Inside, confidential and off the record
Climate Change and The Savage Human Future
sapiens was the first species to alter the enviroment
that sustained us - to the point that it might not sustain us anymore
LONG AFTER THE last print copy of the King James Bible has disintegrated and the Venus de Milo has gone to powder, the glory of our civilization will survive in misshapen, neon-flecked rocks called plastiglomerate: compounds of sand, shells and molten plastic, forged when discarded wrappers and bottle caps burn in beach campfires. Additional clues about the way we lived will be found in the ubiquity of cesium-137, the synthetic isotope produced by every nuclear detonation, and in the glacial ice (should any glaciers remain) that will register a spike of atmospheric carbon dioxide beginning in the Industrial Revolution. Future anthropologists might not be able to learn everything there is to know about our culture from these geological markers, but they will be a good start.
In the beginning, human beings tended to view nature as a mortal enemy — with wariness, dread and aggression. The closer we were to the other animals, the more threatened we were by their proximity — geographical and behavioral. “Wilderness”: from the Old English -ness + wild + deor, “the place of wild beasts.” In the Old and New Testaments, “the wilderness” is a godless, hostile domain, the anti-Eden; Samuel Johnson defined it as “a tract of solitude and savageness”; William Bradford, a founder of Plymouth Colony, reacted to the untrammeled New World with horror, calling it “hideous & desolate ... full of wild beasts & wild men.”
These examples come from Roderick Nash's totemic history, “Wilderness and the American Mind” (1967). Nash describes how, in the 19th century, the terms of humanity's relationship with nature flipped. It was no longer possible to take seriously the premise that nature was a threat to civilization; civilization, it was understood, was a threat to nature. This observation, developed by Alexander von Humboldt and successors like George Perkins Marsh (who worried that “climatic excess” might lead to the extinction of the human species) and John Muir (who sought to protect America's natural cathedrals from human defilement), helped inspire the birth of the American environmental movement. It took decades for a new conception of wilderness — sacred, virginal, innocent of human influence — to take hold, and it may take decades more before it is widely understood to be a myth.
What we still, in a flourish of misplaced nostalgia, call “the natural world” is gone, if ever it existed. As the environmental historian William Cronon noted, “People have been manipulating the natural world on various scales for as long as we have a record of their passing.” Almost no rock, leaf or cubic foot of air on Earth has escaped our clumsy signature. In the future we will reconfigure, with ever-greater force and precision, our fauna, flora and genome in ways that today would seem uncanny. But the results will be no more uncanny than our carpeting of the American Southwest with lush lawns transplanted from the shores of the Mediterranean, our breast-augmented chickens or the mass consumption of the engineered strain of a wild Mexican grass, teosinte, that we call corn. If our inventions seem eerie, it is only because we see in them a reflection of our own desires.
Each new superstorm and superfire forces a reconsideration of the unfashionable, long-discredited view that human beings are, in Descartes' phrase, “the lords and possessors of nature.” But it is now undeniable that, for better or worse, that is what we have become. Neglect is no less a strategy than cultivation. When we speak about the conservation of nature, we are really talking about a desire to conserve our own human identity: the parts of us that are beautiful and free and holy, those that we want to carry with us into the future. If we don't, all we'll have left are holograms of our worst instincts, automatons acting out our nightmares and a slow drift into an inhuman hellscape of biblical dimensions — a tract of solitude and savageness. In the 12th century, it was believed that Stonehenge had been erected by a lost race of giants, using the powers of wizardry; perhaps future generations, discovering our bright plastic rocks, will reach the same conclusion.
Nathaniel Rich / NYTimes / Nov 16, 2018
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