Learning to Die

5 March 2019

“Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis”
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 9-780889-775633

Not many writers get their books blurbed by Margaret Atwood, but BC writers and scholars Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky earned that honour with their small and powerful hat-trick of essays, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. These “Truth-filled mediations about grace in the face of mortality” (Atwood) are well-researched, highly educational, and eminently thought-provoking warnings about the fate of our world and species.

Bringhurst authored the first essay, “The Mind of the Wild”. He maintains that there’s much we should – but have not – learned from “the wild,” which “is in control of itself and has room within it for humans but does not need and cannot tolerate human domination”. What’s this wild he speaks of? “Everything that grows and breeds and functions without supervision or imposed control,” or, more succinctly, “earth living its life to the full”. Bringhurst argues that humans are essentially committing suicide with our attempts to “tame” the already “sane” natural world.

What makes this essay so remarkable is the combination of exceptional writing, science (ie: the role cyanobacteria played in changing earth’s atmosphere) and statistics, and Bringhurst’s ability to bring it all home with his use of concrete examples, ie: when the sun’s diameter expands to epic proportions, a couple of billion years from now, “Your books, your bones, your lichen-covered headstones, and your dreams will be a plasma of broken atoms”. He advocates “letting the facts form a poem in your mind” (a quote from physicist Michael Faraday, 1858) and getting into the wild, all on your lonesome, to “calibrate your mind”. As one who regularly practices “forest breathing,” this makes clear sense to me.

Zwicky’s cerebral contribution, “A Ship from Delos,” is dedicated to virtue and the good example set by Socrates. (Like that famous Athenian, Zwicky is a philosopher, and she believes that her hero – who was “condemned to death for crimes against the state,” – was innocent, and has much to teach us.) On this eve of “Catastrophic global ecological collapse,” she decries that politicians and policy-makers are not acting quickly enough. Nor are we regular humans of the first-world who “live comfortable air-conditioned lives, surrounded by a vast array of plastics and energy-consuming conveniences, who drive SUVS, have several children, eat a lot of meat, and travel frequently by air”. Despite the grim ecological forecast, “industrialized humans are not destroying everything. Being will be here. Beauty will be here”. She suggests that a cocktail of awareness, humility, courage, self-control, compassion, justice, contemplative practice, and a sense of humour is what the world needs now. Buying thrift-store clothing, eating locally, and walking rather than driving are just a few of the ways we can practice self-control in the 21st century.

The final piece, a collaboration between the authors, focuses on Harvard’s Dr. Steven Pinker’s overly sunny view and his habit of “[bending] the facts” re: Homo sapiens‘ fate.

Bringhurst encourages us to “[think] like an ecosystem”. Yes. Only then can we “go down singing”.


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