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Every Breath: a short essay

Every breath is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come.”   — David Suzuki

It was more than twenty years ago that I attended a lecture by the acclaimed ​Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki at Newcastle’s Civic Theatre. There are two things that I remember quite clearly from that night. The first was the thought that we all share the same air and that through the motion of the atmosphere my next breath would inexorably spread around the globe to be shared by all living creatures, just as it had done to reach me. The second thing I recall was his angered response to a young woman’s innocent question about the connection between the economy and the global environment. Back then it was clear — at least in Suzuki’s mind — that the health of the economy paid little respect to the health of the globe.

Today that incompatibility is becoming starkly clear to us all. We no longer talk of the golden future of the global community, but endlessly of global warming, global terrorism and the troubled global economy. Globalisation and free trade seem to be for the benefit of corporations, but at the expense of the environment, middle class jobs and local culture. Social and environmental value are sidelined by economic value as the measure of our success while the political process has been reduced to the three word slogan of ‘jobs and growth’. Yet the response from the populace, as seen in the Brexit and Trump victories, is increasingly to place blame on ‘the others’ — such as immigrants and Muslims — and retreat into nationalistic isolation. In these times of looming environmental and social crisis there is a clear need for new approaches to promoting a reconnection — a coexistence — with nature and each other at all levels: individual, community and global.

The Norwegian economist and psychologist Per Espen Stoknes, like Suzuki, proposes that the air can be the medium for that reconnection. Stoknes asks that we imagine the air as a living thing; not as an autonomous entity, but rather as a vital collaborator in the living earth. Just as it is impossible to separate from our existence the symbiotic microbes in our gut it is also impossible to separate the atoms and molecules of air that permeate our being and the planet around us, connecting all living things. Stoknes sees evidence for this connection both in our ancient spiritual concept of nature and our contemporary scientific view of the world.

Our perception of the world is mediated and enabled by the air — the beauty of a sunset, the mystery of fog, the scent of a forest or the sea, the touch of a breeze on our face, or the blunt force of a gale. For many ancient cultures the air was even more than this — it was spiritual and closely tied with life. The Greeks believed that the world was composed of the four elements of earth, air, water and fire. From the Greek psukhẽ, meaning “breath, life, soul”, we have psychology, literally “to give an account of our life-breath”; and from the Latin spiritus — meaning “to breathe” — we have spirit. In the roots of Christianity, the original Hebrew word for “the Spirit of God” means great wind and amongst the Navajo, like many indigenous cultures today, the concept of a “Holy Wind” embodies the association between life, breath and air. We seem to have lost this ancient and innate sense that we are part of the air and nature.

Perhaps science can take some blame for this loss, but it has also given us the tools to understand how the components of the air permeate every system of the natural world. We know of the grand cycles of water, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that govern those systems and how they involve an intricate exchange between the atmosphere, the oceans, rivers and lakes, the soil and the biosphere. We can also quantify and expand on  Suzuki’s claim. It takes about 12 months for the first breath of a newborn child in Britain or Syria to reach Australia. If we consider argon, the inert gaseous element that takes no part in the earth’s chemistry but bears witness to its history, we can determine that every breath we take includes around 15 atoms of the argon that our predecessors breathed in their lifetime — whether that be our direct ancestors, Hitler, the prophet Mohamed, or a polar bear. We model climate processes and how they are disrupted by the release of ancient buried carbon into the atmosphere by our industry. The same carbon is taken into our bodies through the carbon cycle and photosynthesis in plants — all of the carbon in our bodies was once part of another living organism. Now, 150 years into the fossil fuel age, one eighth of that carbon was once coal, oil or gas with its origin in organisms that lived 100’s of millions of years in the past. We are part of the ancient and grand cycles of nature.

We cannot ignore the fact that from our first breath to our last the air we breathe connects us to the cycles of nature and every living thing — past, present and future — and  that the air observes no social or political borders. Whether this realisation guides us towards a pantheistic world-view, or simply promotes a reconnection with nature and each other, the knowledge can only help to foster a greater respect for how we treat the atmosphere and the earth and, by extension, an increased empathy for those that share it with us.

Further reading: 

  • Per Espen Stoknes, “What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming”, 2015
  • Curt Stager, “Your Atomic Self: The invisible elements that connect you to everything else in the universe”, 2014

First published in 2016 as the catalogue essay for the Every Breath exhibition.

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