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The God delusion
January 24, 2011 7:04 AM   Subscribe

“Nature doesn't remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet.” Alain de Botton considers how climate change is reshaping our relationship with the environment.
posted by londonmark (19 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
This Lydia Davis story pretty much sums up my feelings on de Botton:
We feel an affinity with a certain thinker because we agree with him; or because he shows us what we were already thinking; or because he shows us in a more articulate form what we were already thinking; or because he shows us what we were on the point of thinking; or what we would sooner or later have thought; or what we would have thought much later if we hadn’t read it now; or what we would have been likely to think but never would have thought if we hadn’t read it now; or what we would have liked to think but never would have thought if we hadn’t read it now.
posted by theodolite at 7:34 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


He looked at the granite. To be cut, he thought, and made into walls. He looked at a tree. To be split and made into rafters. He looked at a streak of rust on the stone and thought of iron ore under the ground. To be melted and to emerge as girders against the sky.

These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:34 AM on January 24, 2011 [5 favorites]


“Nature doesn't remind us that we are small, but rather provides chilling, awesome evidence of our size and strength. We glance up to the snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and think of how quickly our coal generators have heated the earth. We fly over the denuded stretches of the Amazon and see how easily we have gashed the planet.”

Nope, all that still points toward "small".
posted by notyou at 7:37 AM on January 24, 2011


Nature doesn't does remind us that we are small. To say otherwise is to misunderstand everything.
posted by killdevil at 7:39 AM on January 24, 2011 [2 favorites]


filthy light thief: " These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them."

Does quoting The Fountainhead make you a 'second-hander,' I wonder.
posted by zarq at 7:40 AM on January 24, 2011


In this corner of the universe, the Howard Roarks, shaping earth at their will, intentionally and otherwise. Step back, and they disappear, the earth still a little planet, doing it's thing. Patterns change, fires and floods and earthquakes change the landscape, species disappear and are replaced by seomthing else. The earth goes on.

Turn around, and the cosmos is giant. But when you're sharing the globe with them, you notice their handiwork.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


"These rocks, he thought, are here for me; waiting for the drill, the dynamite and my voice; waiting to be split, ripped, pounded, reborn; waiting for the shape my hands will give them."

You eat some more trees and make some more statues there, Easter Islander.
posted by jaduncan at 7:46 AM on January 24, 2011 [4 favorites]


This pales in signficants to power of the force.
posted by humanfont at 7:49 AM on January 24, 2011


> To say otherwise is to misunderstand everything.

Well you know I don't know. It's all a matter of scale.

Our (that is to say, humanity's) power to wreak profound changes on a global scale is unprecedented. Even as we learn more about the ways in which the tiniest creatures can have far-reaching influences, our ability to use that knowledge to our own ends increases. We are not gods, but we can sure fuck things up in ways that used to be the purview of the supernatural.

And yet on a cosmic time scale, yeah. A blip.

In the absolute utter worst case disaster scenarios, life still abides. It might be a vile milky toxic ocena-spanning bacterial soup, but there it is. Give it a couple billion years. You'll get some crazy shit. Human history would just be one incredibly unfortunate pixel on the timeline of life on earth. A single pixel in which we managed to erase ourselves from consideration.

Narratives like this remind me that really, the broad spectrum of ideas and movements that come together to form the "let's not be too biosphere-shatteringly irresponsible, eh?" school of thought is really one of self-interest. It's not like earth won't continue. It's not like natural selection's slow grind won't eventually yield a re-balanced ecosystem. It's that if we fuck up too badly right here and right now, that ecosystem isn't going to include our own personal simian asses.

And sentient life—life that can remember and honor the life that came before it and now surrounds it—is probably pretty rare. What a way to squander the most miraculous happenstance that ever happens.

So in one way, yeah: insignificant. In another way: Actually pretty significant.
posted by pts at 8:01 AM on January 24, 2011 [13 favorites]


I'm stating the obvious, but calling it "Nature" is such a complete fallacy. There is no one "nature", but thousands and thousands of natures all mixing it up together in this soup we call life. One of those natures is the urge to destroy and re-create things. It's a part of human makeup as much as the urge to have sex and eat.

Balancing nature is a whole other story, and that seems to be where people have problems understanding.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:02 AM on January 24, 2011


So in one way, yeah: insignificant. In another way: Actually pretty significant.

I think that's de Botton's point: "We have only in the past few generations learnt that we are also very powerful. We have been blessed with enough intelligence to alter our fates in a way no other animal can, while being denied enough wisdom to keep our baser sides under control."

He's saying, much like killdevil is, that we need to open our eyes to our own insignificance in the universe.
posted by londonmark at 8:10 AM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


With a large enough ego, everything looks no bigger than you, I guess.
posted by GenjiandProust at 8:14 AM on January 24, 2011


I guess de Botton has never heard of bacteria. The biogeochemical cycles that maintain the atmosphere and soils are processed through microscopic organisms -- and plants. Ninety percent of of biomass on the planet is microbes and plants. By comparison, our impacts on the planet are puny.
posted by binturong at 8:18 AM on January 24, 2011


The ecological situation has forever changed our relationship to nature. An unusually warm spring day cannot now be what it was for Chaucer and Wordsworth - a manifestation of the mystery and power of the non-human realm.

Alain: get a proper job, really. Enough with the navel grazing for enough blue lint to give us mortals some philosophical enlightenment.
posted by MuffinMan at 8:28 AM on January 24, 2011


Well, snarky as it is already in here, I'll go ahead and say I liked it anyway.

My work requires me to read much, much more pontification that the norm on the implications (philosophical and otherwise) of anthropogenic climate change, and though I sometimes find De Botton a bit precious on other topics, I found this piece refreshingly clear-eyed and pragmatic and even wise.

Most important point, I thought, was this section:
Chief executives who manage lorries transporting milk from depots to supermarkets generally have no motives more sinister than the wish to make some money for their shareholders.

When we use ample water to brush our teeth or fly to Florence to see some Titians, aggression is far from our minds. However, we are now daily reminded that innocent everyday actions have a cumulative destructive potential greater than an A-bomb. We have been asked to reconceive of ourselves as unthinking killers.

The destruction is occurring not primarily through what any one of us has done, but through what we are doing collectively as a race. We are implicated in a crime we cannot control singly. Salvation must be collective. So we are guilty, but also unusually powerless.
This is a thoughtful and succinct way of explaining the difference between climate action and traditional environmentalism. It is not primarily about identifying enemies, challenging their actions, and cataloguing and prosecuting their crimes. It is a much larger and more nebulous but much more important project, the one Paul Hawken was getting at when he laid out the challenge for the 2009 graduating class of the University of Portland thusly:

"Civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades."

There's no us vs. them in this new equation; there's only all of us and the abyss. There' much less value now (I stop just short of saying no value at all) in moral victories and principled stands; either the system changes - thoroughly, fundamentally, in virtually every aspect of its approach to producing and consuming energy - to reduce emissions to near zero by midcentury, or we all lose, just as thoroughly and fundamentally, no matter how green our own little lifestyle temples.

It's sort of a twist on Dylan's line about even the president of the United States sometimes standing naked; even the CEO of BP (or the Koch Brothers or my neighbours who work for companies mining Alberta's tarsands or whoever you choose as your climate bugbear of the moment) must be part of this renewal project. Tallying up our relative degrees of implication in the unconscious conspiracy De Botton describes is a game of musical chairs on the deck of the Titanic.

And idle chatter about how it 'twas ever thus and the planet and its microbes will outlive us and the universe will eventually implode anyway - these miss the whole point of human civilization and human philosophy, which is to provide for as stable and meaningful lives as possible for us for as long as we do last on this planet. Which, as De Botton explains, now obliges us to understand that, far from being puny blips in space-time and come what may, we are quite radically altering the nature of life on the planet at the timescale of just a few generations, and we have both the wisdom and the tools to collectively cease doing so if we can grasp the implications of our actions in time.
posted by gompa at 8:44 AM on January 24, 2011 [20 favorites]


There's no us vs. them in this new equation; there's only all of us and the abyss.

/flashback to Karel Capek's War with the Newts
posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 11:25 AM on January 24, 2011


Our fingerprints are all over the uncannily early return of the migratory birds.

Liked the article, but this struck me as wrong. Because birds migrate to the mostly temperature stable tropics, the cue that triggers migratory behavior in birds is largely increases in day length, not warming temperatures. A warming earth does not trigger earlier bird migration, as day length stays the same. Insect life cycles, on the other hand, are determined by temperature. The problem that arises for migrating birds is when they arrive at their summer feeding grounds and the insects that they are accustomed to feeding on have already hatched, mated and died. In extreme cases, this ecological mismatch is leaving the birds with less food than they require for successful reproduction.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 11:38 AM on January 24, 2011


Did anyone here see the movie "Sunshine"?

In a way, I guess that movie showed how insignificant we are in comparison to "nature". The sun is an overwhelming, maddening, uncomprehendably immense source of not only light, but life itself.

...but then consider...that the crew was trying to *restart* the sun. Yep. Humans have developed to the point where we can (at least science fictitiously) restart the sun. Or probably shut it down. Yeah, probably the latter rather than the former.

So isn't it interesting how de Botton says we should meditate on far-off stars? And yet, in xxx amount of years, we might be on a mission to restart these too.
posted by subversiveasset at 11:55 AM on January 24, 2011


Nope, all that still points toward "small".

Spoken like a true Easter Islander. Does it have to be reduced to nothing before you feel taller than it?

To say otherwise is to misunderstand everything.

No, it's to understand that he's talking about us, on this planet, now, not a pretty patch of gas millions of light years away. "Oh, but the universe will go on without us" and "we're all just insignficant bits of space dust" might be comforting to you, but then you seem have deliberately gone out of your way to miss the author's point, so you'll forgive me if I don't draw the same comfort from what I'm sure you thought was a really stunning insight.

"I'm worried there won't be enough food for my children."
"No, it's all cool. Betelgeuse will still go supernova if they die."
"Then you won't mind if they enjoy your liver with these fava beans."
posted by obiwanwasabi at 2:34 PM on January 24, 2011 [1 favorite]


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