Monday, 29 August 2022

Replacing Nature

by Thomas Scarborough

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station, Cape Town

The 2017 film Blade Runner 49 was ‘visually amazing’, receiving eight nominations and two awards at the 71st British Academy Film Awards, among other important accolades. But beyond the visuals, there was some serious philosophy. Blade Runner 49 portrays a world which, according to Laura Holt of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, cuts the ‘umbilical cord’ which connects human survival with the biosphere.

Today, this cutting of the umbilical cord would seem to be a slow but relentless process. The more organised we become, the more there is to go wrong. The more there is to go wrong, the more we need to insure life against it. The ‘progress’ of the Enlightenment has become the progress of human domination. This has come at the cost, according to the World Wildlife Fund, of the massive retreat of nature: an average 68% drop in biodiversity since 1970.

The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, before his execution by the Nazi regime in 1945, wrote a synopsis of an enivsaged book. His notes were published posthumously in English in 1953, in Prisoner of God. Since these were abbreviated, I paraphrase here (the original translation appears below):

‘The Coming of Age of Humanity.

‘Humanity will seek to insure life against accident and ill-fortune. If the elimination of danger proves to be impossible, they will seek at least to minimise it. Insurance, while it thrives upon accidents, seeks also to mitigate their effects. This is a Western phenomenon. The goal is ultimately to be independent of nature. Our immediate environment is destined, not to be nature as before, but organisation. Yet this immunity from nature will produce a new crop of dangers, which is the very organisation.’
This was a prescient observation by a man who wrote nearly eighty years ago. At a glance, one might suppose that he was speaking of totalitarianism. It is, however, not the totalinarianism of the state, but what we now call ‘the science of scarcity’. How to provide more, and more, with less, across all lands and seas, for a global population.

Apart from being a relentless process, this becomes more and more dangerous to human stability. Close to my home in Cape Town, there is a nuclear power station. On some days, its twin domes rise hauntingly above the mists on the shore. In 2006, apparently, a single bolt broke loose in a generator, so disabling half the nuclear plant. It went into a controlled shutdown, and could not be raised to life for months. The reason for this was that replacement parts needed to be imported from France.

The incident showed how perilously close human organisation may sometimes be to disintegration. Fuel distribution, desalination plants, food production, transportation, communications, and any number of things besides, may be laid lame through fairly small and localised problems. The war in Ukraine, while not small, has revealed how a localised catastrophe can now destabilise the whole world. Too often, where we engineer things to create a more predictable and dependable world than nature provides, we come another step closer to the edge.

While we have applied much attention to the problems, we seem to find no reason to stop the latent and relentless process of separating ourselves from nature. And those who perhaps see clearly, do not have the power to prevent it. It is not ‘as before’, wrote Bonhoeffer. ‘Before’ (in his continuing notes), humankind had the spiritual vitality to defeat ‘the blasphemies of hybris’. He wrote, ‘Man is once more faced with the problem of himself. He can cope with every danger except the danger of human nature itself.’

Prominent thinkers have said no, wait, stop. Let go of the steering wheel. We are headed for, as it were, Blade Runner 49. The late biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson proposed that half the earth should be rewilded. Most recently, Laura Holt called for ‘relinquished areas’ of nature. I myself have proposed that large areas of the planet be prohibitos autem terra: under a ban. I propose that we are not capable of stopping ourselves in any other way.


* Original translation: ‘The coming of age of humanity (along the lines already suggested). The insuring of life against accident, ill-fortune. If elimination of danger impossible, at least its minimisation. Insurance (which although it thrives upon accidents, seeks to mitigate their effects) a western phenomenon. The goal, to be independent of nature. Our immediate environment not nature, as formerly, but organization. But this immunity produces a new crop of dangers, i.e. the very organisation.’


Keith said...

I see, Thomas, an interesting juxtaposition of your essay, titled ‘Replacing Nature’, and last week’s essay, titled ‘Thence We Will Create Superhumans’.

Let me borrow a short quote from each, to illustrate the arguably resulting push-pull dynamic between the two essays’ theses.

‘Replacing Nature’ …
‘Too often, where we engineer things to create a more predictable and dependable world than nature provides, we come another step closer to the edge’.

‘Creat[ing] Superhumans’ …
‘Germline genome editing will inevitably expand into the area of generating new or improved abilities…. Treating disease or preventing disability would therefore merge with [human] ‘enhancement’.

The paradox is that both may well be right.

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Thank you, Keith. I think we do not appreciate to what extent we have already replaced nature. We have reduced things, which even in our own time were organic fields of interest, to something more like paint-by-numbers: farming, building, nursing, even sports. We continue headlong in that direction.

My wife Ester grew up on a farm. There was a three-year drought, which I witnessed, and modern farming methods were abandoned. The surprise was that insects reappeared which had not been seen in a generation. They had been part of the old farming methods, but not of the new.

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