Humans, I think, have a tendency to either overestimate or underestimate our place in the natural order. We are either helpless ants, at the mercy of the forces of Mother Nature, or we are as gods, the shapers of our own world, as malleable as clay in our hubristic hands. I recently read Clive Hamilton’s new book, Defiant Earth, which argues that both of these views contain some truth. Humans, Hamilton contends, are more powerful than ever before, and so is nature. The two things are, in fact, intertwined and inseparable, especially if we look at the world in the way Hamilton wants us to – not as a series of disparate ecosystems, but as a single web of life. The idea is similar to James Lovelock’s old, unfashionable conception of Gaia – the earth as a single, living organism – but seems more hardheaded, less inflected with Lovelock’s hippyish spiritualism. Climate change, according to Hamilton, has shown that Lovelock was onto something, that the earth’s climate can and should be conceived of as a single system, broadly vulnerable to shocks that occur anywhere within it.
We barely notice nature except when it inconveniences us. How often do we stop to think that civilisation is built on the shifting sands of plate tectonics that might, with little warning, change everything? We notice volcanoes only when they erupt, and the resultant ash cloud prevents us from going to Bali. Volcanoes have been telling us for years that everything is connected. How could it be otherwise when ash from Indonesia or Iceland grounds flights the world over? There’s a painting by, I think, the British landscape artist Turner that depicts the ‘year without a summer’ during which the ash cloud from a volcano blocked out the light from the sun for months. Look at one of those diagrams showing the flight paths of planes across the world and you get a sense of how disruptive such an eruption would be today in our globalised world of cheap air travel. What could we do about it except wait, and swallow vitamin D supplements by the handful? That’s our powerlessness.
But we have power too. Humans, climate scientists tell us, have altered the earth’s climate in a way that only vast expanses of time, and major climactic or geological events, were previously capable of. We’ve done it in, in geological terms, the blink of an eye, and now find ourselves looking at a future with average temperatures many times what they are now, a ‘new normal’ of catastrophic weather events, more drought and conflict, mass disruption and extinction. In her book Climate Trauma, E. Ann Kaplan recalls the time a massive storm surge hit New York, knocking out the power in her apartment block. She describes the experience in frightening, claustrophobic terms but adds that we all need a lesson in how reliant we are on electricity. This speaks to our powerlessness, to the need to acknowledge and reflect on it. But the lights came back on, as they did in my home state of South Australia after wild winds brought about a statewide blackout last year. This is our power, and it comes at a cost.
Sometimes, when I’m sick, I feel angry at myself for not often enough appreciating how good it feels to not be sick, a state we take so much for granted. Civilisation is like this too.