As you lie under a sprawling oak, admiring the play of sun and shade, it's easy to fall for the illusion that all is well with the beautiful earth. But your reverie is shattered. The thought hits you, like a cold slap, that your young grandchildren, and multitudes of other people's children and grandchildren, might not be able to enjoy this kind of pastoral delight when they're fifty-eight years old like you.
You shudder as you picture the world they might inherit (if they or anyone can survive long enough to inherit it). A scorched planet, massive death and dislocation, social breakdown on an unprecedented global scale, possibly even human extinction--such are the not-implausible scenarios for what climate degradation might do to the world in the coming decades if society remains unwilling and unable to confront it.
A nonreligious person, you naturally ask yourself some daunting questions: What would it matter to the vast indifferent universe if life were snuffed out on Earth? What sense of loss or lament could there be if its human inhabitants were no longer alive and, thus, not conscious of this non-existence and the nightmare that caused it?
What do you do? Shrug and carry on? Party like it's 1999? Climb that glaciated peak while there's still a glacier? Extract the last few scraps of utility from late-stage capitalism while you still can? Or go back to bed--and stay?
Then it occurs to you that it's all quite simple. We humans are a form of life, like that gracious tree that shades you, like the bees you see buzzing around the wooden-box hives someone built for them forty yards over. And it occurs to you that because you are a form of life you should listen to your life instinct and do what it tells you, that you should watch what life is doing--and do it.
Which is, simply, to keep life going. And try to make it better.
If someone told you they wanted to talk about the immeasurable value of "life," you'd probably run to your rhetorical battle station and prepare to argue with a religious-right anti-abortion warrior, wouldn't you?
It's maddening that a concept so simple and essential--life--would be impoverished by such a pinched view and weighed down by such heavy, divisive baggage. It's unacceptable that narrow, politically motivated discourse has been allowed to shrink it, corner it, weaponize it, distort it, damage it, and discredit it.
No single segment of society owns the urgent conversation about life or the project to wrestle with its continuation and meaning. To be secular and humanist and progressive does not mean one lacks a deep regard for life, as the self-serving anti-abortion rhetoric suggests.
To state the ridiculously obvious, humanists value life. We want life, too. If anything, we want it more expansively than those who've co-opted the term. We exalt more life, better life--for all people alive, now and in the future, and for all the myriad forms of life with which humankind is interwoven and on which it depends.
Humanists have, in fact, a crucial contribution to make to this conversation and project, and an ideal vantage point from which to make it. With no illusions about heavenly interventions and consolations, we can...