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Visionaries of the 20th Century
A Resurgence Anthology
By Satish Kumar, Freddie Whitefield
UIT Cambridge LtdCopyright © 2013 UIT / Green Books
All rights reserved.
"Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia."
— James Lovelock
"The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man."
"We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost's familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road — the one less travelled by — offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth."
IN 1962, A POWERFUL GROUP of chemical industry representatives, government officials and salaried 'experts' on the environment set out to prevent the publication of the book of a much-loved naturalist. The naturalist in question was Rachel Carson; the book, Silent Spring. Carson placed herself — her reputation, her failing health — in the path of the juggernaut that, at the time, everyone still blithely referred to as 'progress'— and she slowed it a little.
The narrowest of the book's objectives — a review of the aerial spraying of DDT over American towns, farmlands and forests — was achieved, and government policy on pesticides was significantly altered. Its wider objective — to radicalise our thinking about our relationship with the natural world — was barely recognised. At the same time, the storm of controversy and argument it provoked set the tone for our environmental debates for much of the forty-three years since its publication: debates that rarely address the most fundamental principles of Carson's thinking.
For Carson, what the twentieth century demanded was a new way of thinking about the world. She demanded not just an end to indiscriminate pesticide use, but a new science, a new philosophy. "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance," she said at the conclusion of Silent Spring, "born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."
Carson did not want to write Silent Spring. True, she was painfully aware of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and had proposed articles on the problem to the magazines that she was writing for, as far back as the late 1940s, but Silent Spring was in many ways not her kind of project. In her great sea trilogy, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, a singular voice emerges, at once rigorous and lyrical, a voice she had come to know as her own. It was not, in so many ways, the right voice for a 'crusading' book on DDT.
Silent Spring was published in September 1962. It would be a mistake to see it simply as a book about pesticides, though that was how it was quickly characterised by its opponents, who wanted to portray Carson as anti-chemicals and hence anti-progress.
In fact, some of Carson's best writing goes into the book, as she carries her readers along with the argument. Most of all, she wanted people to see the background to the problem with DDT. Carson is a careful guide through the complex web of political and fiscal shenanigans, explaining to a public that would have known almost nothing about biological as opposed to chemical pest control, exactly how government and other bodies manipulated the figures to make the biological option always seem 'too expensive'.
This alone makes Silent Spring a towering achievement. Carson makes the necessary case against DDT, but on the way she exposes the entire system. As Paul Brookes notes, in his excellent study of her work, The House of Life, "She was questioning not only the indiscriminate use of poisons but the basic irresponsibility of an industrialised, technological society toward the natural world."
The response from that society was not long in coming. Soon the men in grey were creeping out from behind their reports and balance sheets, ready to attack. Every effort was made to suppress or vilify the book, not only by chemical companies such as Monsanto and the National Agricultural Chemicals Association, but also by government departments, the Nutrition Foundation and even baby-food producers.
It made no difference. Carson was well prepared for the attacks; and not only would she not be intimidated, she even refused to go out of her way to defend her position, saying that the book could look after itself.
Meanwhile, the public, and most of the popular press, loved Silent Spring. It became a bestseller, a talking point in factories and drawing rooms, the subject of hundreds of newspaper articles, parodies, cartoons and debates. More importantly it reached the office of John F. Kennedy, who asked his scientific adviser to begin a study into the whole DDT question. A pesticides committee was set up, and it quickly produced a report criticising the chemical companies and endorsing Carson's views. Something had been achieved.
But only a little. Testifying to that same committee in June 1963, Carson took the opportunity to remind the world of the wider implications of her work: "We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe. Man's attitude towards nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to destroy nature. But man is part of nature and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."
It is over forty years since that statement. Spring has become a little more silent with each passing year. The skylarks and warblers that used to be so plentiful in our countryside are vanishing, especially on those big, 'profitable' farms the government seems to favour.
"Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia."
"We have given Gaia a fever and soon her condition will worsen to a state like a coma. She has been there before and recovered, but it took more than 100,000 years. We are responsible and will suffer the consequences."
"A billion could live off the earth; six billion living as we do is far too many, and you run out of planet in no time."
"An inefficient virus kills its host. A clever virus stays with it."
JAMES LOVELOCK INVENTED the electron capture detector. You may never have heard of it, but you know well the world it made. This subtle and immensely sensitive pollution sniffer, the size of a matchbox, allowed environmental scientists for the first time to spot tiny amounts of dangerous toxins.
Using his sniffer, Lovelock explored the world. He discovered the global spread of ozone-eating CFCs in the atmosphere. Others used it to track PCBs and pesticides in our food, in air and water and in living organisms worldwide. Lovelock's widget virtually launched modern environmental sciences.
But his greatest invention is intellectual — a brilliant, entirely original and immensely persuasive vision of the way our world works, known as Gaia.
Gaia is where cosmology and biology, palaeontology and computer sciences meet to address the question: why are we here? Why has life thrived on planet Earth? Why Earth and not Mars? How come this planet is just so damn nice?
But Lovelock seeks the answers not in the conventional scientific way, by breaking things down into little bits to see how they work. He says they don't work as little bits, but only as a grand whole — Gaia.
In the labs and senior common rooms you can hear them mutter: this isn't science, it's a New Age religion. Lovelock says the science establishment has lost the plot. They have forgotten that science is about seeing the whole, not peering down ever more powerful microscopes. In the jargon, he is holistic, while they are reductionist.
Old notions about life on Earth — implicit still in almost every school textbook — hold that living things evolved simply by adapting to their environment. But this was nonsense. Life fundamentally influenced its own environment. What is more, its influence seemed to be strong enough to maintain stable conditions over hundreds of millions of years, even though the chemistry of the atmosphere was itself very unstable.
It could even apparently respond to outside events. The atmosphere's temperature, for instance, had barely changed during a period when the Sun had grown 25 per cent hotter. If that extra heat had been transferred to the planet's surface without dampening, we would all long since have fried. A lucky chance? The more Lovelock thought, the more unlikely that seemed. We don't get that lucky — such constancy required the existence of an active control system. Life on Earth is controlling its environment for its own good. Crazy? Well, how else do you explain it?
The novelist William Golding soon afterwards coined for Lovelock the name Gaia, after the Greek Earth goddess. And a hypothesis was born, edging into the scientific literature through obscure journals. But making it from the scientific fringe to the top tables proved harder. For many years, journals such as Nature and Science refused Gaian papers. Even now, Gaia is the science that dare not speak its name. In the journals, it usually masquerades under the deadening title of 'geophysiology'.
But, inspired by the Gaian model of the world, scientists are seeking and finding some of the switches that may operate Gaian control systems such as the planetary thermostat. Here are two. We know that if it gets warmer, bacteria in soils work faster and speed up the weathering of rocks. That weathering absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as the gas reacts with silicate rocks to produce carbonates. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. It helps keep the planet warm. So faster weathering reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and lowers temperatures again. Greenhouse sceptics love this bit. See, they say, we don't have to worry about global warming. Nonsense, says Lovelock. These processes take too long to help us in slowing down global warming.
A second thermostat switch involves phytoplankton in the oceans. Over much of the planet, the sulphurous 'breath' of these marine plants is the main source of the condensation nuclei that allow clouds to form. Without the plankton, there would be many fewer clouds and the Earth's surface would be much warmer.
This entire line of research, with its most surprising discovery, was inspired by the Gaian idea. Whether or not Gaia is the literal truth, it is clearly a powerful way of looking at the world. By looking resolutely at the whole, it reveals things that you couldn't get from peering at the sum of the parts.
The above extracts are reprinted from an article in The Guardian.
Doyen of Deep Ecology
"Life is fundamentally one. ... The deep ecology movement is the ecology movement which questions deeper. The adjective 'deep' stresses that we ask why and how, where others do not."
"The movement is not mainly one of professional philosophers and other academic specialists, but of a large public in many countries and cultures."
"Every living being is connected intimately, and from this intimacy follows capacity of identification and as its natural consequences, practice of non-violence."
FOR NORWEGIANS, Arne Naess's reputation is unimpeachable: he will remain a great public figure, a riddle and an inspiration. But whether Naess's reputation will abide beyond the shores of his native country is a more vexed question. Will his coinage of the term 'Deep Ecology' ensure his immortality as a philosopher? Will the myth that has been woven around him continue to entice people to his work?
Responses to Naess over the years have been nothing if not multifaceted. He has been variously labelled as a 'guru', an 'eco-fascist', a 'prophet' and a 'panzercharakter' (meaning a person with a personality like a tank). His life has run the gamut from contemplation to robust recreation: he began as a mountain-climbing philosopher, who studied in Vienna, partly for the peaks, and fell in with a sombre 1930s philosophical circle called the Logical Positivists. Then he raced off to California and attracted attention by conducting psychological studies of rats. Norway enticed him back by offering him a Professorship of Philosophy at Oslo University, where he produced vast tomes on the philosophy of science, semiotics and scepticism. In the 1960s he began moving towards environmental philosophy. During all this deep thought he climbed, devoutly and expertly, some of the highest mountains in the world.
He is well known among environmentalists for having coined the term 'Deep Ecology' to distinguish eco-centric environmental arguments from 'shallow', anthropocentric ones. Naess holds that industrialised society has lost touch with a crucial portion of human experience: the ability to be 'alone' and yet 'not alone' in nature, to subsume one's own sense of identity into the common mass of creation. The world has changed immeasurably since Naess crafted his definition in the 1970s. Does the Deep Ecology message continue to ring resonantly?
It certainly did for me, and his arguments formed a substantial portion of the patchwork of reasons why I left London and moved to Norway. I met Naess several times while in Oslo.
The most memorable of these encounters was not the formal meeting in the lecture theatre, but on a rainy day, when I took a train up the mountains outside Oslo, and asked Naess a few questions about his thoughts on the future.
Naess used to spend much of the year in a mountain retreat, on a virtually inaccessible peak. The old, slightly bent man who opened the door was just a little hesitant and frail, wearing a huge woollen jumper, staring around with pale blue eyes. But there was a residual wiriness, as he sat, a strength remaining from a lifetime of vigorous activity in nature.
Naess has consistently preached a doctrine of political, deliberate slowness. Life runs too fast, Naess insists. No one has a chance to stop, look, and be quiet in the woods. And this is why environmentalism continues to fail to seize the political centreground in Europe and North America. "There's always a sense of hurry, as if we are always on the way. But I say we are here, completely here. ... I am always telling people to slow down, to enlarge on moments that have value; not to think 'What do I have to do now? What's the time?', but to think, 'This is something perfect.'"
The industrialised world wants us to speed up, speed away from nature, from moments of contemplation: "People are mostly not educated to experience nature. Parents must take their children into the woods, or anywhere that is not dominated by human activity, so they can learn to like to be in nature, to appreciate small things."
Deep Ecology might be seen as too mystical for the mainstream. The talk of a future in which the vast majority have reached 'ecological enlightenment' has been dismissed as utopian dreaming. But the Naessian world-view is still warmly applauded by environmentalists who work towards practical solutions.
It remains the case that environmentalists still prick up their ears on both sides of the Atlantic when Naess is mentioned; Deep Ecology remains one of the most quoted, if at times least understood, points of environmental philosophy. As the environmental situation worsens, popularisers of environmental thought will become more important. Naess has supplied a larger-than-life quality, and combined it with an incessant charm which has mollified many of his detractors. But in some ways, even if the mantra of Deep Ecology survives and flourishes, there remains a need for the next Deep Ecology movement: a new incitement to action and change of sensibility. Deep Ecology was a product of a particular coalescence of time and place and people — and the values at the core of the Deep Ecology movement could only be fostered and strengthened by a new, popular mantra for a more cynical, distracted age, which has little time for forests and quietness, but which fears the advent of global warming as much as does the smiling old man in his small log cabin.
Catalyst of Change
"The creative force of capitalism should be used to transform capitalism itself and make it into an instrument of a genuinely sustainable economy."
"We [the green movement] have persuaded people that the world is in trouble and that's a huge achievement. The paradox is that having won the argument, we are still losing the world. So you've got to stop and say 'why?'"
JONATHON PORRITT made his name with twenty-five years of uncompromising campaigning on environmental issues, which began when he was a teacher with the Inner London Education Authority in the mid-seventies. In the early years he was an activist with the Ecology Party, the forerunner of the modern Greens, for which he stood repeatedly for election to local councils, the Commons and the European Union. He ended up as chairman of the party.
Excerpted from Visionaries of the 20th Century by Satish Kumar, Freddie Whitefield. Copyright © 2013 UIT / Green Books. Excerpted by permission of UIT Cambridge Ltd.
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