Saturday, October 13, 2007

The Good Old Days

During a marathon ornament making session today, I flipped through a book while in the loo. It was a hardcover treatment on William Morris and his works inspired by ancient Africa. I saw 2 of his canopic jars once and they're the only things I remember from the whole 5 room exhibit. His work is stunning.
William Morris Canopic JarIn the book, I skipped around and looked at the pictures of glass, then read a few bits of text. He was quoted as being inspired by times when people were "closer to nature". And my brain zoomed completely away from glass.

I think one of our great social fallacies is that at some point in our past, people lived more harmoniously with nature. Or that people were more laid back and restful. Or smarter or dumber or whathaveyou. To the best of my knowledge, people and human nature really haven't changed even the tiniest little bit in at least ten to twenty thousand years. If you took a baby born in ancient Egypt and time traveled them forward to today and raised them now, they'd wind up just like any other adopted kid. They will have their own personality and skill set, surely, but there won't be anything related to being human or fitting into a society that will throw them any more than it would throw us.

And for all the time that people have been recognizably human, we seem to fight tooth and nail against nature. Does that mean it's human nature to fight nature? I guess that's what I'm saying, yes. We take delight in molding, reforming, ignoring, or otherwise altering nature at every turn. Sex? "That's bad, don't do it!" we say - and the message is universally ignored when hormones kick in. Rainy day? Let's build a shelter. Want water somewhere else? Build a dam, ditch, or pipeline. Feel free to add more examples in the comments.

One of the big theses in anthropology is that women are often culturally seen as secondary to men because with the periods and birthing babies, they're seen as "closer to nature", aka ruled by nature, not by self, and this is somehow inferior. (Never mind the truth about all people being part of nature, this is a very strong perception.) The implication being that nature must be tamed and overruled and men can fake it better (or make rules that downplay the import of when they're ruled by nature.) This isn't meant to be a feminist rant, rather my point is that being "close to nature" is considered to be less good than striving to overcome nature.

I don't think people have ever been "closer to nature". It's just that when you have a smaller or less dense population, it doesn't do as much unrecoverable damage. It's the scale that tips the balance from harmony to damage. Although I wouldn't be surprised in the least to find the greatest civilization in history buried under the Sahara which they likely caused through deforestation, bad irrigation, and lack of attention to sustainable practices. A few tribes in the Amazon doing slash and burn agriculture over a couple acres which rotate every few years is reabsorbed into the cloud forest within a few years of the rotation can do this indefinitely. A civilization going in with bulldozers to slash and burn several thousands of acres which are never allowed to revert to forest, and don't have enough forest nearby to get the job done anyway, can do this for a couple years or a couple dozen years before the land has to be abandoned for decades or centuries to recover.

The analogy that comes to mind for me for the harmony/damage tipping point is acid-base titration. This is where you take an unknown substance in a solvent (often water), and you add a small amount of an indicator substance (like red cabbage juice). The cabbage juice will turn either red or blue depending on whether it's in an acid or a base. (I forget which color lemon juice turns it.) With the indicator, you now know whether or not you're dealing with an acid or a base. But you can also get more information! By taking a known substance of the opposite pH, you add it to the solution in measured amounts until the indicator switches colors, thereby figuring out how strong the original substance was.

The relevant part of the analogy is that when adding, lets say, the acid to the base, the solution can stay basic for a long time if it started out far from neutral. It's only when you get very close to neutral that adding one dose of the acid will turn a small portion of the solution long enough to watch it. And it can take as little as one drop to tip the pH from base to acid, and thus the indicator from blue to red. The difference between living in "harmony" with nature vs. destroying nature might be just this close and just this subtle - only seen by people looking for it. If you catch it early and make a few changes, this tipping point can be pushed out or returned from. Ignore it and the the magic 8 ball says "indications are unfavorable".

Without getting into a debate on whether we're causing global warming or just distributing CO2 and mercury over the surface of the earth, humans are doing our standard fight against nature thing by sucking oil from someplace that didn't use to be a factor in the energy balance of the atmosphere, and adding this energy to the atmosphere. We can do small amounts of this with impunity, like we can dump small amounts of waste overboard on a ship in the ocean. There are signs and portents, and the people watching the indicators are saying we're getting to the point that like a whole town dumping sewage into a pond, we're putting more combustion products in the air than the atmosphere can handle. Al Gore won half a Nobel Peace Prize this week for his work on global warming/ climate change because we're at the point where we need to take action and he's trying to get the word out.

The solution isn't to long for a simpler time when people were tree huggers by nature. The solution lies in evaluating what we can most easily change to drive us back from that tipping point. Once we know that we're doing damage, we should take steps to stop doing the same thing in the same way, to my way of thinking. But that involves convincing other people to vote for nature, which people view as anti-people, regardless of whether or not it's good for us, so naturally it's a hard sell. (My personal soap box is adding scrubbers to coal burning exhaust - they're relatively cheap at $500 million per money-making plant - and nearly eliminate acid rain and mercury contamination. But we've chosen to just poison all the fish in New England to the point they aren't safe to eat and let the polluters continue unchecked. No one can eat fish any they catch so a few suits can save a few bucks? Isn't that the kind of thing governments are supposed to correct? Anyhow.)

While I was trying to figure out how to get out of this quagmire of thought, my mom called and volunteered, "the more pristine the area, the more bugs there are!" She's read that the Androscoggin river, near where I was born, has areas which have been remediated after years of paper mill effluent now have trout again - and mosquitoes. Which through no fault of my own, reflects pretty much exactly what I'd spent the last hour thinking about - except for the bugs. Although what I meant to say was that people are, were, and will be just people. Just because they didn't have airplanes didn't mean the people of days gone by wreaked less havoc on their little corners of the world.


Anonymous said...

We can't put in scrubbers b/c only environmentalists are correct, scientists and engineers lie dontcha know. Waiting to see if the incinerator goes in or not in the burbs of Toronto.

Mom got her glass ball. She really likes it. Thanks.


Wade said...

I'm all for a managed environment, but the trick is who gets to manage it? I was just reading an article ( about managing global warming through several radical ecological tools, and the big thing was just how little regulation and management there is in this field. Right now, any group of people could go dump iron filings into the Arctic in an attempt to reduce carbon emissions, but should they? What will that do to our weather patterns?

Anyway, we'd need some sort of global agency dedicated to managing the environment, and until nationalism is a much weaker force, you won't see that anytime soon.

CrankyOtter said...

"Who gets to manage/ decide?" ahh, the essential question! And one it's easy to forget when saying "we should do X".