I opened one of my favorite websites this morning, Yale Environment 360. In my opinion this site is one of the very best spots on the web to read environmental articles reminding us of what a tight spot us humans are in these days. One of my favorite writers there is Beth Gardiner.
Ms Gardiner has a new article called “Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change.” This article is an interview with environment activist Elisabeth Yeampierre. It is about her belief that racism and climate change and the death of nature are deeply connected in America.
Yeampierre says that the slavery of 19th century America is deeply linked with the racism of today. She says there are clearly deep connections between slavery, our modern racism and the environmental problems that have lately become so apparent in our contemporary world.
This is a wonderful article and I highly recommend it. I agree with what Yeampierre is saying. I have long believed that slavery is at the root of many of our worst American problems. Since the New York Times’ long series of articles titled the “1619 Project” about the consequences of America’s origins as a slave state, it is hard to think otherwise.
And I agree with Yeampierre that there are many other links between slavery and contemporary America. It seems to me that many of Americas worst tendencies have dark and twisted connections with American slavery: capitalism, our libertarian and neo-liberal economics, racism, the ongoing destruction of nature, inequality, big industry, big agriculture, our never ending violence, imperialism, all have links to those plantations that lined the Mississippi River in the first half of the 19th century. The connections are deep and dark and twisted, but I think they are there.
As I read Gardiner’s article I found my mind turning to some similar thoughts that I have been having lately. More and more I am seeing several more themes that are all intertwined in modern America. Most of them are about the relationship between science, capitalism and the end of nature.
Socialists have long seen and written about this problem in the modern world. Socialists have said for many years that capitalism and the destruction of the earth are pretty much the same thing. Many of the books by John Bellamy Foster say this in great detail. And much of the socialist Mike Davis’s book “Planet of the Slums” agrees with Yeampier’s belief that racial injustice has exposed people of color to far greater environmental health hazards than whites.
And recently I have been thinking that western science itself also plays a role in the development of capitalism and the resulting destruction of nature. Or, that at the very least certain attitudes embedded in early science gave the West permission to exploit the riches of the natural world and thus led to the destruction of much of nature. Us Westerners have long thought of science only with the greatest reverence. But now that global warming and a whole assortment of environmental catastrophes are crashing down upon us, it’s hard to think of science, which gave us all the tools for exploiting nature, with quite the same respect.
I have to say that I am making such statements with great unease. I keep thinking I must be making some kind of an awful mistake here. I keep thinking I’m saying something really dumb like “Guns kill people.” And this clearly is not correct, people kill people not guns. But on the other hand all of these guns flooding our country enabled all those deaths that happened in all of those countless massacres. If the US government had not allowed all those guns to be purchased, those massacres not have happened.
And in the same way, I think that if we had not invented the kind of science we did invent in the 17th century, perhaps we would not be as close to the destruction of nature as we are today. I think that the kind of science that we invented 400 years ago has perhaps enabled the kinds attitudes we have towards the natural world we have today.
And so, maybe it is not too much of a stretch to think that some aspects of the modern science which was invented in the 17th century is also deeply implicated in the rape of the earth, and in the capitalism and in the industrial revolution and maybe even in the racism of the times where we now find ourselves. All of these things may have had their beginnings in the power of science to exploit the wealth of the earth which led to vast profits and also to better and better ways of maximizing these profits.
It is beginning to seem at least possible that the capitalism, racism, and what is sometimes called extractive science are all inseparable from the current destruction of the earth, climate change, death of nature and the extinction of life that now has descended upon us.
Don’t get me wrong. I am a strong believer that capitalism and science also have their life enhancing sides, but this does not exempt them from criticism. And then there is the fact that much of science is deeply accepting of life; for example climate science, most of biology and especially ecology are all about living organisms. Biology has long been known as the “messy or “dirty” science. This is because biology is all about living organisms, and living organisms cannot be explained entirely by the mechanical laws of physics and mathematics and chemistry which were part of the scientific revolution of the 17th century. Biology is messy, because life is messy.
Think of throwing chickens up in the air. Dead chickens fly through the sky just like rocks do; they fly in long parabolas that can be exactly predicted by the laws of mass and velocity and acceleration and gravity invented by Newton in the 17th century. But try doing this with live chickens. You cannot predict much of anything about where live chickens will end up: you cannot predict the arc of their parabola, nor their landing point, nor their velocity.
Life seems to have what is sometimes called agency. Agency is the internal decision making apparatus that all living things at least appear to have. Agency is about free will, self direction, and self determination. On the other hand, many of the hard sciences are about mechanics, the science of dead things flying through space. This world is a deterministic world where all actions are determined not internally but externally. Billiard balls never decide when to begin moving or what direction to take. Billiard balls are only set in motion by another billiard balls striking them with a specific force at a specific angle. This external force determines when they move and where they go. At least according to classical mechanics.
There is a reason Newton’s laws are called classical mechanics and the laws of Quantum theory are called quantum mechanics. Jessica Riskin’s book “The Restless Clock” is about these ideas of agency and classical mechanics and how all of this became contemporary science. Along the way she points out that there was a huge contradiction at the origin of modern science which is still flipping monkey wrenches into the workings of contemporary science. I wrote a long detailed post on Riskin and agency and the scientific revolution a few days ago. Many of the details of what I am talking about here can be found in that post.
All of the hard sciences are extremely powerful tools. Modern science works really, really well when it comes to managing the non-living part of the world. Science allows humans to predict and control and exploit the non-living natural world wonderfully well. But there seems to be a problem. These tools almost always do this at the expense of the living parts of our natural world. And the rewards of science and technology are so great that for the last 400 years we have chosen to overlook the damage science has been doing.
Economics has at least tried to quantify the damage that science and technology often cause. Economists call the downside of progress negative externalities. Acid rain was a negative externality. The very real costs of acid rain should have been added into the costs of steel making, but they never were. If they had been, no one would have bought any steel. It would have been far too expensive.
Global warming is one of the externalities of burning fossil fuels. And there are others like the air pollution that kills at least 7 million people every year. This is so expensive that no one even dares to think about the real costs of burning coal and oil. Only now are those costs being conceded at all; and those who really look at them honestly are horrified.
Not only do we ignore the real costs of burning oil, we also try to hide these actual costs. We do this when we ignore the hidden subsidies that are given to various industries like oil and agriculture in the US. There are some who argue very convincingly that the US oil industry receives subsidies in the trillions of dollars every year. This large figure counts not only the money that is directly given to the oil industry by US government agencies but also the externalities which are paid indirectly by society.
Below is a quotation from an Atlantic Magazine article written in May of 2019.
The International Monetary Fund recently updated its comprehensive report on global fossil-fuel subsidies. It arrives at a staggering conclusion: In 2017, the world subsidized fossil fuels by $5.2 trillion, equal to roughly 6.5 percent of global GDP. That’s up half a trillion dollars from 2015, when global subsidies stood at $4.7 trillion, according to the IMF. If governments had only accounted for these subsidies and priced fossil fuels at their “fully efficient levels” in 2015, then worldwide carbon emissions would have been 28 percent lower, and deaths due to toxic air pollution 46 percent lower.
The report suggests a morally grim situation: As the planet careens toward climate catastrophe, governments are forking over trillions of dollars—one-fifteenth of the global economy!—directly to oil, coal, and gas companies. But the challenge of combatting climate change through politics is much more difficult than some tidy math can make it seem. This calculation suggests that recalibration would be simple. If we only cut those subsidies, then carbon pollution would plunge, and we’d be much further along in addressing the climate challenge.
And now, all of a sudden, after years of exploiting and unheedingly destroying nature we suddenly realize that we are at the point where nature is on the verge of utter collapse. Global warming, along with the ravaging of the rest of the earth’s biosphere, has brought us to the very edge of total breakdown. Science has given us a wonderfully comfortable and healthy and prosperous world but at a great expense. It is hard to deny that the downside of science has brought us right to the very brink of the death of nature, and to the death of many animals and plants and now to even the extinction of Homo sapiens.
I think that if we don’t understand this, we haven’t been paying attention to what climate and ecological scientists have been saying very loudly for the last 40 years. And there is probably a reason for this. Unfortunately the direness of our situation has not been all that apparent to the superficial observer. If you don’t look too carefully, the world looks just fine. You really have to be a climate scientist to see the problem. And that makes this a difficult problem to solve.
And then there is the fact that none of us really want to accept the reality that nature is pretty much gone. It’s just so much easier to think “Oh well” this can’t really be happening. or “Oh well” this isn’t going to be a real problem for thousands of years. We’ll worry about this later.
I’ve been thinking like this for years. But now with the Corona pandemic it has suddenly become all too obvious that ecological doom has actually arrived. (I’ve been writing posts for the last several months saying that the pandemic is actually the first appearance of the long expected global climate disaster. If you look at the evidence, I think this is exactly correct. Ecological disaster truly has arrived and it is happening right now.)
Goethe wrote “Faust” in the middle of the romantic age of the 19th century. The romantic age was the period when science and the industrial revolution and capitalism reached new heights. But the romantic age was also a rejection of many of the downsides of the scientific revolution. Goethe’s main character, Faust, makes a deal with the devil and the book “Faust” is the ultimate discussion about how humans achieve their own damnation through their endless desire for more knowledge and power and happiness.
I fear we may have made our own deals with our own devils. Science looks to be a wonderful solution to many of man’s worst problems: sickness, poverty, hunger, early death and the discomforts of the natural world. And these solutions are real. And I have always been one of the greatest supporters and prosletyzers of science. How could knowledge and truth and the banishment of superstition, ignorance, disease and suffering be a bad thing? And yet, here we are, at the very edge of our own destruction and the destruction of much of the rest of life on earth.
Surely there must be a way to keep the good side of science and ban the evil, destructive, life-destroying side. But we clearly cannot just undo science. It would be totally impossible to just undo all the downsides of science. And even if we could it clearly would not be a good idea. There are two sides to science and the good side is very, very good.
What we do need to do is just what many have been trying to do ever since the 1950s. We need to do our best to limit CO2 in the gas and oil and coal we still burn and then transition as rapidly as possible to renewable sources of energy like sun and wind and other renewables. And we need to build a whole new set of laws and institutions that treat the natural world not as something to exploit but as the life giving set of interlocking ecosystems that allow life to continue. This could probably be accomplished. Even though it is almost certainly too late to prevent many of dangers of climate change, I think it is probably not too late to prevent the the worst of it, the end of all life on earth.
And we do have to give up silly ideas that we are going to be able to go back to some romantic world of living close to the bosom of the nature where everyone becomes a natural farmer experiencing the joys of plentitude and fulfillment in a purely natural world.
In this first place, I’m pretty sure such a utopia never existed in the first place. And secondly, I have always believed, along with Thomas Wolfe, that you can never go back to the good times you imaging you once lived in. The past is over and done and all we have are new futures, for better or for worse.
And I think we are going to have to clearly realize that everything, including science is double edged and that if you play with sharp knives or with fire, sooner or later, unless you are very careful or very lucky, you are going to burn the house down or maybe bleed to death. And in my experience, humans are rarely lucky or careful.
What we are really going to have to do is to build those institutions and make those laws that will limit the dark side of the science that we invented back in the 17th century. We can do this.
And I also think that we are going to have to recognize that we are right the brink of ending all life on earth, right now. We are going to have to recognize the nasty fact that everything always does comes to an end at some point or another. In fact whole worlds and entire universes are constantly dying in the vastness of outer space all the time. And species have always gone extinct in our own world. At least five times in the history of the earth over 90% of the earth’s species died in mega catastrophes. Interestingly enough, the cause of these catastrophes was almost always an excess of CO2 in the atmosphere. See Peter Brannen’s wonderful book about this. It is called “The Ends of the World”. This is my favorite book on climate change.
We are going to have to realize that ecological end times are real and they are really happening to us right now. Maybe we will figure out how to get out of this mess and maybe not. But if we are going to survive, we have to realize that this problem is real and that maybe we have one last change to fix it. We have to at least give it our best try.
On the bright side, humans are endlessly inventive and unbelievably intelligent and in the past something has always turned up to rescue us. And I really do think this is probably what will happen this time also.
At this point it is very hard to think what this wonderful solution might be. But I suspect it will be something that modern science will come up with. What else could save us now? As I said at the beginning, science is a double edged tool.
More reading on this subject
In spite of all I have said in this post, there are still some beautiful spots left in our natural world.