Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Ecology of Man

Man has always believed that his fate and the planet's were somehow inextricably linked. Prophesies of the end of the world never suggest that, after mankind has been called to its maker, the planet will remain, uncontaminated by man. Even the "worst-case scenarios" of nuclear war or the recent prophesies of asteroid impacts with the earth pretend that the earth will enjoy no posterity when man becomes extinct. An old friend once expressed his view to me that the very idea that man could pose a threat to the life of the planet was ridiculous and that it was far more likely that one day the earth might decide that it had had enough of man and bring about his extinction. The evidence of escalating global temperatures, the very existence of which - true to form - some people are trying to deny or downplay, indicates that we may be witnessing the initial stages of the planet's wrath. This idea seems to me at least as likely as the one posited by the "disaster porn" flicks like 2012.

Whatever the end may be, the feeling that it is somehow unavoidable and that it is too late to stop it, even if it were in our power to do so, is widespread. This feeling, of course, inadvertently hastens the outcome. Whether man is the cause of his own extinction or not, it is commonly believed that he cannot save himself. In his book, The Great Deep: The Sea and Its Thresholds, James Hamilton Paterson puts it succinctly (and beautifully):

Conservation is only ever a rearguard action, fought from a position of loss. It is ultimately unwinnable, and not least because there are no recorded victories over population increase, nor over the grander strategies of genetic behaviour such as the laws of demand, political expediency, sheer truancy and a refusal to relinquish a standard of living once it has been attained. There can only be stalemates, holding actions and truces uneasily policed. A few affecting species will be saved, a few million hectares of forest, a few tribes of Indians; but the world will never return to how it was when this sentence was written, still less to how it was when reader and writer were born. This has always been true and will continue to be so. The mistake is to extend this sequence backward in time and imagine it leads to a lost paradise. It is a safe bet that as soon as the earliest protohominid could think, it invented a legend to account for its sense of loss.

I have the feeling, however, that our quietus may not come as soon as, or quite in the manner that, we expect. The people who expected the world to end at midnight on December 31, 1999, or the ones who expect it on December 21, 2012, are just like the befuddled ancients in Cavafy's great poem "Waiting for the Barbarians" on the following day:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

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