Wednesday, August 15, 2018

#227 / What Kind Of Planet?

Earle C. Ellis, writing in The New York Times, is asking, "What Kind of Planet Do We Want?" That's the headline found on the hard-copy version of his opinion piece in the August 12, 2018, edition of the paper. The online version puts it this way: "Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have To Do That."

Ellis is a professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. He has written a book titled, Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction. The publisher's website says that the book "presents the Anthropocene more broadly as a new narrative forcing a radical revision of age-old questions concerning humans and our relationship with nature." In short, Ellis is arguing that humans are now in charge of the World of Nature and that we had better get used to it. The old idea, that "Mother Nature" supports us, is simply not true anymore, and "natural limits simply don't mean much." 

I am sorry to have to admit that Ellis appears to be right that human beings have allowed themselves to become so enchanted with their own powers that we have forgotten that we are dependent, ultimately, on the World of Nature, which we did not create. And despite one way of reading what Ellis says, Nature does impose limits, with its inexorable laws, and those limits mean everything. We ignore the laws of Nature at our peril. I fear that Ellis' assertions that we can now substitute in for Nature, and collectively "save the Earth," are a kind of whistling past the graveyard, to use an expression that translates as follows: "To enter a situation with little or no understanding of the possible consequences."

Considering how hot it is going to get in future years, the wildfires this summer are like a first little taste of wine the sommelier pours out for the connoisseur, to see how it suits. We have already tasted enough to know it doesn't suit! As our glasses fill, and spill over, we are going to be drinking in a rancid vintage that is the result of our heedlessness of Nature and its limits, a heedlessness tied to our thought (ironically echoed by Ellis, who is playing the role of the sommelier) that WE can substitute in for Nature, and that our human world, not the World of Nature, is primary and all-important, and that WE can save the Earth.

I would like to suggest we can't. The best we can do is to try to save ourselves and our human civilization. Trying to take over operational control of the planet, as though we have the actual ability to decide "what kind of planet we want," is surely an illusion. On my recent trip to Ashland, Oregon, to see Shakespeare plays, the air quality in Ashland was rated the "worst in the world" on one of the days I was there. Wildfires up and down the West Coast did it. Also, Beijing must have been having a good day! 

The Holy fire reflects across the water while burning in the Cleveland National Forest.
I do agree with Ellis that the key question for us now is whether or not we can cooperate (and on a global scale, too):

The greatest challenge of our time is not how to live within the limits of the natural world, or how to overcome such limits. It isn’t about optimizing our planet to better serve humanity or the rest of nature. To engage productively with the world we are creating, we must focus on strategies for working more effectively together across all of our diverse and unequal social worlds.

Our challenge, in other words, is a "political" one. We cannot supersede the laws that govern the World of Nature. Our refusal to acknowledge this fact has brought us to where we are. All we can do is to make laws for ourselves, to govern our conduct. If we can cooperate, as Ellis correctly says we must, some kind of human civilization may be salvaged. If we succeed, however, we are not going to be choosing the kind of planet we want to have. As we can already tell from the first sip of the wine of global warming, what Nature is going to serve us up will be very dry, and it will be very hot.* If we succeed in surviving, we will be living on a vastly different planet.

Some people continue to believe that we don't need to submit ourselves to the World of Nature and its limits. They want to move to Mars! My friend Mr. Dylan once put it this way: "I just said, Good Luck!"

* See "The Big Melt

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