Sunday, 1 February 2009

Getting some perspective: (4) On the environment

From Earth, the Not-So-Lonely Planet, a NYT article offering a long-overdue correction to out-of-control language on the environment:
The living Earth is tough on scales it is hard to credit. Life has watched continents crash together and tear themselves apart; skies glowing like bright coals; tropical seas frozen into stillness: it has endured. Slaked in radiation from nearby supernovae, pummeled by asteroids, it has barely faltered and never stopped. Our civilization may be — is — out of balance with its environment; current human ways of life are frighteningly precarious. But to read the fragility of our way of life onto life itself is foolish.
The point of this article is staringly obvious to me, as a scientist, but I suspect it would be news to many people on the street. I wonder if there's enough cultural space to present this kind of argument. Because, like the author, I think it needs to be made.

In some sense, all misunderstanding is bad. Some misunderstandings are more consequential than others, but as a scientist I am committed to caring about understanding apart from consequence (although, not independent of it). Yet this very day, in an informed discussion of nuclear disarmament, I read a throwaway reference to the arsenals of America and Russia — incomparably larger than those of other nations — as being large enough to destroy the planet. This kind of talk may be time-honoured, and it may have some poetic or mythical grounding, but as a literal statement it is the purest nonsense. Do these people really want me to bore them with a description of what it would take to destroy life on earth, let alone the planet itself, in any meaningful sense?

Public discussion is becoming much better-informed on environmental issues and mechanisms: talk that used to be restricted to scientists and their groupies, in the Seventies and Eighties, has long gone mainstream. So aren't we in a position to call “Time” on the most lurid kind of disaster-talk?


Earwicker said...

Very interesting - thanks for the link. Anyone would think you read the NYT in preference to Australian papers.

What struck me about the article is how necessarily anthropocentric ecological thinking is. When we speak of "the environment", we mean our environment, as we have come to know it and as it is more or less friendly for us and for animals like us. The attempt to escape from or deny this, among at least some environmentalists, seems to me to be futile.

On further reflection, this is the sort of point that Mary Midgley is usually very good at making, but I am not aware of anywhere she has done so. Are you?

Bruce Yabsley said...

“Anyone would think you read the NYT in preference to Australian papers.”

Let's just say that I read the NYT and Australian papers in proportion to the quality of their articles.

As for Midgley: I find her very frustrating on environmental issues.

That attempts at permanent or wholesale escape from the human condition (or the human situation) are futile --- and, she would say, crazed --- is indeed a stock Midglean idea. (I agree entirely about ecological thought, BTW.) And she has a good line in criticism of drama-driven thinking: man against nature and so on.

But as to positive points, she mostly restricts herself to her bee-in-the-bonnet of advancing Lovelock's Gaia idea, and being snooty with its critics. Scientists do get intemperate with teleological “hypotheses”; and also with ideas that are either simply category mistakes (the planet as an organism) or metaphorical, for which “this is a proper theory and it makes predictions” claims are made. She criticises that irritation in the same tone she uses againt Spencerian evolution, or technological hubris; it's not at all clear they're comparable. And given her war against Dawkins' “selfish gene” talk, and other inconsistently applied metaphors, I don't see how she justifies it to herself.

Hmm. Does my disappointment show up in my tone?

Earwicker said...

Her enthusiasm for "the Gaia hypothesis" has always struck me as a bit contrarian, for the reasons you mention. It is disappointing and it does reduce the force of her critique of sloppy thinking re evolution.

byron smith said...

Yes, I totally agree. I also think that the eradication of even all human life would probably be more difficult than is sometime suggested, however, this doesn't mean that we are immune from massive catastrophes involving the end of our civilisation and the deaths of billions.

So I think that there are actually multiple steps of greater precision possible and necessary in our discussion of the deleterious effects of particular patterns of human action.

First: destruction of the planet itself. Very, very difficult.
Second: destruction of all life. Very difficult.
Third: destruction of all human life. Difficult.
Fourth: destruction of our civiilisation. Possible.
Fifth: destruction of the present mode of our society (liberalism/globalisation/capitalism). Likely and probably overdue.

Bruce Yabsley said...

Thanks for visiting, Byron. My comments are in the thread at your blog.