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The Planet Strikes Back: Why We Underestimate the Earth and Overestimate Ourselves

What Earth does to protect itself from human intervention is unlikely to prove beneficial for human societies.
 
 
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In his 2010 book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, environmental scholar and activist Bill McKibben writes of a planet so devastated by global warming that it’s no longer recognizable as the Earth we once inhabited.  This is a planet, he predicts, of “melting poles and dying forests and a heaving, corrosive sea, raked by winds, strafed by storms, scorched by heat.”  Altered as it is from the world in which human civilization was born and thrived, it needs a new name -- so he gave it that extra “a” in “Eaarth.”

The Eaarth that McKibben describes is a victim, a casualty of humankind’s unrestrained consumption of resources and its heedless emissions of climate-altering greenhouse gases.  True, this Eaarth will cause pain and suffering to humans as sea levels rise and croplands wither, but as he portrays it, it is essentially a victim of human rapaciousness.

With all due respect to McKibben’s vision, let me offer another perspective on his (and our) Eaarth: as a powerful actor in its own right and as an avenger, rather than simply victim.

It’s not enough to think of Eaarth as an impotent casualty of humanity’s predations.  It is also a complex organic system with many potent defenses against alien intervention -- defenses it is already wielding to devastating effect when it comes to human societies.  And keep this in mind: we are only at the beginning of this process.

To grasp our present situation, however, it’s necessary to distinguish between naturally recurring planetary disturbances and the planetary responses to human intervention.  Both need a fresh look, so let’s start with what Earth has always been capable of before we turn to the responses of Eaarth, the avenger.

Overestimating Ourselves

Our planet is a complex natural system, and like all such systems, it is continually evolving.  As that happens -- as continents drift apart, as mountain ranges rise and fall, as climate patterns shift -- earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, typhoons, prolonged droughts, and other natural disturbances recur, even if on an irregular and unpredictable basis. 

Our predecessors on the planet were deeply aware of this reality.  After all, ancient civilizations were repeatedly shaken, and in some cases shattered, by such disturbances.  For example, it is widely believed that the ancient Minoan civilization of the eastern Mediterranean collapsed following a powerful volcanic eruption on the island of Thera (also called Santorini) in the mid-second millennium BCE.  Archaeological evidence suggests that many other ancient civilizations were weakened or destroyed by intense earthquake activity.  In Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, Stanford geophysicist Amos Nur and his co-author Dawn Burgess argue that Troy, Mycenae, ancient Jericho, Tenochtitlan, and the Hittite empire may have fallen in this manner.

Faced with recurring threats of earthquakes and volcanoes, many ancient religions personified the forces of nature as gods and goddesses and called for elaborate human rituals and sacrificial offerings to appease these powerful deities. The ancient Greek sea-god Poseidon (Neptune to the Romans), also called “Earth-Shaker,” was thought to cause earthquakes when provoked or angry.

In more recent times, thinkers have tended to scoff at such primitive notions and the gestures that went with them, suggesting instead that science and technology -- the fruits of civilization -- offer more than enough help to allow us to triumph over the Earth’s destructive forces.  This shift in consciousness has been impressively documented in Clive Ponting’s 2007 volume, A New Green History of the WorldQuoting from influential thinkers of the post-Medieval world, he shows how Europeans acquired a powerful conviction that humanity should and would rule nature, not the other way around.  The seventeenth century French mathematician René Descartes, for example, wrote of employing science and human knowledge so that “we can… render ourselves the masters and possessors of nature.”

 
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