Sunday, May 10, 2015

Terms of debate: Destroying vs altering nature, the fragile vs the resilient Earth

Last week's piece drew responses that throw into relief how much the language we use depends on our most basic assumptions about how the world works. If left unexamined, that language leads to further conclusions that go unchallenged because the underlying assumptions are never scrutinized.

I challenged the Breakthrough Institute's notion that humans are in one category and nature in another. If one views humans as merely a part of nature or the universe or the web of existence--however one chooses to name that which includes everything--then our role becomes distinctly different.

Under my assumption humans are embedded in the natural world. They are not the sole actors or agents in it, only one of countless actors, most of which we probably know nothing about. We cannot get one up on nature. We can only cooperate with its workings.

When we put nature in one category and humans in another, we make humans an outside and preeminent force over nature. We (falsely) imbue ourselves with god-like power to "control" nature. In this case, "control" means we get what we want without self-annihilating effects. For who could say that they are in "control" of a plummeting airliner headed for a crash just because they still have the ability to move the throttle.

Now, if humans are one with nature, then the only thing they can do to it is alter it. They cannot "destroy" nature. Only if we conceive of ourselves as living on a different plane from nature can we "destroy" it. And, only if we conceive of nature as immutable can we "destroy" it. But nature is always in flux including any flux that results from human action. There is no immutable nature to "destroy" or to "restore." We cannot run entropy in reverse and reassemble the universe into exactly a state that existed in the past, not anywhere.

I was characterized by one of the Breakthrough Institute's analysts as someone who believes that nature is "fragile." I'll forgive him for not having time in his busy schedule to read my writings more thoroughly. If he had had time, he would have realized that I think nothing of the sort. Instead, I regard humans as fragile and nature as resilient. Nature, the universe, the everything, will be here long after humans have disappeared.

The upshot is that we humans need to be concerned with how our alterations of the biosphere affect our survivability precisely because we are so fragile and precisely because the biosphere holds no special brief to keep humans alive indefinitely.

The upshot is that we cannot "fix" the planet upon which we live. We cannot roll it back to some status quo ante--before climate change; before deforestation; before the depletion of soil, water, energy and other natural resources; before the population explosion; before the vast loss of biodiversity. The arrow of entropy really does go only in one direction. No technology can reverse the path of that planetary entropy.

That means we must figure out what to do from this moment forward inside this thin membrane of life which clings to the surface of planet Earth. We can, of course, continue to host a daily series of energy-intensive, fossil-fueled blowout parties--the biggest parties ever thrown by humans for humans--until the punch bowl (read: energy and resources) runs low or the air-conditioning blinks off leaving us sweltering in the summer heat (read: climate change)--causing people to say their good-byes in search of the next party (if they can find one).

Or we can choose to adopt a healthier lifestyle that will extend our lives (as a society and as a species) and shrink the daily blowout parties to an occasional bash to celebrate the results of our sensible choices and newfound vigor and health.

The idea that human well-being depends on ever-increasing per-capita consumption of energy and resources is already discredited. The notion that we can alter the biosphere to accommodate such irrational plans without fatal consequences in the long run is sheer folly--one born of mistaken assumptions and aided by confusing language.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at


Joe said...

I think our actions prove that most humans would rather sacrifice future human well-being than leave the party while there is still an ounce of punch in the bowl.

Tom Christoffel said...

Nature is the master. Only the religion of Science, Technology and "its just business" is lacking this critical and fundamental Knowledge.