A Point of View: Has our relationship with nature changed?
- 21 January 2011
- From the section Magazine
Fear of ecological destruction causes us to pity and protect nature rather than oppose it, says Alain de Botton
The environmental dangers that now face mankind put non-scientific philosophical types like me in an awkward situation. We have to acknowledge that we can have precisely nothing interesting to say on the two most important questions in the air right now, namely: "What is going to happen to the human race?" and "What should we do about it?" It is not from a philosopher that you stand to be enlightened.
Nevertheless, maybe there is still a point in trying to reflect on, rather than simply solve our ecological dilemmas. It remains valid to try to fathom what the idea of planetary abuse has done to our minds. We may ask what the awareness of the environmental crisis has done to our inner landscape, how it has altered the human psyche.
We can begin by observing that there is nothing new for mankind about confronting the possibility of its own destruction. The feeling that the present order - the neat fields, the ordered laundry cupboards, the full granaries - might soon disappear would have been intensely familiar to any inhabitant of medieval Europe. You need only study the carvings on the sides of the cathedrals to see that our imaginations have for centuries been haunted by visions of Armageddon.
However, we have grown used to conceiving of our present environmental situation as unparalleled. Perhaps it's because we have learnt of it through the media and because for the daily paper, everything must necessarily be novel. There never was a Lisbon earthquake or a sack of Rome. No one has ever murdered their children or wasted their money. This isn't to deny some intensely novel features behind our anxieties, just to insist that we should probably carefully separate out the familiar, long-standing morbidity of homo sapiens from the particular features of the current predicament.
We might do worse than to date our present ecological awareness to the moment when the two bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These weapons showed us not only that mankind was perishable (an old thought), but that it was perishable through human action (rather than because of disease-bearing rats). In other words, that we have acquired the power to commit species suicide.
We have always known ourselves to be short-sighted and murderous. We have only in the past few generations learnt that we are also very powerful. We have been blessed with enough intelligence to alter our fates in a way no other animal can, while being denied enough wisdom to keep our baser sides under control.
Yet despite similarities, environmental destruction differs from its nuclear counterpart in a crucial component. Generals who blow up bombs know they want to kill people. Chief executives who manage lorries transporting milk from depots to supermarkets generally have no motives more sinister than the wish to make some money for their shareholders.
When we use ample water to brush our teeth or fly to Florence to see some Titians, aggression is far from our minds. However, we are now daily reminded that innocent everyday actions have a cumulative destructive potential greater than an A-bomb. We have been asked to reconceive of ourselves as unthinking killers.
The destruction is occurring not primarily through what any one of us has done, but through what we are doing collectively as a race. We are implicated in a crime we cannot control singly. Salvation must be collective. So we are guilty, but also unusually powerless.
Murderers have it easy in this respect, beside the ordinary citizen of the modern world. They can at least free themselves from sin by repenting and then changing their ways through their own willpower. They have no need to secure simultaneous agreement from six billion others across 193 countries.
Yet for us to give up altogether, to do nothing, is not an option because we are sternly reminded that if everyone thought this way, we would be lost. We are returned to the Christian injunction to avoid despair not because there is anything to feel especially cheerful about, but because hope is equated with humanity and a concern for other people.
The ecological situation has forever changed our relationship to nature. An unusually warm spring day cannot now be what it was for Chaucer and Wordsworth - a manifestation of the mystery and power of the non-human realm. Since our beginnings, the experience of nature involved an encounter with "the Other". The mountains and valleys reminded us that the planet was built by something other than our own hands, by a force greater than we could gather, long before we were born, and set to continue long after our extinction. We could go into nature and see that we were the playthings of forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled the mountains.
How mindsets have changed. The equation has been reversed. Nature doesn't remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet.
Nature used to terrify us, now we terrify ourselves. We are responsible for the early flowering of those Wordsworthian daffodils. Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds. We control not only the traffic and the planes, but also the very cycle of the seasons.
We have in response to our situation become hysterically sentimental towards nature. We take pity on her. We treat all of her like a wounded panda. We have come far from the attitude of the ancient Greeks, who saw nature as their adversary, potentially generous, but at heart a foe. We have lost all sense of the ancient fight and now feel responsible. Despite our puny frames and lifespans, we have even succeeded in feeling guilt towards glaciers.
The role of the commentator on the environment is at one level to enable us to notice changes that are occurring. But at another level, it is also a question of getting us to care. And this is a tall order, for we are being asked to worry about the possible reduction in the number of our species three generations hence, when we all have to deal with a far more imminent problem - our own death.
We are being asked to worry about other people who are not yet born as much as we worry about ourselves. Never before in the history of humanity have we been asked to care so much about others of whom we know so little. Our empathetic powers have been stretched to breaking point.
This may be where art has to come in. It is artists who are going to have to help us to picture - literally and figuratively - dangers which are generally invisible and are therefore constantly subsumed under the weight of our more mundane or personally intense concerns. Artists may have no solutions, but they are the ones who can come up with the words and images to make visible and important the most abstract and impersonal of challenges.
The environmental crisis forces us to find our feelings of awe elsewhere, out in the universe. Science should matter to us not only because it helps us to control parts of the world, but also because it shows us things we will never master. Thus we would do well to meditate daily, rather as the religious do on their God, on the 9.5 trillion kilometres which comprise a single light-year, or perhaps on the luminosity of the largest known star in our galaxy, Eta Carinae, 7,500 light-years distant, 400 times the size of the sun and 4 million times as bright.
We should punctuate our calendars with celebrations in honour of VY Canis Majoris, a red hypergiant in the constellation Canis Major, 5,000 light-years from earth and 2,100 times bigger than our sun. Nightly - perhaps after the main news bulletin and before the celebrity quiz - we might observe a moment of silence in order to contemplate the 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy, the 100 billion galaxies and the three septillion stars in the universe.
Whatever their value may be to science, at least the stars can be of use as solutions to our megalomania, self-pity and anxiety.