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from the November 2020 issue

Toward Our Common Destruction: Humans and the Environment

Our November 2020 issue, the second part of our double issue of writing on the climate crisis that began last month, coincides with an inauspicious date: as of November 4, 2020, Donald Trump has made official the United States’ breach of its commitment to the landmark 2015 Paris accord on climate change, the second time in two decades that the US agreed to and then failed to honor its commitments to an international climate pact.

The protagonist of this month’s work is, by and large, the natural world in its multitudes: the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, still the deadliest in history; a mother whale and the dead calf born to her on Puget Sound, which she carried for seventeen days; torrential rains flooding Luanda; an imposing elephant stirring the sands along the Ganges; and the mangrove forests of Bahia, Brazil. Yet something else binds this month’s work together: the symbiosis, sometimes tacit, sometimes not, of mankind and the planet.

Photographer Eliseu Cavalcante’s photo essay, from his ongoing series Ser Manguezal/Man-Grove, takes us to the mangrove forests of Belmonte, in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. Inspired by Brazilian writer and geographer Josué de Castro’s 1967 work Of Crabs and Men, which envisions men as crabs learning to navigate the mangrove, Cavalcante’s striking images evoke this vital habitat and throw into relief the interdependence of man and mangrove. Through Cavalcante’s work, we are reminded in no uncertain terms that climate destruction spells our own doom.

Fiction by Ondjaki, translated here by Stephen Henighan, gives us a farcical view of urban catastrophe provoked by human folly. In “The Sky’s Seams Burst,” excerpted from Ondjaki’s 2004 novel Quantas madrugadas tem a noite (How many dawns has the night), we recognize the frequently absurd search for alternate explanations that might exculpate us from any responsibility in climate disaster. In the drenched Angolan capital, Luanda, Ondjaki portrays a society hell-bent on capitalizing even on its own demise, its craven businessmen looking to turn suffering to profit as neighborhood after neighborhood succumbs to the floodwaters. The only thing to save us from this tragic picture is the writer’s wry account of human irrationality.

Transporting us from urban rivers to the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Washington state, Isabel Zapata, translated by Robin Myers, depicts the intertwined destinies of a mother orca, her dead calf, and the pilot of an empty plane that is rapidly losing fuel and altitude, reminding us of the ways in which “we all move, unknowingly, at every moment, toward our destruction.” Zapata’s verses memorialize two 2018 events that drew international attention—a mother orca’s seventeen-day, thousand-mile odyssey carrying her dead calf through off the Pacific Northwest coast and Horizon Air employee Richard Russell’s theft of a passenger jet used to ride to his death—events which, as a result of air traffic control recordings, became forever linked. Before bringing the plane down on Ketron Island, the pilot expresses his dying wish: to catch a glimpse of the whale faithfully carrying her dead child.

The same majesty that awes Zapata’s doomed pilot likewise strikes Yu Jian in his poem “Elephant,” translated by Xin Xu. Jian composes an elegy to “a defeated god, approaching the dusk of time” as it marches across Asia to its death. Chased toward an untimely end, this “robed king” glimpses a pack of lions for whom the elephant’s final journey seems a dire portent, the twin fates of these mighty beasts a reminder that even the most powerful cannot elude their demise.

If Zapata and Jian offer us the certainty of the end, Markéta Pilátová evokes the agony of a conclusion whose hour is unknown. In an excerpt from her novel Tsunami Blues—rendered into English by Sára Foitová—Pilátová reminds us of the fragility of life in a world ravaged by ever more frequent climate disasters. When news of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia arrives in Prague, a young musician’s instructor and her grandmother wait tensely by the phone for the call confirming that she has survived the deadly waves.

The writing here serves as a stark and unequivocal warning of the human cost of environmental destruction. As it emphasizes human dependence on the Earth’s various biomes, it makes explicit the inadequacy of terms like climate change and environmental crisis: this fight is not just for our forests and oceans, comes the increasingly urgent warning—it is for our common survival.


© Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.

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