Today is the 107th birthday of Rachel Carson. Carson was the American marine biologist and conservationist whose book Silent Spring was largely responsible for starting the global environmental movement. By observing the damage to humans and nature caused by factories and industrial agriculture, Carson presented nature as highly vulnerable to destruction by the power of synthetic chemicals.
The idea that the earth is fragile, easily disrupted and unable to repair itself led to an environmental movement focused on repairing a damaged planet.
This idea has had various metaphorical expressions, including “Mother Earth” as a nurturing, feminine and easily damaged entity. The notion of living harmoniously with nature took hold, inspired by images of pre-industrial peoples living close to the natural world.
Underlying these conceptions is a view that, while humans can cause a great deal of damage, nature is passive and always our victim. That vision has changed dramatically thanks to the science of climate change. Today we see that the planet has been disturbed from its resting state, jolted out of the providential era of climatic stability characteristic of the last 10,000 years, and is now on a new and largely uncontrollable path that is creating conditions dangerous for human life.
Clive Hamilton has written a piece for The Conversation entitled, Forget “saving the Earth”- it’s an angry beast we’ve awoken, that analyses this new perspective.
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.
According to Hamilton, Earth System Science is responsible for this more holistic view.
The rise of Earth system science – which has brought together many different fields of science so that we can better understand how the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans, land and other systems work together – has changed the way we see the world.
Now, the Earth is understood as a dynamic system with strong feedback effects, which can suddenly shift it to a new state when critical points are crossed.
So profound has been the influence of humans that scientists have proposed that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene or the Age of Humans, defined by the fact that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system”.
As Earth scientist James Syvitski writes:
At some point, we graduated from adapting to our environment to making it adapt to us … But now we regularly decelerate and accelerate natural processes, focus energy in extraordinary ways and alter, destroy or create ecosystems.
That means we must no longer see the Earth as the submissive repository for supplying our resources or taking our wastes, nor as the docile victim of our rapacity or carelessness.
This newer understanding of the Earth has been vividly expressed by palaeoclimatologist Wally Broecker:
The palaeoclimate record shouts out to us that, far from being self-stabilizing, the Earth’s climate system is an ornery beast which overreacts even to small nudges.
When the Earth is understood this way, the task of environmentalism can no longer be to “save” or preserve the planet, for the planet we wanted to save has already become something else. Our task now is to do what we can to pacify, or at least not aggravate further, something vastly more powerful than we are.
If we have wakened the slumbering beast by poking and prodding it, the prudent course is firstly to stop. But we cannot put it back to sleep.
There is no return to the peaceful conditions of the Holocene, at least not for thousands of years; but to provoke it further, as we still are, is foolishness on an epic scale.
So, the metaphor of “Mother Earth” is being replaced by something akin to William Butler Yeats‘ rough beast slouching towards Bethlehem.
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?