The Earth in Fragments: A Memoir by Michael Charles Tobias
An epic book that seeks kindness for and a peace treaty with our wounded planet.
Posted Jan 16, 2021
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 Here, we learn about his newest book, The Earth in Fragments: A Memoir, a veritable history of the environmental movement. This remarkable trans-disciplinary 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 his son slaughtered 512 vertebrates in East Africa in 1909. (p. 142)
Why did you write The 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 and/or 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 minuscule journey in heart and mind.
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 3-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 bocher, 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 lifelong 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 era 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 psychosis 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 the 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, hybridization, exploitation, and mass slaughter of so many other species—it 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 policymakers 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, the 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.
1) Michael Tobias is an ecologist, author, filmmaker, historian, explorer, anthropologist, educator, and non-violence activist. His work encompasses ecological anthropology and aesthetics, the history of ideas, environmental psychology, comparative literature, philosophy and ethics, global biodiversity field research, systematics, deep demography, animal rights, and animal liberation. In addition, he focuses on aspects of zoosemiotics and ethology, and the critical links between human demographic pressure (various population issues) and the genetic corridors and diverse remaining habitats on Earth. More details can be found here.
2) The book's description reads:
As a child, Michael Charles Tobias encountered a wolf caged in a zoo. Gazing upon the pacing, desperate animal, Tobias asked his father, “Why is he in jail?” For over half a century, Tobias has roamed the Earth in search of an answer. This memoir is a testimony to Tobias’s field research, expeditions, deliberations, and some answers to that haunting question. Systems ecologist, philosopher, historian of ideas, anthropologist, ethicist, and philanthropist, Tobias has emerged as one of the most influential and far-reaching ecological philosophers of this generation. The Earth in Fragments: A Memoir by Michael Charles Tobias chronicles many of his most incisive areas of research, activism, and philosophical inflections.
Much of the data, conveyed in a personal and enlightening series of recollections, lends incisive clarity to the emergence and escalating challenges of the environmental and life sciences fields. Tobias shares glimpses into many of the often ethically-harrowing research conundrums confronting him and his wife, Jane Gray Morrison, as they have effectively endeavored throughout the globe, focusing upon animal rights and conservation biology initiatives. Their more than 50 books and 75 films have shed a powerful spotlight on many of the most pressing issues of our time.
The anecdotes pour forth from an ancient monastery in the Sinai, across the Himalayas, to the Arctic and Antarctic, where Tobias was among the first to draw global attention to the crises mounting across the Last Continent. We see him behind the scenes, directing the ambitious 10-hour drama, “Voice of the Planet,” in two dozen countries, examining the Gaia Hypothesis; conducting a project in the heart of the 1989 catastrophic oil spill in Alaska; his irrepressible quest to understand the runaway train of human overpopulation across the planet in his book and accompanying PBS film World War III. We follow his probing philosophical meditations-in-action as an animal liberationist from California, Mali, Kenya, China, Greece, and Russia. We see his appeal for a “new human nature” in cutting-edge scientific research calling for an interspecies revolution that is at once pantheistic, ethically holistic, and as imaginative and ecologically paradoxical as it is pragmatic.
The reader is led through a dazzling and provocative labyrinth of deeply moving eco-science in countries like New Zealand, Madagascar, Brazil, Chile’s Rapa Nui, and throughout Europe, West Africa and Asia. From the Ecuadorian Amazon to Haiti, from Mozambique, Yemen, and Namibia to Borneo, Tobias and Morrison have worked to bring critical conservation strategies and policy priorities to government leaders and scientists throughout the world.
With insights from paleontology, Renaissance art history, deep demography, and the most recent advances in biodiversity conservation and biosemiotics, Tobias leads readers on an exquisite and uplifting journey that, while describing much devastation, provides hopeful glimpses into a near future that is not only possible but essential for the well-being of the world, as viewed, lived, and chronicled by one man at the heart of the Anthropocene.
3) For more interviews with Michael including some with his wife Jane Gray Morrison see: Anthrozoology: Embracing Co-existence in the Anthropocene; A Rewilding Mandate: A Conversation with Michael Tobias; The Psychology of "Saving the World" in the Anthropocene; How Evolution Can Help Us Solve Problems; and Deep Eco-Psychology, Non-Violent Activism, and Science.