Sunday, June 15, 2014

Environmentalism: Using the Brains God Gave Us

I remember the 'good old days:' seeing house-size gobs of suds floating down the Mississippi; and a year when my eyes stung, except on Sundays, when the city's air cleared up. I don't miss the 'good old days.' (April 11, 2011; November 10, 2010)

I was already concerned about pollution, wildlife management, and other environmental issues, when the first green Earth Day flag went up in 1972.

At the time, I was glad that environmental awareness was spreading; and thought that some 'environmentalists' had more enthusiasm than good sense. I'm still glad that more folks started 'thinking green;' and think that Captain Planet helped make environmentalism look silly.

Sadly, some folks still seem to have learned their facts about science and ecology by watching Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Tentacles.

Delicate and Fragile as Cockroaches and Thistles

The good news is that some scientists, at least, have apparently realized that an ecosystem that's survived at least 3,700,000,000 years is hardly "fragile."

A run of 3,700,000,000 years isn't bad for life on a planet orbiting a slightly variable star: life that has thrived for billions of years; despite occasional comet and asteroid impacts, regional volcanic activity, and epochs of continental glaciation.
"Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to 'save the planet' and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.

"Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as 'the wakened giant' and 'the ornery beast', a planet that is 'fighting back' and seeking 'revenge', and a new era of 'angry summers' and 'death spirals'...."
(Clive Hamilton, The Conversation (May 27, 2014))
I put a longer excerpt at the end of this post.1

God's Property, Our Responsibility

As a Catholic, concern about the environment isn't an option: it's required. Seeing this universe as beautiful, good, and our responsibility, is part of my faith:
The world doesn't belong to humanity. It's God's property: we're just stewards, responsible for managing the place. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 339, 952, 2402-2405, 2456)

"Essentially Benign?"

I haven't run into all the metaphors Clive Hamilton mentions; like "the wakened giant," a planet that is "fighting back" and seeking "revenge;" but I've seen the attitude more often recently.

He may be right, that in recent generations nature "has been understood as unresponsive, neutral and essentially benign:" although much depends on what folks think is "benign."

Some places, like Hawaii, are exceptionally pleasant: "benign," apart from the occasional hurricane and volcanic eruption. I live in central Minnesota, where we can have a blizzard, tornado, and life-threatening hail storm in the same month. Nature is "benign," here, too: as long as we use our brains.

Revenge of the Nymphs?

I'm a bit concerned about phrases like "fighting back" and seeking "revenge" in connection with the natural world. It sounds a lot like belief in the ancient Greek's dryads, and my ancestors' nisse, leprechauns, and pech.

I prefer to assume that most scientists don't really think that a real-life equivalent of Captain Planet's Gaia is in a snit over Victorian-era mining practices. Recognizing that actions have consequences is just common sense; believing that we have offended spirits of earth and wood — that's something else.

Back in Hesiod's day, some 2,700 years back, thinking that an earth-spirit like Gaia gave birth to the Titans like Oceanus and Coeus wasn't odd. The great philosophers of Ancient Greece and their systematic study of the natural world were centuries in the future.

Back then, believing that nymphs, naiads, dryads, and nereids, would be angry if their rivers, springs, trees, or the sea were harmed made sense: or at least was part of a cherished cultural legacy.

We've learned quite a bit about the workings of nature since then: too much, I hope, to start trying to appease spirits of earth and water again.

This reminds me of providence and secondary causes: and that's another topic. Topics. (December 6, 2013; February 1, 2012)

Not Lords, Not Victims: Stewards

I don't know how many folks in the Victorian era actually said that they were the lords of creation, but that sort of hubris seems evident in processes like hydraulic mining. The careless optimism of that era has given way to an equally-unconsidered pessimism, which I think is just as silly.

I don't think nature is "benign" in the sense that we can do anything we like and not get hurt. As I've said before, we live in a universe that will kill us if we don't use our brains. (February 10, 2013)

That doesn't mean that I think we should fear nature.

As long as we use the brains God gave us, we have no need to fear the natural world: any more than a shop foreman should fear machinery and tools. We're designed as stewards, and I've been over that before. (March 17, 2013)

Finally, we've got 'environmental' Saints:
And that's another yet topic.

Related posts:

Canticle of the Sun/Praise of the Creatures, Saint Francis of Assisi

1 Excerpt from an op-ed in The Conversation:
"Forget 'saving the Earth' – it's an angry beast that we've awoken"
Clive Hamilton, The Conversation (May 27, 2014)

"Environmentalism is undergoing a radical transformation. New science has shown how long-held notions about trying to 'save the planet' and preserve the life we have today no longer apply.

"Instead, a growing chorus of senior scientists refer to the Earth with metaphors such as 'the wakened giant' and 'the ornery beast', a planet that is 'fighting back' and seeking 'revenge', and a new era of 'angry summers' and 'death spirals'.

"Whether you consider yourself to be an environmentalist or not, the warnings from Earth system science have far-reaching implications for us all.

"Nature fights back

"In its early days, the science of ecology showed how easily complex ecosystems could be degraded and species obliterated. In 1962, by observing the damage to humans and nature caused by factories and industrial agriculture, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring presented nature as highly vulnerable to destruction by the power of synthetic chemicals.

"The early view of nature as fragile, that is, easily disrupted and unable to repair itself, has been tempered somewhat by evidence that many ecosystems are more resilient and can adapt to new circumstances.

"But whether fragile or robust, the Earth has been understood as unresponsive, neutral and essentially benign...."

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From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.