The Human Condition:

The Politics of Cuteness – July 1, 2012

Passing under the foot bridge across Interstate 80 in Berkeley the other day,1 I saw a hand-lettered sign: “ECOPALYPSE NOW.” It’s a clever juxtaposition of letters, in homage to an anti-war film from the 1970s. But I’m not sure I know what the person posting it intended to say. Are we to understand that the world is so ecologically damaged that no amount of effort can save us now? Or are we supposed to be rooting for an ecological catastrophe to hurry up our own elimination and so remove a pestilence from the Earth? Or a little bit of both? Or is the poster just being clever because he or she could think of changing the letters around, and let the subtext fall where it may? “We all know the world’s screwed … so enjoy!”2

As I thought about this and tried to interpret the message, I became more and more insulted and irritated. Political discourse in this country appears to have moved on from the political pamphlet, the essay, and the magazine article. We’re even leaving the postcard and the 140-character Twitter tweet behind at light speed. The bumper sticker says it all these days, and soon—as with Ecopalypse Now—the clever anagram.3

The philosophical proposition is presumed to be proven, and all we need is a reminder.

I find myself most disturbed by this uni-dimensional thinking in terms of the environment and the course of human civilization. People speak casually now of humans as some kind of a exponentially spreading virus and of our ability to destroy the planet. Catastrophe is a given. “Human” equals bad. “Civilization” equals bad. “City”—and especially “suburb,” yecch!—equals bad. “Noble savage picking berries and cracking marrow bones after the lions have dined” equals good.

The people who seriously think we’re destroying the Earth need to get out of their apartments in Berkeley. Travel up the Pacific coast and you’ll see a lot of rolling forested hills that are pretty much doing their own thing. Could they be more untouched—totally without roads or fire trails, no selective logging or brush management, no small towns appearing here and there, no dams on any rivers, no sign of human intervention? Sure. But they wouldn’t appear much different, would function very similarly, in fact would be much the same—except in the minds of environmental fundamentalists, for whom any trace of activity later than the Pleistocene is a deadly blot.

Are we losing species and biological diversity? Of course. It happens all the time, with or without the works of humankind. Rivers silt up and change course, creating mud sinks and oxbow lakes: one kind of fish dies and another kind of fish, or a species of frog, takes its place. There is nothing magical about a species, except its fitness for a particular environment. The world was changing long before the first hominid walked out of Africa.

Northern Europe once was covered by dense forests. Humans eventually cut them down for buildings and for fuel, creating the open farmlands of Roman and medieval Europe.4 But before the arrival of the first proto-humans, successive ice ages had stripped the land down to its topsoil.

If you want to see a real travesty, look at the photos Mathew Brady took during the Civil War. Not the carnage of armies, but the background scenery—or lack of it. Battlefields in Maryland and Virginia show barren hills, the result of a dozen decades or more of people cutting local forests first for shelter and then for fuel. These same places are now suburbs and rolling hillsides overgrown with trees, since people have started burning coal and natural gas in power plants far away rather than going out each day with an ax. The result is more songbirds whom thoughtful suburbanites attract and support with offerings of seed and suet.

In the meantime, modern human cities have become a paradise for, of all things, hawks. The cities harbor flocks of pigeons who gorge on handouts and lunchtime leftovers. They offer plentiful ledges on high buildings where, protected from predators, the hawks can raise their fledglings and stoop on the pigeons. Life is making a comeback in the urban canyons.

Think of your own carbon footprint. Carbon dioxide is a trace gas in the atmosphere. By itself, it has negligible affect on retaining the Sun’s reflected heat—the greenhouse effect.5 But it’s a potent fertilizer, promoting plant growth and so creating more ecological niches and biodiversity. This planet was once a much warmer, more fecund place that has since become colder and dryer with the various ice ages.6 More carbon dioxide might reverse that age-old global catastrophe.

People who agonize over a few degrees of heat, a few feet of rising sea level, and a gradual northward migration of arable cropland tend to forget that as little as 18,000 years ago humankind lived through devastating winters that had barred us from northern Europe and central North America by generating vast, mile-thick sheets of ice. During those periods of glaciation, the sea level dropped so that large swathes of the continental shelf were exposed, including a “land bridge” where the Bering Strait now lies.7 The surface of the Earth is constantly changing, with or without the help of humans. The best we can do is use our brains and our collective technology to try to adapt and prosper.

People who see environmental catastrophe also see the sweep of human civilization as essentially negative. Instead of steady, successive waves of enlightenment, leading us out of ignorance and tribal narrowness, through accretions of variously acquired teachings and shared skills with increasingly powerful technologies, and with deepening expectations of personal and societal sophistication, they see only mechanization and brutalization. They forget that the world heritage that gave us Hitler and Stalin, the machine gun, biological warfare, and the atomic bomb, also gives us Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, electric lights and telephones, antibiotics and genetics, computers and a global civilization that makes life richer and better.

The dominant environmental meme of the bumper-sticker mindset reduces the vast sweep of our evolving planet to a human-scaled morality play. In this conception, the smokestack emissions of the past 100 years have upset a finely tuned balance in the atmosphere, and the buried and discarded garbage of the past 50 years has poisoned the land and the sea. At the same time, this meme raises up a vision of global collapse and a healing Earth—for example, the History Channel’s “Life After People”—showing that 1,000 years after humans disappear their works and effects will have largely disappeared with them. Somehow, I don’t think you can have it both ways: either the planet is fragile and we can destroy it, or the planet is robust and can shake us off like a mild head cold.

If all of this were just the fantasies of a few people who lack the perspective of the Earth’s long history and knowledge about the nature of human civilization and technology, it wouldn’t much matter. But this meme is now shaping and driving policies that will have real effects on our lives, livelihoods, and future ability to adapt. By considering the Earth to be a fragile, unforgiving environment and humans as a thoughtless, devouring horde, this kind of thinking leads to calls for abrupt and divisive change. Human choice and our collective wisdom, expressed in social norms and exercised through democratic means, are actively discounted. The theories and models of a relatively small group, representing academics, scientists, and politicians, are given undue voice and power. Apocalyptic, catastrophic thinking trumps the evidence of gradualism and adaptation that we can plainly see all around us.

And then some wisenheimer thinks up “ecopalypse now,” as if 5,000 years of civilization and 500 million years of evolution can be so easily summed up, reduced to a clever catchphrase, and resolved in favor of the destruction of humanity … Gaaahhh!8

1. This bridge is a large suspension structure spanning eight lanes and carrying bicycle and foot traffic between the city and the marina area. It has become a familiar place to impede highway traffic by posting signs and waving arms in protest against almost everything about our civilization. At the city end of the bridge is a sculpture in bronze of academics holding up aluminum frames in the shape of book pages to examine the sky, and this celebrates the University of California, Berkeley. At the other end, a group of people fly aluminum frames in the shape of kites, and this celebrates a popular activity at Cesar Chavez Park next to the marina. I am told—but have not yet found with my own eyes—that one of the figures is a defecating dog. It’s all about social commentary.

2. Only after I began thinking about this kind of bumper-sticker politics—and had this blog about half-written—did I bother to Google “Ecopalypse Now” and came across this anti-AGW gem from Russ Vaughn in American Thinker.

3. I’m reminded here of the various word games making the rounds in email and the internet, where you create a new and supposedly ironic meaning by changing one letter in a word. For example, “juxtapose” becomes “just a pose.”

4. The land became so denuded that the word “plantation” has special meaning in Europe. Elsewhere, it might mean a large farm where a single crop is grown. But in certain parts of Europe it refers to a stand of trees—which grow together only because humans have planted them.

5. All the models of future climate that show change due to CO2 concentrations are actually predicting large changes in water vapor—a potent greenhouse gas—that will have been “forced” by modest changes in CO2. If you can imagine a relationship and model it with an equation, does that make it real? (See my blogs “Fun with Numbers” from September 19 and 26, 2010, in Science and Religion.)

6. According a hypothesis examined in the NOVA segment “Cracking the Ice Age,” airing in 1997, the upthrust of the Himalayas after the Indian subcontinent crashed into Asia 45 million years ago exposed a tremendous amount of new rock to atmospheric weathering. The process supposedly bound a large fraction of the atmosphere’s CO2 in calcium carbonate that ran off in the Ganges and Indus rivers, was absorbed into the shells of marine animals, and deposited in sediments on the floor of the Indian Ocean. That may have led to a cooling of the Earth’s once temperate climate and the rise of glaciation.

7. Borings through the Greenland ice cap have brought up samples from the sub-glacial soil that include vegetable matter from northern arboreal forests. DNA testing of these samples reveals that these buried forests do not date from the last interglaciation, some 100,000 years ago, but from the period before, approximately 200,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier. This evidence suggests that Greenland’s glaciers are older and more persistent than once thought, lasting through more than one ice age.

8. At this point the narrative is concluded in the hand of Assistant Undersecretary Toadpipe, because his Abysmal Sublimity Undersecretary Screwtape has inadvertently transformed himself into a large centipede.