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Let Us Become the Responsive Species Carsten Jensen 

Carsten Jensen 
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The elephant doesn’t dream of a trunk the length of a fire hose. The blue whale doesn’t want to become a kilometre long. Bigger isn’t always better. Nature knows boundaries: humans don’t. It is our sick dream of eternal, relentless growth that has set us on a collision course with nature. 

Not only are humans at the top of the food chain, but we are also responsible for the sixth mass extinction in the planet’s history, wielding the same power and status as a geological catastrophe. We are waging an extinction war on a planet that is home to fewer and fewer species. We enclose nature, clothe it in the straitjacket of monoculture, and exhaust and exploit it until, reduced to our slave, it dies of overexertion. We call this barbarity progress, and the dictates of growth demand boundless production, performance, and overconsumption in an endless cycle, shaping each of us more deeply than any totalitarian state has managed to mould its subjects. 

We have become estranged from the future. We can no longer envision it as a brighter time, a better world to look forward to. Instead, it has become a dumping-ground for our unresolved problems, even though it is our children and grandchildren who are its shareholders, to use the reductionist language with which the all-dominant market economy has indoctrinated us. Our language suggests that Earth is ours, that we are its masters: not just supreme, but superior beings in a hierarchical system we ourselves have invented. 

If we look at the planet’s biomass, we are insignificant. Of Earth’s total biomass of 550 gigatons, humanity’s eight billion lives account for one-tenth of a percent. Fungi weigh twenty times more than us and perform infinitely more useful work for the planet’s survival than we do. Plants, bushes, weeds, grasses, and trees are the true heroes of the Earth, and if the intelligence of living beings were measured by their ability to survive, then they are what Darwin actually had in mind when he developed his theory of ‘Survival of the Fittest,’ not us. 


We want to live safely, and well, and long. But we do not extend the same hope for the beings we share the planet with. Nature generously gave us everything, and we have responded with a chokehold called progress and development. This turns every day into a referendum on the future: Should we release our stranglehold on Earth or continue to tighten it? Will Earth die in our hands? Or can we all breathe together? 

So what should we do with our hands when we remove them from the Earth’s windpipe? They must not rest idly. We must build a new and greener world that is slower, gentler, and more caring. We must think of ourselves as the ancestors of the many generations ahead and not view the future as a landfill site for unresolved problems. We must be like the grandfather who plants a tree under whose shade he knows he will never sit. We must say, as the Apache Indians do: ‘We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.’ 

We deprive and degrade the Earth with our monoculture and artificial fertilisers. Nitrogen suffocates life in streams and lakes. The fish disappear from our fjords and oceans. Birds and insects fall silent. The elements are interconnected. But earth, water, and air are now filled with CO2 emissions from the arsonists in the still-dominant fossil fuel industry. 

It’s not about loving nature; it’s about realising our deep connectedness with it. We humans are not unique creatures who can treat the Earth as our private property. The Earth belongs to the creatures who inhabit it, from microorganisms to whales in the ocean, and it’s not just an aesthetic or emotional loss if the most prominent or beautiful species disappear. We are part of a necessary life cycle, an ecosystem of mutual interdependence that is capable of collapsing. The world we live in is like a vast coral reef, where every creature lives in mutual accordance and dependence, and when a coral reef fails, a chain reaction of death ensues. 

We live in an intimate relationship with nature as a partner, but we confuse cohabitation with manipulation. We know far too little about the other organisms we depend on. The more control we gain over them through increasingly advanced technology, the less we seem to know about them. We are paying a terrible price for that ignorance. 

Let us become the responsive species and recognise that even what happens far from our gaze, in a dense forest, beyond a mountain range, or under the floorboards, has a message for us. Clouds have a grammar, the sun is an exclamation mark, rain is a fable, and the end of the story is also about us. 

Let us cultivate the elevated qualities we can find in every tree, such as necessary resistance, peaceful courage, energy, seriousness, and persistence. Let words and music be the fifth element, along with earth, fire, water, and air. Let us use them to discover, journey, understand, reconcile, and be reconciled. 

Imagine that the flowers of the Earth welcome us, and that something new germinates inside us. Imagine the return of the stars in a night sky that speaks to us again. Imagine that we hear galaxies sing a lullaby for Earth. Just imagine for a moment that we learn to listen, and realise that the fruit of wisdom is the simple understanding that the world is not ours.


Carsten Jensen is an essayist, travel writer, novelist, public commentator and a founding member of Writers Rebel’s Danish sister group, Forfatterer ser Grønt. His many award-winning works include I Have Seen The World Begin, The First Stone, and the international best-seller We, The Drowned.