Arran Gare Narrative Essay

Nihilism Inc.: Environmental Destruction and the Metaphysics of Sustainability

James Lovelock, in a speech to the Royal Society on 29th October 2007, described his profound pes... more James Lovelock, in a speech to the Royal Society on 29th October 2007, described his profound pessimism about the future of Earth, or ‘Gaia’ as he has named it. He also described his conversion to this pessimistic outlook, how he came to appreciate that we are on the brink of disaster. In 2004 he had visited the UK’s primary climate research centre, the Hadley Centre, and talked to a number of scientists, some concerned with melting ice in the Arctic Ocean, others with Greenland’s vanishing glaciers, still others with global heating in the tropics. He heard how the great forests were changing as the world grew hotter and how ocean life was disappearing as surface waters warmed. Each, separately, presented convincing evidence of positive feedback and accelerated change. But what shocked Lovelock was the way they spoke of all this: ‘as if they were describing some other planet, not Earth.’ Even more disturbing was their apparent ignorance of each other’s work, presenting their own research as ‘something separate from the heating of the whole planet’ while presenting the whole Earth system ‘as if it was no more than the simple addition of its parts’, something which he knew ‘was rarely ever true of a dynamic system.’ This visit profoundly changed his evaluation of the present state of affairs, inspiring him to write The Revenge of Gaia, which he published in 2006. Planet Earth, he now believes, has lost its resilience and ability to deal with perturbations such as the greenhouse gas emissions we are injecting into the atmosphere. By the end of the century, a runaway greenhouse effect will result in mass destruction of life, with possibly only 200 million or so people left alive, mostly living near the Arctic Circle. Lovelock went on to wonder at how scientists have let this disastrous future steal upon us. He offered several possible explanations. One is the false confidence engendered by the success in dealing with stratospheric ozone depletion. This is really the confidence of people who believe that there are always technological fixes to any problem. Another is the division of science into a multiplicity of unconnected specialties. He argued that ‘so long as we treat [Earth] as two separate entities, the geosphere for the material Earth and the biosphere for life, we will fail to understand our planet.’ A third, closely related to this, is the dominance of orthodox Darwinian theory according to which the evolution of life can only be scientifically explained through natural selection. There has been an inability to see that organisms could alter their environments, regulating climate and making the Earth a dynamic responsive planet. Lovelock’s experience reveals something profoundly awry not only in science but in our civilization. Examining the inter-relationships between diverse environmental problems, how each is exacerbating the other and also the global social forces driving environmental destruction, reveals that the entire future of humanity and most other forms of life are under serious threat. There have been sporadic publications proclaiming the disaster threatening us, not only from individual scientists, geographers, environmental historians and environmentalists, but from high profile collaborative works such as The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind published in 1972, The Global 2000 Report to the President commissioned by President Carter and published in 1982, and special editions of even relatively conservative journals such as Time Magazine, which devoted an issue to the plight of Planet Earth in 1989. But these have had almost no impact on the economic policies of most governments in the world. It was not just that the global triumph of neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism had driven the whole of humanity in exactly the opposite direction from which it should have been heading, or that the transnational corporations had mounted a public relations campaign to confuse the public about environmental problems. Despite the warnings, very few people in positions of power where differences could be made were seriously concerned, and those that were, such as President Carter and later, Vice-President Al Gore, made very little difference. The rate of environmental destruction has continued to accelerate. This lack of response has been particularly evident in the case of academics, the paid intellectuals whose responsibility it is to face up to, understand and work out what to do about dangers facing civilization. What became evident was that it was not only some climate scientists who looked at Earth as though they were not part of it, but almost all academics and, at least in Anglophone countries, almost all university educated politicians, business leaders, trade union officials, and in fact almost everyone holding significant positions of power in society. It also became evident how deep rooted and extensive was the specialization that Lovelock referred to and how completely it had fragmented people’s thinking. Not only were geo-chemical sciences separated from the life sciences and notions such as Gaia treated with derision; there has been a growing chasm between the natural and the human sciences and between both these and the humanities, and each of these has been fragmented, despite the efforts of historians of science. And far from this situation being seen as problematic, there has been a growing intolerance within academe for those struggling to overcome this fragmentation of culture. Beyond the froth and bubble generated by this fragmentation and multiplication of disciplines and sub-disciplines, there seemed to be a passive acceptance that the crude Darwinian theory of evolution is the true, hard-headed view of reality and that it is impossible to stand in the way of the drive for power and control by the fittest, apparently believed by most people to be the multi-billionaires running transnational business corporations. Deeper than this, there was a passive acceptance that the only value in life is pleasurable stimuli and entertaining distractions. That is, the obstacles standing in the way of developing a new understanding of what we are and what is our place in the world are more deep-rooted and more problematic than even Lovelock, one of the few intellectual scientists outside academia and therefore less bound by, but also less aware of mainstream thinking, has appreciated. There is an insidious and destructive nihilism promoted within and inculcated by universities, embodied in our institutions and in people’s everyday practices and in their everyday orientation to the world. Far from being in retreat, this nihilism has been promoted with a new level of intensity at a time when it is more important than ever that it be overcome. A central goal in writing this work was to understand and overcome this nihilism.

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