Thursday, August 5, 2010

We Wasted Nature, and Nature doth Waste Us

Tim Egan writes in the Times about wildfires, in a superbly understated manner only better describing his subject:

Were I teaching writing, I'd use this as an example of how understatement beats melodrama every time, even with a subject almost crying out for it. (Another essay I'd teach would be Molly Ivins' brilliant takedown of Camille Paglia, for humor arising out of brilliant use of a range of diction ranging from the academic to the casual, while remaining utterly on a serious point.)

I'd also include it in a course discussing science and technology, and how they're viewed. Egan doesn't make it explicit--he's too good a writer for that--but he's questioning the old notion of science, technology and, in general, the works of humanity as exploiting, mastering, dominating the natural world, the position of humanity at the apex of a teleologically driven evolution, or of God's creation. It seems ever clearer that we are of nature rather than over it, and that our works which attempt a triumph over nature rather than a better accommodation to it are both doomed to fail and inevitably produce unexpected negative consequences.

The Enlightenment is a tempting touchstone in these times, when a good part of the polity celebrates its rejection of truth and reason. But the Enlightenment, with human reason at its center, erred in viewing reason easily defined, sufficient as a principle of human existence, and triumphant over the natural world and the human past. At the time of its invention and display, there was never a greater triumph of human reason than that which the world first encountered on 6 August 1945. Our dubious mastery of nature has, ever after, been at the price of our demonstrated ability to end it. We haven't quite figured all this out yet. Humanity has never, ever, in all its existence, had such a monumentally difficult and important fact with which to contend.

Stewart Brand, of 'Whole Earth Catalog' et seq., said something like, 'We are as gods, and had better get good at it.' He meant well, I think, but completely, utterly misses the point. Gods are in a place removed from the earth. We are not. We are of the earth, and must live as the earth, with the earth. And, yes, we had better get good at it.

(cite to Ivins:
Have mouth clear of expellable substances as you read it)

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