We are not alone

In recent years the Slovenian rock-star philosopher Slavoj Žižek has been delighting audiences with an anecdote about the renowned Danish physicist Niels Bohr. A guest to Bohr’s home noticed a horseshoe above the entrance, traditionally mounted above doorways for good luck, and asked the eminent scientist whether he really believed in the power of the horseshoe. Bohr said something like, “No, of course I don’t believe in it. But I’m told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.”

One source puts it the other way around, with Bohr as the visitor, but no matter.

Žižek uses the anecdote to illustrate how ideology permeates culture and society. In the realm of speech, the rational physicist cannot explicitly accept the idea that a horseshoe over the door might affect one’s fate. But the physicist’s action, putting the horseshoe over the door, belies an underlying acceptance of ideology in the form of inherited magical beliefs.

But there’s another way to look at Bohr’s statement: as a tacit acknowledgment that all thought and behavior is social. That is, Bohr himself doesn’t have to believe that the horseshoe will have the power to bring him good luck. It’s enough that the society around him historically holds that belief. It may be enough, in fact, if only a few other people believe in the horseshoe. Bohr is saying that he doesn’t know everything, and he is willing to accept that his knowledge is merely part of a larger system of knowledge in which he is embedded. He accepts that wider knowledge by placing the horseshoe over the door. Knowledge is social and contextual, he implies, and so is being. His beliefs may not be the only important ones. The larger context of each individual life matters. In the case of the horseshoe, the larger context of its history and meaning in European society is not something that Bohr can dismiss readily or completely.

You may be asking yourself, What does any of this have to do with the environment? In my view, as I explain in the book I am working on, context is everything, and modern efforts to remove context in thought and practice are ruining the planet. Our tendency to think of the environment as an inanimate, passive sphere out there, waiting to be known and molded by science and technology for human benefit, resembles treating the horseshoe as merely an inanimate metal object with no historic meaning or power that could possibly be relevant to the present. This way of thinking takes the magic and power out of nature and the horseshoe both, reducing to them to mere objects to be used.

There are many other ways in which the loss of context is harming the environment. In modern life we are radically cut off from the outcomes of many of our daily choices. You flip on a light and add demand to the electrical network. More coal may be burned, releasing greenhouse gases that are mucking up the climate. Sulfur and other pollutants are released as well. But we are so disconnected from all of that, which happens out of sight, that our daily actions can continue unchecked.

The good news is that we still accept some possibility of magic in the horseshoe, even though it’s a manufactured metal object. So perhaps we also accept some possibility of magic in nature, that nature is not an inert and passive realm to be exploited but rather a power to be in partnership with.

On Nauru, a Sinking Feeling

On Nauru, a Sinking Feeling – NYTimes.com.

What do islands tell us about modern human-environment relations?

President Marcus Stephen of Nauru, a tiny island nation in the Pacific about a third the size of Manhattan, urges us in the above op-ed to heed the warning provided by the recent history of his island.

Nauru entered the modern economy full-force in the early 20th century by strip mining and exporting its abundant phosphate around the world, to be used to manufacture explosives and fertilizer. By the 1960’s and 70’s, these exports had given the tiny country one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. But, in the 1980’s the phosphate ran out: much of the island had been strip mined, and only a ring of fertile (and some built) landscape remained circling the island just inside a narrow outer ring of beach. Today, most of the mined area has just begun to be re-covered by vegetation, but the country’s economy remains fragile, heavily dependent on a few small sources of revenue, which the country uses to import practically everything it needs.

Nauru from space

Life in Nauru seems tenuous. The country can produce very little of what it needs. Its current government is working to replenish some of the natural wealth that was stripped away to supply modern industry elsewhere in the world, but how long will it take to return the island to a rich and productive landscape, particularly since the phosphate, produced by many millennia of bird droppings, as been stripped away to fertilize soils elsewhere in the world? To make matters worse, like many low-lying island nations, Nauru is threatened with becoming partially submerged as global warming melts glaciers, releasing their waters into the oceans.

In less than a century, the nation of Nauru has gone from virtual self sustenance to utter dependence and the possibility of demise. Its participation in the global economy brought it to this point in two ways: not only did the nation sell off its ecological heritage of fertility, but also its exports of guano arguably helped to fuel mechanized, fossil-fuel-driven agriculture and thus the greater exploitation of fossil fuels that has been the principle driver of global climate change, which may well on its own make Nauru uninhabitable.

The point is not to blame Nauruans, however. After all—in the modern global economy, few nations do not mine their resources for momentary gain. American farmers are mining—using up faster than the replacement rate—the Ogallala Aquifer lying below much of the western plain states to produce crops. Many fisheries in the oceans are depleted. Rainforests are felled at unsustainable rates. And so on. We use up nature in many cases as if there is no future, much as the Nauruans did their little island.

The important point, underlined by Mr. Stephen’s commentary, is to learn from this situation, to properly understand Nauru as a sort of microcosm of of the whole Earth—to see what moral, if any, this story tells. Islands have long taught us about environmental folly, and as Richard Grove explains in Green Imperialism: Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, the experiences of European colonizers on the small islands that they colonized in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and elsewhere, combined with other factors, gave them a new sense of limits of humanity’s uses of nature. Scientists and others studying these places could easily observe entire ecosystems for the first time, the limited numbers of creatures in those ecosystems, extinctions happening before their eyes, and other blatant effects of European resource extractions. Many of the same scientists also superimposed their Edenic ideals on these islands, re-imagining them as places untouched by human activity. Such were the origins of modern environmentalism—much earlier than the supposed late 20th-century origins.

Now, the president of one such island is sounding the alarm, asking us to look once again at what modern economic activity has done to his island, and to act before submersion makes recovery impossible.