By Liza Field
It’s RSVP time around here.
The message comes in late spring — formal invitations to weddings, graduations or recitals — the quaint “RSVP” stamped in black curlicue at the bottom.
“Don’t worry,” said a hostess whose invitation I’d stuck in a paper-pile, forgetting it until that event was already celebrated and gone. Almost nobody had sent a response, even among those who showed up, she said. “People don’t know what ‘RSVP’ means anymore.”
But people do. My teen students even send it via text message, so apparently the acronym still lives.
Southern grandmothers made sure my own generation knew how to “Respond if it pleases you” — and even if it didn’t. It had pleased someone else to invite you to the table, they reasoned, so why would you not respond, unless you were dead — or gone crazy?
Why indeed. One of the biggest stumpers regarding our highly evolved, intelligent species, today, is its unprecedented inability to respond — particularly to the very world that asked us to the table, our planetary life-support system.
The other species still respond to their world. I’ve seen this in my backyard, this spring.
I’d converted the lawn into a woodland to invite back our declining songbirds and amphibians, and to better absorb rainfall into our languishing water table. It was a puny response to these enormous, widespread problems. But luckily everything the land has invited here brings its own response.
Bees responded to the early oak tassels and cherry blooms, which are now responding to all this pollination. The spongy floors of leaf litter respond to the rain, as do the tree roots, banking this needed water underground.
The trees have invited little singing toads, many songbirds and an owl. The songbirds are voracious insect and grub eaters, providing an immune response for the trees, which in turn cool the air and increase habitat.
This guest list goes on, everyone responding to everyone else, throughout the biosphere.
How about us humans? As the most conscious animal, we’re most able to choose a response. We are the most “responsible.” Nature keeps sending us countless invitations to attend — both its beautiful celebrations and its increasing manmade troubles: mudslides, deforestation, drying-up aquifers, habitat loss.
Each crisis is an opportunity to respond with more wisdom. But as these troubles, climate change and a stunning mass extinction steadily proceed, the humans most able to respond seem unresponsive, as if in a weird coma.
Certainly, the poorest populations on Earth, struggling nobly just to survive droughts and famines, can’t be expected to coordinate a big-picture response. But wealthier populations like ours could respond significantly to the biosphere’s messages.
Perhaps we don’t receive them. Americans, at least, have moved en masse indoors. We’re buffered, temporarily, from the changing climate and vanishing habitats all around us. We no longer notice the world directly.
Instead, we get our knowledge filtered through human media. Planetary awareness is something we leave to the scientists — and then we don’t respond to their findings. Perhaps we’re too bombarded by other messages — including those devised by vested interests to quash any response to the ongoing crises.
These awareness-clogging interests also fund the careers of lawmakers, obliging them to push through laws favoring a few private interests, at the expense of the common good.
Within the past few months, the House of Representatives has produced several such bills that hack away at environmental protections, healthy rivers and public lands. The “Water Rights Protection Act,” wildlife advocates warn, will easily drain many U.S. rivers dry.
The “Restoring Healthy Forests for Healthy Communities Act” aims to aggressively ramp up industrial logging in public lands — just when private lands are being rapidly deforested for Chinese timber markets. The widespread logging degrades watersheds, wildlife habitat and climate.
Regarding habitat itself, Washington state’s Rep. Doc Hastings recently released four proposed bills to gut the Endangered Species Act — a longtime goal of its industry opponents.
The proposals, coded benignly as “common sense improvements” to dodge any outrage response from the public, will hamstring the law and disable any future response of common citizens to the act’s violations.
These examples of our increasingly unresponsive state demonstrate how this human disorder spreads to the biosphere.
Each time we eliminate more species, diverse forest and wetlands, we disable more of the planet’s ability to respond to its other guests — like us. No species lives in isolation; everyone here is responding to everyone else.
That’s why the planet so needs a human response today.
“We’re showing up!” would seem a response more generative of joy, anyhow, than continuing merely to send along our regrets.
Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree-planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.