continuation of the Genesis narrative: once the exit from Eden has begun, an already profane Earth becomes more and more profane, the further we attempt to ameliorate it. It seems that we are caught in a cycle from which it will be difficult to escape, where sadness at the Earth’s destruction will compound upon greater sadness as that destruction becomes worse. The mood of the times, as one prominent psychoanalytical theorist claimed at a climate change seminar, is melancholy. Another literary theorist, Tim Morton of the University of California, Davis, has come up with the idea of Dark Ecology: from his point of view we are past the ‘tipping point’ of destruction and already in the midst of the catastrophe of global warming. It does not exist somewhere in the future, it is with us now. The challenge for artists, writers and others is to understand and articulate the grief that this is already happening. Speaking in a seminar in California, he talks of a kind of rite of passage whereby we can come to comprehend the interconnectedness of all species. A realisation of ecosystem destruction, according to Morton, first incites a feeling of guilt, then of shame, then depression, then sadness, then of an inner openness, in which we realise the interconnectedness of beings.
Melancholy is a feeling that can be wallowed in, or it can be overcome – at least, I think this is where Morton is pointing. From a personal view it seems that, in relation to climate change, everyone is mourning in expectation of loss, because sadness in the twenty-first century is such a seductively simple emotion. It is a challenge and an art to think one’s way out of it. Climate change and biodiversity loss are indeed terrible, almost inconceivable things. Sadness at what is happening and guilt for being, even to a minor extent, complicit in the destruction are perhaps instinctive reactions. But following this impulse I suggest that there is a need, amongst those defending the environment, for a certain exculpation and overcoming of bad conscience. In melancholy, as I have touched upon here, lies the perceived disjunction of a species and its environment. If humans dwell too long upon the guilt and mourn what is lost, then the more that the climate changes, the more they will believe that they are walking ever further from Eden over an increasingly unbearable Earth. And such sadness and guilt leads to despair, a stagnant pool whence no good action springs.
 Quindecim Signa ante diem Judicii" (ed. in Furnivall, Hymns to the Virgin and Christ EETS OS 23, 118-25.)
 Benjamin, W. (trans. E. Jephcott) ‘On Language as Such and the Language of Man’ Reflections (New York: Schocken Books, 1986) p.329-330.
 Derrida, J. (Trans D. Wills) ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ Critical Enquiry (Winter 2002) p.394.
 Derrida, J. (Trans. D Wills) ‘The Animal That Therefore I Am (More to Follow)’ Critical Enquiry 28 (Winter 2002) p.381.
 Adorno, T. ‘Part III: Models. World Spirit and Natural History. Excursus on Hegel’ Negative Dialectics (1966), p.351. Available online at: http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/adorno/1966/negative-dialectics/ch04.htm
 Monbiot, G., ‘Natural Aesthetes’ in Bring on the Apocalypse (London: Guardian Books 2008), p.56.
 Monbiot, G., ‘Natural Aesthetes’ in Bring on the Apocalypse (London: Guardian Books 2008), p.55.
 Collar, N. J. ‘Beyond Value: Biodiversity and Freedom of the Mind’ in Global Ecology and Biogeography 12, p.269.
 Talk available at: http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/