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Global Warming: Can We Turn Back the Clock?

by Cassie, Publicity

Patricia Fara lectures in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge and is the Senior Tutor of Clare College. In her latest book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History, she sweeps through the centuries, from ancient Babylon right up to the latest cutting-edge research in genetics and particle physics, illuminating the financial interests, imperial ambitions, and publishing enterprises that have made science the powerful global phenomenon that it is today. In this original article, she discusses global warming and the history of environmentalism.

As a topic for comic verse, global warming might not seem the ideal choice. However, Howard Nemerov, who used to be Poet Laureate of the United States, would not have agreed. In 1989, he wrote this eloquent reminder that scientific progress can have its drawbacks:

praise without end the go-ahead zeal
of whoever it was invented the wheel;
but never a word for the poor soul’s sake
that thought ahead, and invented the brake.

Twenty years later, as the icecaps melt and famine rates increase, it seems obvious that politicians and scientists should long ago have called a halt to industrial processes that made their own lives more comfortable, but pushed the world towards destruction. Unfortunately, winding back the clock has never been as straightforward as it sounds. In the middle of the eighteenth century, when Europeans first started wandering around Tahiti, the French explorer Louis de Bougainville enthused ‘I was transported into the Garden of Eden; we crossed a turf, covered by fine fruit trees, and intersected by little rivulets…everywhere we found hospitality, ease, innocent joy, and every appearance of happiness.’ Before long, this earthly paradise had been irreversibly corrupted by sexually transmitted diseases and imported technological gimmicks.

Current concerns about our planet’s survival have refueled romantic visions of a vanished golden age when natural harmony reigned, unthreatened by ozone holes or vanishing species. However, preserving environmental purity entails confronting some paradoxes. For one thing, much of nature is unnatural: scenes that seem eternal are man-made products. Britain, for example, was originally covered in dense woodland, and bore little resemblance to the open pastures featured in publicity brochures. Large fields were created only in the eighteenth century, when wealthy landowners decided to make their farms more profitable by obliterating the small strips of land allocated to individual families. Far from being conservationists, these agricultural reformers overrode protests about decimating traditional village life in order to create the meadows that now characterize picture-book Britain.

Safeguarding the environment might seem a universal ideal, but it is a political issue that has been adopted by very different factions. During World War Two, when British propaganda campaigns were urging loyal citizens to defend their supposedly traditional countryside, the nations’ enemies were summoning up nature to back the Nazi cause. Adolf Hitler was a nut-cutlet vegetarian whose regime reforested arable land, dispensed organic herbal medicines, and instigated research programmes into natural therapies. His right-hand aide Hermann Goering is now deplored for founding the Gestapo and the concentration camps, but he was also a pioneer environmentalist. After Poland’s original woodlands were devastated by the German Occupation, Goering restocked its newly created parks with the animals that had once been native, including a herd of superb bison – a potent Teutonic emblem – bred according to the latest techniques of post-Darwinian eugenicists. Despite the genocidal campaigns he launched against human beings, Goering insisted that this primeval forest was a sacred grove whose animal inhabitants should remain untouched.

Nature looks better when it is artificial. That is why the gardener Capability Brown fabricated tranquil English landscapes by digging lakes, planting trees and moving whole villages – including their inhabitants. The naturalist John Muir was enraptured by the serene Californian meadowlands he visited, but he chose to ignore the influence of native American farmers who had been fire-clearing the original forest for centuries. The artist James Audubon made a small fortune by selling exotic pictures of birds, carefully crafting them in his studio to symbolise American values of strength and freedom as they soared against painted backdrops of remote mountains. Yet Audubon was no conservationist, but a keen huntsman who obsessively tracked down the rarities he needed to complete his collection, not caring about the risks of extinguishing threatened species.

The appeal of wild nature is relatively recent. For millennia, wilderness was something to push back and overcome as people struggled to carve out a comfortable existence from their hostile surroundings. Survival depended on taming nature, so that barren mountains and dense forests were regarded as suitable for social outcasts, for sinners banished from God’s Garden of Eden. Such harsh domains started to become fashionable only a couple of hundred years ago, when the products of civilisation were starting to seem less attractive. Romantic travelers described how they reached states of near-religious ecstasy through contemplating the sublime beauty of precipitous gorges or gloomy cathedral-like groves. After venturing overseas to other continents, they recounted that they had voyaged back in time, encountering primitive societies where life was easier and purer.

This double yearning for the sublime and the primitive manifested itself particularly strongly in the United States. During the nineteenth century, romantic writers envisaged pioneers steadily pushing back the frontier between the wild and the civilized as they moved ever westwards. This triumphant vision was marred by nostalgic regrets that Americans were losing contact with their immigrant origins as progress obliterated the authentic experiences of the first rugged settlers. To resolve this sentimental dilemma, enterprising naturalists established national parks with a double purpose—to provide sanctuaries for refugees from successful capitalism, and to stand as monuments to America’s pioneering spirit.

Most famously, Muir—originally a farmer born in Scotland, nowadays celebrated as the founding father of environmentalism—set about converting Yosemite into a man-made wilderness zone. He intended his national park to appear primal, even though it had never before existed as he designed it. Apparently oblivious to the inherent ironies of their mission, Muir and his contemporaries worked with biblical zeal, aiming not to simulate the grim realities of frontier survival, but instead to resurrect the original Garden of Eden. But manufacturing uninhabited glades of harmony meant forcibly clearing out the indigenous residents, many of whom were slaughtered or subjected to misery in reservations. To guarantee safe access and stop nature from ruining the carefully selected views, conservationists constructed discreetly camouflaged tracks and embarked on continuous maintenance programmes.

Restoring an imagined natural past has always been an expensive business. It also entails interference and oppression—ejecting Native Americans from Yosemite, ripping out family strip-farms, relocating villages. Nowadays, privileged eco-tourists who live in cities campaign to preserve endangered species and keep vast tracts of untamed nature as retreats from urban pressures. Maintaining bio-diversity may seem a more worthwhile and more scientific ideal than Muir’s bid for an original terrestrial paradise. Nevertheless, just as in Yosemite, establishing uninhabited wilderness has entailed evicting the local inhabitants. In the interests of preservation, many victims of involuntary resettlement—Thai, Kenyans, Amazonian Indians—have become conservation refugees confined to shabby squatter camps.

The central paradox is that people are themselves part of nature. In 1964, American conservation law defined wilderness as a place ‘where man himself is a visitor who does not remain’—but if people are excluded from nature, then it is intrinsically artificial. In the Bible, God gave human beings a dual responsibility—to be the world’s custodians, but also to exploit it for their own benefit. To express this conflict in scientific terms, the drive to conserve is at odds with the competitive struggle for survival entailed in human evolution. During the second half of the nineteenth century, wealthy capitalists justified their cut-throat tactics through invoking the mantra coined by Darwin’s disciples—’survival of the fittest’. However, the very success of this ruthless formula prompted critics to focus on its flip-side of exploitation, and in Germany, a very different Darwinian champion appeared—Ernst Haeckel. While American environmentalists were attempting to resurrect uncorrupted paradise, Haeckel was initiating a less oppressive, more holistic approach to biology that strongly influenced later environmentalist movements.

The science of ecology was founded by Haeckel, who invented the word in 1866. Although it has now acquired a moral spin—ecological washing-powder is virtuous as well as expensive—ecology started out as the study of the relationships between living creatures and their surroundings. Like ‘economy‘, it comes from the Greek word for a family household, and Haeckel suggested that all the Earth’s organisms co-exist as a single integrated unit, competing against each other but also offering mutual aid. According to Haeckel’s version of Darwinian evolution, if people are to flourish, then they should respect the laws of this universal system instead of trying to dominate it. If more people had listened to him, perhaps global warming would not be the world’s greatest challenge confronting the human race today.

Recent Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Why is your final link to an intelligent design site? What does that add to your article and argument? Are you implying that Darwinian evolution is in crisis so we need to think of ecology as intelligently devised?

  2. Cassie


    The links are mine, not Professor Fara’s. I simply get tired of linking to Wikipedia all the time, and try to vary my selections. I’m sorry you disagree with the final link. They’re meant to make you think, is all.


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