Source: Porapak Apichodilok, Pexels free download.
For many years, I’ve followed the important and groundbreaking work of one of the most eclectic scientists and one of the most productive writers and filmmakers I’ve ever known, Michael Charles Tobias.1 So, it is my pleasure to offer this interview with him about his newest book, The Earth in Fragments: A Memoir by Michael Charles Tobias, a veritable history of the environmental movement. This remarkable transdisciplinary work, an epic journey, is an ecological confessional in the rich vein of Jean-Paul Sartre and Aldo Leopold in which Michael has created a masterpiece of reflection that will seduce, illuminate, and challenge readers to seek at long last a true peace treaty with the planet.2,3 It’s also filled with very interesting facts: I had no idea that Theodore Roosevelt and son slaughtered 512 vertebrates in East Africa 1909! (p. 142) Here’s what Michael had to say about a book for the ages.
Why did you write Earth in Fragments?
The year 2020 caved in upon all of us. I personally hit something of an introspective milestone that mirrored many other such personal conceptual collapses I’ve experienced/witnessed throughout many decades. In this case “I” ceased to matter so thoroughly as to be liberating. Knowing that our observational status as an organism has for many thousands of years put us in a predictable, but nonetheless potently awkward position biologically, I made the decision to seek out what I describe as ecological fragments that populate my own miniscule journey in heart and mind.
Source: Michael Charles Tobias, with permission.
I curated several dozen incidents, initiatives, hopes and dreams that have preoccupied my labors; in my mind at night, my pounding heart, from the backyard to art museums; in over one hundred countries on every continent, across every conceivable terrain, purposefully endeavoring to accomplish something during nearly 70 human years. I start the book at a zoo, staring at a caged, pacing wolf, when I was a three-year old utterly horrified by this captivity before me. A narrative spun out against the framework of an endangered biosphere – and all her progeny -about which we know next to nothing, but for whom we feel everything.
How does your book relate to your background and general areas of interest?
I am an ecological yeshiva bucher and The Earth In Fragments is its clarion call. I have been fortunate to have a wonderful family. And then I met a remarkable individual: Jane Gray Morrison, my wife, soulmate and partner of going on 35 years–opera singer, poet, walking encyclopedia, with an utterly devoted, singular but shared passion for other species and habitats; great art, literature, humor, expeditions, filmmaking, writing, thinking, discussing, engaging at every conceivably interesting level. The joy of a life-long love affair is also the most powerful tool for gauging just how fragile, fleeting and important life herself is: every one of life’s trillions of thinking, feeling organisms, all interdependent souls (some even more than others); with their own sacred sovereignties and missions that must be respected, and–in my opinion–revered. I remain more committed than ever to all of them. Each and every one. Whatever I can do in the urgent effort to assist the amelioration of suffering all around me: that is my “area of interest”.
Who is your intended audience?
Anyone. Everyone. No one is ever excluded.
What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of your major messages?
The book’s website at Nova Science Publishers in New York lists all 34 chapters. The geography of the odysseys described therein encompasses selected regions of particular passion for me: Alaska, Ecuador, Suriname, Antarctica, from Ladakh to Bhutan, Greece, India, Mozambique, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, the Sinai Peninsula, the Socotra Archipelago of Yemen, Haiti, Indonesia, New Zealand, Japan, China, Russia, Scotland, Belgium and France, and a few others.
My concerns are quite explicit. What are the psychological challenges for a single species, H. sapiens, which, for tens-of-thousands of years, certainly since the Late Pleistocene ending some 11,750 years ago, has had few guardrails to curtail its sense of moral and physical superiority to all other Beings? We can most readily ascertain the consequences of this psychos is by examining past and current records of our treatment of one another. That is not to ignore the good and virtuous ledgers of our kind. Rather, to point emphatically to that which is undeniably counter to earlier notions that biological altruism is nothing more than “selfish genes” working to ensure that reproductive “success” remains somehow the ultimate blue ribbon of evolution. That natural selection selects for selfishness. It’s theoretically inaccurate. And in practice even more so.
Altruism at individual and community levels is everything. Generosity, the capacity to respect and revere nature and all her offspring, is the real story. It is the one we should be focused on, and there is no time to lose.
Throughout my experience, and many of those incidents and beliefs revealed in The Earth In Fragments, there is the argument for ambiguity: are the fragments those literally biotic islands that have not yet been entirely devastated by our kind; or do they refer to glasses half-full? In fact, the Anthropocene–the sixth major extinction spasm in documented biological history, an epoch deemed the emphatic result of human collective behavior – has already so altered percentages of wild biomass versus the human appropriation of net primary production, like photosynthesis; our breeding and hybridization, exploitation and mass slaughter of so many other species–adds up to an astonishingly high ratio that should shake us to our core. There are no half-full glasses, not in ecological terms, not anymore. We, the dominating species (including the predacious organisms – some viruses in particular–for which we are community hosts) have a material cause that is the only true challenge of this generation. It is set forth vividly in case after case throughout my book. What can we do to formulate personal and community standards that are ethically sane, generous and immediately far more sustainable than where we are presently at?
What are some of your current projects?
Jane and I, and our immediate cohorts here in the U.S. and in places like Southern India and Bhutan and elsewhere are endeavoring to provide sanctuary for indigenous and otherwise doomed species; and to create conservation biology and animal liberation blueprints that might be of modest if imperative use by policy makers and legislators. We have another book just out on Bhutan and another, rather ambitious book on “the nature of ecological paradox” about to come out. And then there are films in development, other books, etc.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell readers?
“The biological equal sign is the ultimate measure of fairness, and jurisprudence; the test of true decency and kindness. There is no other way, and there is little time left.” –The Earth in Fragments, p. 316
Kindness. Unstinting, unconditional, continuous kindness. If we as individuals can work out, and better communicate vegan lifestyles, zero population growth for a few generations, massive adoption of orphans, ensuring that no human or other vertebrate go hungry, carbon and methane negative technologies, a comprehensive reform of all the more than 3,700 existing environmental treaties to ensure actual effective monitoring and policing of those agreements, a full embrace of re-wilding modalities, legal ecological repatriation to indigenous peoples everywhere whose lives, landscapes and cultures have been so ravaged, and an economic, political and moral embrace of Bhutanese Gross National Happiness, well…that would be a start.