Battle in Print: Nature's revenge?

Joe Kaplsinsky, 17 October 2006

Nature brings hurricanes, floods, droughts, famine, pestilence, earthquakes and wildfire. It has long been known that the life of man outside of society is ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’. Through building civilisation we fought off the worst of nature’s depredations, and at long last found ourselves in a position to appreciate its beauty. But now we have a new line of thinking, arguing that the building of civilisation is the problem rather than the solution.

Disaster as ‘nature’s revenge’ captures a number of key ideas in environmental thinking. First, it expresses the sense that what may appear to be natural catastrophes are essentially a response to prior actions initiated by humanity. Today there are no purely natural disasters, and no pure nature. Second, nature’s revenge is the belittling of humanity in the face of nature. The forces that have been unleashed are more powerful than the merely human. Third, the idea of revenge contains an element of ethical judgement. Revenge is seen as a fitting punishment for transgressing against a moral order.

The first theme locates disaster not in nature, but in human actions. In this way nature is upheld as benevolent. Only when provoked does nature turn against us. But more important than the idolisation of nature is the assessment of humanity that this view leads us to. In this picture human beings are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The ecologist Jared Diamond (2005: 505) responds to the idea that technological progress will resolve environmental problems with the observation that it is technology that has brought us to where we are today. ‘What makes you think that…for the first time in human history, technology will miraculously stop causing new unanticipated problems while it just solves the problems that it’s previously produced?’ he asks.

It is not just technology in the narrow sense that is in the dock. The very sophistication of contemporary society is now held to be a source of vulnerability. The intricacy of complex networks and a global division of labour are attacked not just as environmentally unsound (as in discussion of ‘food miles’) but also as susceptible to breakdown. Better to rely on local production of food and energy, we are told. Attempts to create worldwide supply chains are seen as overreaching our capabilities to plan and organise. As such they are asking for trouble and we will only have ourselves to blame when they are disrupted.

The second theme in nature’s revenge, the belittling of humanity, follows on closely from the idea that our interventions in nature are problematic. Human interventions, or ‘techno-fixes’, are derided as crude, bungling affairs, fraught with unforeseen consequences. Set against the forces of nature they are seen as puny efforts. This is where controversies over science are so central to environmental controversies. In the classical Baconian outlook, science was understood as a tool with which we can overcome limits and improve our lot. This both provided support for the idea of rational intervention into nature and was seen to potentially tip the balance of forces in favour of humanity.

Today, by contrast, the aspiration to control nature is seen as futile. This rests on a downsizing of scientific insight. The message of science is reinterpreted as telling us the world is incomprehensible and uncontrollable. Flaky interpretations of chaos theory, quantum mechanics and thermodynamics have become influential even beyond a green fringe. At a more sophisticated level the mathematician John Barrow (2005) has recently attempted to define scientific laws at the most fundamental level as limits to what we can know or do. The shift in attitudes toward science is often presented as a response to new discoveries, such as the new sciences of complexity. But, despite the hype, these sciences in fact add to our knowledge of the world rather than subtracting from it. The response to new scientific discoveries is shaped much more by disappointment with the prospects for human society than by the discoveries themselves.

The importance of these changes goes much deeper than a philosophical adjustment. The key point to grasp is that, once the possibility of shaping the world to our own ends is abandoned, nature becomes the primary determinant of human affairs.

Journalistic travelogues tie together stories of social and economic change from around the world through the overarching theme of climate change. At a time when the world seems confusing and there are few coherent ideological frameworks with which to ‘make sense’ of particular experiences, climate change is used as an overarching story that can explain life, say, on a Pacific island, in an Alaskan village and on a Midwestern farm.

But there is little in these accounts that suggests climate change should be given explanatory priority over other forces in people’s lives. Climate change is evident in sophisticated and subtle scientific measurements rather than everyday life. Making climate central to the human story in 2006 is not a natural or obvious thing to do. Rather, it reflects a particular interpretation of the facts. And while climate change is set to grow over time, singling it out as the most important factor is a particular account of the future.

In economics the concept of ‘ecosystem services’ is supposed to remedy the neglect of natural factors. But while ecosystem services suggest an explanation for water shortages is to be found in levels of rainfall, the truth is that water supply is determined by networks of pipes, reservoirs, dams, sewage works and desalination plants. Environmental historians, too, have set to work reinterpreting human history as a tale in which nature is the central character of the drama. Of course, discovering present pre-occupations in the past is nothing new. Enlightenment historian Edward Gibbon saw the rise of Christianity behind the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Today climate change is used to account for the rise and fall of past civilisations. But such a sweeping change in the way we understand history is inevitably tied to wider judgements.

The third theme of nature’s revenge, a moral judgement on civilisation, is the most important in illustrating the wider significance of environmental thinking. Not only is today’s world depicted as in crisis, but that crisis is traced back to basic human achievements such as industrialisation, urbanisation and even agriculture. Almost every aspect of contemporary society is held to have been a mistake. Attitudes toward history have always been complex. But the bleakness of environmental history is a departure for both radical and conservative thought. Radicals saw the past as a story of progress, which they sought to continue into the future. Conservatives upheld the past in their own way, emphasising the value of traditions or seeking to live up to the standards of a Golden Age. With the exhaustion of both left-wing and right-wing politics, a new environmental ethic has expanded to fill the gap, dismissing the ambitions of the past as sour grapes. In place of human ends comes a ‘non-anthropocentric’ world view in which we should forget our hopes and dreams and be grateful just to get by.

The poverty of the environmental ethic can be seen most clearly in this emphasis on survivalism. The urgency of environmental problems and the priority of conserving nature are today posed relative to alternative human goals and programs. Leading government advisor Jonathon Porritt (2005: 10) puts it this way: ‘If we can’t secure our own biophysical survival, then it is game over for every other noble aspiration or venal self-interest that we may entertain’. This sense of desperate struggle for survival is widespread. It can be seen, for example, in the response to terrorism that calls on us give up on values such as liberty – in light of an existential threat only survival matters.

Against survivalism we need an alternative that champions experimentation, celebrates the creative dimension of the way in which humanity shapes nature, and puts human beings back at the centre of ethical concern. Advocates of the precautionary principle point out that science has a two-edged nature. It empowers us to create new technologies which expand human impacts on nature. But invention does not let us understand the consequences of those impacts. The knowledge that allows us to genetically engineer plants or to set up artificial nuclear reactions is not sufficient to predict their manifold results.

For the precautionary principle this gap is a reason to hold back and to be wary of innovation. The programme of science, by contrast, is the organised exploration of this gap between what we can create and what we understand: experimentation. The unforeseen consequences dreaded by the precautionary principle are nothing but the raw materials of scientific insight. In this way the advance of science is closely linked to broader social advance.

Survivalism limits our ethical horizons and our practical possibilities by telling us that we cannot achieve anything more. It continually exhorts us to limit our ‘impact’ on nature. Instead, we need to understand that our impact on the world is not simply something negative to be minimised. It is an expression of our creativity. It should be directed toward making the world more human.

Author

Joe Kaplinsky is a patent analyst and science writer

References

Barrow, J.D. (2005). Impossibility: Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. London, Vintage.

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive. London, Allen Lane.

Porritt, J. (2005). Capitalism: As If the World Matters. London, Earthscan.

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