On Newts and Gentle Giants – A Conversation with Douglas Kysar

Facing the Anthropocene: a webinar series hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics, with Professor Norman Wirzba of Duke Divinity School

Faced with climate change, species extinction, and sea level rise, we are compelled to rethink humanity’s place in the world, as many of the built environments designed for human flourishing now imperil the lives of countless fellow creatures and the places they inhabit. Join leading scholars in political economy, history, anthropology, theology, philosophy, environmental science, and law, as they address these and other questions (including those from the audience):

  • How shall we evaluate and correct the economies and institutions that undermine the bases and flows of life?

  • What can we learn from the past as we look toward the future?

  • Where is there reason for hope?

“I hope she knows I am a gentle giant.”

Douglas Kysar, Yale Professor of Law, recounted his 4-year-old daughter saying these words as she held a small, red-spotted newt in her cupped hands. Kysar, whose work focuses on climate change law and the relationship between human and non-human animals, spoke with Dr. Norman Wirzba for the Facing the Anthropocene series. Their conversation addressed the immensity of the climate change crisis and the need to change the systems that brought us to that crisis. Woven too, throughout the conversation, was a thread of hope: hope in communal action, despite its complexity and unpredictability, and hope in a gentler way of relating to the world, a way akin to holding a newt in our cupped hands.

Kysar began by describing the enormity of the threat of climate change. His statistics were dizzying. Placing the current environmental situation in the context of earth’s history, he demonstrated that we are not in an unprecedented time, but rather, in a time that has not occurred in many, many years – 3 million years, in fact. 2050, Kysar noted, will be comparable to 50 million years ago, when “palm trees grew in Alaska.” Two or three centuries from now, we will be on par with the End-Permian (or Permian-Triassic) mass extinction, when 96 percent of marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial life were destroyed. We are, in fact, barreling toward the sixth mass extinction, and any efforts to brake have been futile.

Kysar went on to outline the potential “tipping elements” which would make the current environmental crisis a point of no return. He cited two main events, the Amazon rainforest’s deterioration (and resultant, massive carbon emission) and rapidly warming Arctic temperatures, as examples of these tipping elements. “We are,” Kysar said, “entering unchartered territory no matter what choices we make from now. We are sledding on melting ice and for the foreseeable future we must live knowing the ice may break beneath us.” Such unchartered territory has trapped humanity in a kind of existential dissonance, where each daily act seems to unwittingly accelerate the earth’s trajectory toward disaster, no matter one’s intention to do otherwise.

With this existential dissonance in full view, Kysar recalled his daughter’s words: “I hope she knows I am a gentle giant.” His daughter’s words reflected a child’s way of being in the world, one built on wonder and communion, a way Kysar suggests we all need to adopt. “I hope” denotes a way of thinking that goes beyond mere reason and instead relies on faith and belief. The characterization of the newt as a “she” speaks to the inherent dignity of a non-human, non-thinking creature. “Giant” testifies to the immense power humanity holds, and “gentle” hints at an ethical obligation in the relationship between the giant and the newt. Kysar leveled his daughter’s words as a challenge to listeners, a logic that runs counter to that which brought us to the current environmental crisis.

How do we become “gentle giants?” Kysar first proposed a rethinking of the systems that got us here, particularly the laws emerging from Enlightenment thinking. He pointedly asked, “How can we surpass those Enlightenment values that enabled, in less than three centuries, a mode and scale of human existence that now threatens the survivability of all life on Earth?” When Wirzba pushed Kysar on the usefulness of “rights” language inherited from this Enlightenment worldview, Kysar asserted that he would rather focus on obligations than rights. The logic of rights is dependent on the rights-holder being a “self-possessed, individual, reliant, autonomous being,” which, according to Kysar, is “not what we are. We are interdependent, socially constituted beings.” The logic of rights, among the logics of capitalism, materialism, individualism, secularism, etc., helped shape a world that is barreling toward non-existence. It has taught us to be giants, but it has no mechanism for teaching us to be gentle.

Kysar did not rule out the power of law to institute change. He cited the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and other foundational environmental acts from the 1970s as examples of laws that “deliberately [and] knowingly eschewed cost-benefit optimization.” These laws purposely set up aspirational, even unachievable aims, not because they were unaware of the economic limitations that rendered them unrealistic, but because they wanted to set up a vision of what ought to be. When we fall short of that vision, these laws provide language for lamenting that shortcoming, which Kysar named as a tragedy rather than an economic cost. Regret over such tragedies becomes “the moral remainder,” an affirmation of the sacredness of all human and non-human life.

Alongside all his evidence of environmental disaster, Kysar also cited evidence of hope: human beings are in fact learning something about gentle communion. When a listener asked how to realistically teach children and students about the current environmental crisis, Kysar spoke of the power of “showing up with hope.” He argued that young people are often desperate to simply act – somehow, some way. Kysar pointed to Greta Thunberg as an example: “Greta Thunberg shows up outside her Parliament one Friday on a school strike and then a year later tens of millions of young people the world over are striking in solidarity with her.” While nine times out of ten, Greta’s act might have gone unnoticed, making a few ripples in an easily stilled pond, this one time, Greta’s actions were cataclysmic. “Something happened,” Kysar stated, “Something magical happened.” By showing up with hope, Greta’s actions had “an outsized influence,” a testimony to the unpredictable, risky, and yet so very promising nature of social relationships.

There is no denying the vast destruction humanity has wrought on the world; we are giants with fragile newts resting in our cupped hands. But alongside our unprecedented capacity to destroy, there is a capacity to hope too. This hope is fragile, risky even, but it is enough to spark the imagination and to inspire ways of relating that are contrary to the systems that brought us here, ways that are softer, gentler, and kinder.

“We can fashion ways of relating both to each other and to the more-than-human world that are… softer,” Kysar concluded. “And become gentle giants, maybe,” Wirzba added. May it be so.

Join us on February 18, 2021 at 12:00 PM (EST) for the next installment in the Facing the Anthropocene series. Dr. Norman Wirzba will be joined by Professor of Environmental Studies Kate Rigby. To register for this webinar and learn more about the series, click here.