By Vivian Lehrer Stadlin – 4/14/2021
I recently finished the single most important book I’ve ever read: “The Overstory,” the Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel by Richard Powers. It’s a compelling, beautiful read — if you get no further in this article, here is my strongest book recommendation.
Without spoilers, I can say “The Overstory” catalyzed for me a worldview shift that was more healing and clarifying than years of therapy. I feel it now in my heart as much as my head: The natural world, of which we humans are just one part, is far more intelligent and alive than I realized. And the individualistic, commodifying mindset predominant in our society — in which we see the rest of the natural world as “our resources,” think of humans as the source of all meaning, and endlessly aim for convenience, growth and material affluence — is unsustainable to the point that our species may cease to exist, sooner rather than later.
I was surprised to be so gobsmacked by this book, as I already considered myself fairly savvy about climate change and the existential crisis we face. But by helping me see from the expanded time scale of trees, the book reframed “normal” for me. The “ordinary” cities, highways, strip malls and backyards I’ve seen since birth are, in fact, stretches of clearcut forest just a few hundred years old — a bare microsecond, evolutionarily speaking. Amazing as Weavers Way is, there is nothing normal about being able to get food and goods from anywhere in the world delivered to my doorstep in two days.
“The Overstory” suggests that if the earth’s four-billion-year history were a 24-hour day, anatomically modern humans don’t come onto the scene until four seconds to midnight, and the first cave paintings don’t appear until one second is left.
“And in a thousandth of a click of the second hand,” Powers writes, “life solves the mystery of DNA and starts to map the tree of life itself. By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.”
Over the past few hundred years, he continues, we’ve been “cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.”
A character in “The Overstory” reflects that the “greatest flaw of the [human] species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth…. We’re all operating in a dense fog of mutual reinforcement. Our thoughts are shaped primarily by legacy hardware that evolved to assume that everyone else must be right.”
Taking this cue, I want to signalboost Power’s insight that now feels obvious: “We’ve been looting natural capital and hiding the costs. But the bill is coming, and we won’t be able to pay.”
Many people don’t realize that the current pandemic is part of our looting bill. In a recent GQ magazine interview, Powers was asked how it was that he’d been able to predict this pandemic. He explained that for both the current pandemic and the SARS-1 pandemic in 2003, the vector was animals whose behaviors had changed because of habitat loss. “It’s not prophecy; it’s memory,” he said.
As we continue decimating forests and other animal habitats, we will shake free further novel viruses. Powers added that we’re lucky COVID-19 hasn’t proven even deadlier. “Not many people realize we’ve dodged a bullet,” he said, referring to other human-unleashed viruses and blights that had 100% mortality rates for plant and animal species.
Do I really believe any action I take will be able to slow, let alone stop, our belief in human exceptionalism and human dominance? The world’s population is rising by the population of Des Moines each day, according to World Population Balance. Humans aren’t evolved to think on long time scales. Species, forests and potable water continue to disappear. Fossil fuel use continues to climb. We have forgotten how to live in this world.
But I like Bill McKibben’s philosophy in the intro to his new book, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” He writes, “I live in a state of engagement, not despair.”
One personal silver lining to the pandemic, which I acknowledge comes from my tremendous privilege, has been a shift from commodity culture — where success is largely defined by what we own, and we receive messages of, “Be all you can be! The world is your oyster!” — to a way of living more where I am. I’m enjoying cooking meals, being with family, and walking in the woods. The more meaning I can derive from community and connection, with people and other life forms, the more fully human I feel.
This is why my family and I switched our utilities suppliers from PGW and PECO to The Energy Co-op, so that the gas and electricity in our home comes from more renewable sources. We’re investing in gentler, more hopeful technologies.
The odds for our species may be increasingly long, but I consider the human game to be worth playing as inclusively as possible. Joining the Energy Co-op is one of the more impactful actions I can take in this direction. And I like that switching was extremely easy. I signed up on their website, but I still get my bills and autopay from PGW and PECO. There are no new online accounts; and there’s no increased risk of service interruptions or other issues.
What makes “The Overstory’’ ultimately healing, even in the face of bleak truths, is how it helps us feel our place in the larger family of beings and in a larger scope of time. So I aspire to use my Energy Co-op energy in line with this idea from the book: “When you cut down a tree, what you make from it should be at least as miraculous as what you cut down.”
Originally published in Weavers Way Co-op’s The Shuttle, April 2021