Sunday, July 16, 2017

Pi's tiger and the Anthropocene

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film "Life of Pi" for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies--food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In "Life of Pi" there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In "The Peaceable Kingdom" predator lies down with prey and no harm results--a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which "[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them."

In "Life of Pi" viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi's fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay "Economics in a Full World":

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi's tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren't.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed "out there" any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere's (and lithosphere's) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi's father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger's eyes are just projections of Pi's own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger's own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere's response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi's father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide our actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is 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


Mike Sheldrick said...

Another outstanding,insightful column. Thanks. Puts me in mind of Stephen Crane:

man said to the universe:

“Sir, I exist!”

“However,” replied the universe,

“The fact has not created in me

A sense of obligation.” (Crane, 1899)

Michael Dowd said...

Great post, Kurt!

I believe the last sentence has a typo... "are" should be "our", yes?

Keep up the great writing,

~ Michael

Kurt Cobb said...

Thanks Michael Sheldrick for the Stephen Crane quote. Very nice. And, thanks Michael Dowd for the kind words and the keen eye. I've made the correction.