Supertanker planet Earth
Parsifal is an opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on a 13th century epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail. An important episode occurs when Gurnemanz and Parsifal enter the mighty hall of the castle of the Grail. Gurnemanz is a kind of father-figure to young Parsifal, who stands by the door as if bewitched. Gurnemanz says:
"Now observe well, and let me observe,
if you are a fool and innocent,
what knowledge may be divulged to you".
The world has never been in greater need of 'witless fools', that is to say of people so described by the holders of conventional wisdom because they are promoting knowledge that runs against the grain of commonly held ideas. Only by taking a stand against conventional thought will it be possible to discover the holy grail of sustainable development. The goal is to be able to retain our 20th century comforts whilst releasing our grasp on the combustion of fossil carbon, and yet continue to hold our hard-won joy, admiration and one-ness in Nature. James Lovelock is one such lateral thinker who has likened us as a species to the crew of a supertanker, where the helmsman has gone to sleep and awoke to find his vessel heading straight for a rocky coast ten miles away. The only solution is for us to scramble into a lifeboat and hope for a good landing. There is no doubt that our international consumer civilisation is on a collision course with the physics of global warming and we have gone too far to reverse engines. Lovelock's solution is to switch from carbon fuels to nuclear power. The hope is this will lessen the impact of climate change and that Nature will show us the way to sound moral values when we are protected from her ills by harnessing atomic energy, the renewable cosmic mother of the universe.
Running up against global warming if we stick relentlessly with a carbon economy will not be the end of planet Earth, but it will be the termination of human civilisation based on burning carbon to maintain our energy supply. Long before the next millennium, according to current socio-climatic models, Southern Europe will be a desert and the offshore islands of the United Kingdom will become a haven for economic migrants driven westwards to partake of the declining Atlantic rainfall. The Sahara Desert is marching northwards and has already reached Spain and Portugal.
Return of the dry jungle
It is important to appreciate the fear of the unknown that dominated our species in its direct day-to-day conflict with the environment until coal-driven industrialisation began to spread Nature's bounty in the 19th century. This long held human fear of environment is encapsulated in the term 'jungle' with its many disturbing meanings, such as a land densely overgrown with tropical vegetation, an impenetrable thicket, a dense confused mass, a jumble made up of many confused elements, a bewildering complex or maze, a place or milieu characterized by intense, often ruthless competitive struggle for survival. It is the survival of the fittest in the dry jungles of politics and multinational corporations that come nearest to what many people imagine will dominate international relations if we have to return to our pre-industrial fight with raw Nature. An impoverished environmental arena for this contest is already in the making.
The first official warning to the European helmsmen of the international community came from the United Nations in 2003. It drew attention to the fact that drought and deforestation had emerged as two of the major causes of desertification in Europe. Perennial trees or crops and seasonal ones, help maintain vegetation cover on the land throughout the year so as to prevent wind and water erosion. The vegetation helps keep the moisture level on the ground as well as under-ground, thus decreasing aridity. Conversely, forest fires and droughts contribute to erosion, land degradation and eventually desertification. The 2003 warning is encapsulated in the following statement from the UN.
"The heatwave scorching Europe and the ensuing forest fires will put the affected regions into greater vulnerability to desertification. According to a report by Radio Free Europe yesterday, forest fires in Croatia, Portugal and Spain alone have swept more than 250,000 hectares of land during the recent heat wave in Europe
In Portugal, this adds to a total of 215,000 hectares of land devastated by fires so far this year, or 7% of Portugal's total 3.3 million hectares of woodland. Already more than one third of its land is at risk of desertification. In Spain, 31 percent of its land is under serious threat of desertification. Eighty-seven percent of the territory in Italy responded positively to vulnerability to desertification.
Agricultural productivity due to prolonged drought and heat among Europe Union member states is already expected to lower output by about six percent from last year. With forest fires and land degradation, however, agricultural productivity is expected to drop further, if left unchecked.
Nevertheless, these trends are not expected to abate soon, as the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicted that extreme weather conditions might increase in the future".
In fact, the first international warning had been sounded a decade earlier from the distant eastern borderlands of Eastern Europe. In 1993, President Ilyumzhinov of the Kalmyk Republic declared a state of emergency in response to a major deterioration in the local environment. The crisis resulted from intensive land degradation and a shortage of water, together with the increasing human load on the natural environment. It coinciding with a decline in the health of the population and falls in both life expectancy and the quality of life. These, in turn were perceived to threaten the gene pool of the Kalmyk people - and dramatically the new phrase 'ecological ethnocide' was invented to highlight the situation. Kalmykia now contains Europe's first desert.
In the light of these recent accelerated trends towards desertification, Europe will share the fate of North Africa. Here, since prehistoric times, human factors have had a dominant role in desertification, with over-grazing, over-farming, misuse of irrigation and the unsustainable demands of a growing population all contributing to environmental degradation. Abandonment of marginal agricultural lands is an important contribution to desertification. In Europe this socio-economic process started during the 1950s due to the industrialization of the countries involved along with an increase in the cost of cultivation, a decrease of profits and the changes in the trade regulations. There have also been social incentives, which encouraged the farmers to move to urban centres more attractive to them. By 1990 between 10 and 20 percent of agricultural land in the Mediterranean countries was abandoned. Whether an abandoned agricultural land will move towards recovery or desertification depends on the state of the land at the time of its abandonment and on what follows afterwards. Some kind of environmental management is essential.
By 2005 the United Nations University International Network on Water, Environment and Health, warned that more needed to be done by the international community to combat desertification. Drylands, which range from "dry sub-humid" to "hyper-arid" regions, make up more than 40 percent of the world's land surface and are home to two billion people. The largest area stretches from Saharan Africa across the Middle East and Central Asia into parts of China. Most of Australia is also classified as drylands, along with much of the western U.S., parts of southern Africa, and patches of desert in South America.
The report concluded that that up to 20 percent of those areas had already suffered some loss of plant life or economic use as a consequence of desertification. It said that global warming was likely to exacerbate the problem, causing more droughts, heat waves and floods. Desertification has also been linked to health problems caused by dust storms, poverty and a drop in farm production, with infant mortality in drylands double the rate elsewhere in developing nations. The problem causes dangerous changes to the environment on a global scale, the report warned, with dust storms in the Gobi and Sahara deserts blamed for respiratory problems in North America and damage to coral reefs in the Caribbean. Scientists estimate that a billion tons of dust from the Sahara is lifted into the atmosphere each year. This is the return of the dry jungle where the fight to stave off uncaged Nature is renewed.
The human mindset behind the unstoppable momentum of 'Supertanker Earth' is encapsulated in the words of the economist George Reisman:
"Thirty years ago, the land under the house I live in, in Southern California, was empty desert. Had I wanted to sleep in the same location that my bedroom now stands on, I would have had to bring a sleeping bag, take precautions against rattlesnakes, scorpions, and coyotes, and hope I could find a place for my sleeping bag such that I wouldn't have rocks pressing into my body. If it rained, I would get wet. If it was cold, I would be cold. If it was hot, I would be hot. Going to the bathroom would be a chore. Washing up would be difficult or impossible.
How incomparably better is the environment provided by my house and my bedroom. I sleep on a bed with an innerspring mattress. I don't have to worry about snakes, scorpions, or coyotes. I'm protected from the rain, the cold, and the heat, by a well constructed house with central heating and air conditioning. I have running water, hot and cold, a flush toilet, a sink, a shower, and a bathtub, in fact more than one of each of these things, and I have electricity and most of the conveniences it makes possible, such as a refrigerator, a television set, a VCR, and CD and DVD players"
In other words, the human brain is hard-wired to take the easiest options for a more comfortable life. Reisman was actually responding to the environmentalists who encaspulate the problem of world development in terms of the loss of diverse wildlife habitats, which they say should be sacrosanct, irrespective of human wants, because of their intrinsic value. He goes further in his condemnation of their policies to combat global warming:
"All advice, all policy recommendations emanating from the environmentalist movement must be summarily rejected unless and until they can be validated on the basis of a pro-man, pro-wealth, pro-capitalist standard of value. Such a standard will never imply such a thing as the destruction of the energy base of industrial civilization as the means of addressing global warming.
The environmental movement is the philosophic enemy of the human race. It should be treated as such. If we value the material well-being and, indeed, the very lives of billions of our children and grandchildren, we must treat it as such. We must treat environmentalism as our mortal enemy".
Environmentalism is being posed as the destroyer of civilisation.
Caging the savage
On August 8th, 2006 the following message was posted by 'Prodigal Son' to the oildrum.com forum discussing the question as to whether nuclear power is a viable option for our future energy needs.
"Civilization is a good thing. It makes this forum we're posting on possible. The fact neither you nor your mother died when you were born is another pretty good aspect. Lights, books, and readily available food are also quite nice.
Can civilization be made better? Yes. Is 'American' civilization flawed? Yes. Is 'turning' to some romantic notion of being 'one' with the Earth by embracing fantasy notions of how 'primitives' lived a solution to our problems? No.
Mother Nature is a cruel bitch that has inflicted misery and death on mass numbers of people. I'm glad she's in chains. Mother Nature is like a cow. You lock it up so it doesn't shit all over the barnyard, but you don't keep it so chained up and stressed that it produces bad milk.
My point? A happy medium can be established".
The fierce aboriginal bottleneck through which the U.S.A. was birthed is forcibly described by Captain John Smith in his first-hand chronicle of the 17th century expedition that established the British settlement of Jamestown: no romantic he! His was an art-free, beleaguered community. Art came with the romanticising that followed successful harvests and extermination of native opposition to the invaders.
In time, the European exposure to the jungle's lethal secrets moved to Africa. Joseph Conrad in his novella 'Heart of Darkness', based on his experiences in command of a steamer on the Congo River, describes the uncomfortable contact of Europeans with an unmapped tropical Africa. He also explores the theme of darkness lurking beneath the uncharted surface of even "civilized" persons. A similar message had been painted by Hieronymus Bosch and created by Goya, in his engraving 'The sleep of reason brings forth monsters'.
"Going up that river was like travelling back to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth and the big trees were Kings. An empty stream, a great silence, an impenetrable forest. The air was warm, think, heavy, sluggish. There was no joy in the brilliance of sunshine. The long stretches of the waterway ran on, deserted, into the gloom of overshadowed distances".
Conrad was aware that aboriginal cultures are not pervaded by harmony and spiritual interconnectedness with environment. This is a superficial New Age image of tribal societies. The paradise myth was reinforced by the discovery of painted animals of hunter gathering societies expressed as cave art, and was given as an explanation of the mysterious Adena serpent mounds in North America. In contrast, the reality of humanity's wrestling match with Nature was expressed in the Mythic art of the settled cultures of ancient Egypt, where cultivated land was called the gift of the great Nile Hellas was known as woman and mother. In Russia, the homeland was called it the mother-provider. Losing soil fertility was equivalent to a national disaster.
Art and environmental well-being
Ever since one of the sub-groups of the apes became human, our social evolution as Homo sapiens has gone hand in hand with inventions to improve human well-being. Artistic endeavour was one of the first attempts to understand the pressing environment by giving it order in the mind. Arguments still rage around the precise meanings of Upper Palaeolithic art, but there is general agreement that it was symbolic of the need to understand and codify conflict in the ecological setting of the Stone Age, where feeding a family involved participating in the surrounding violence of predation and tribal conflict. The creation of a spirit world was a key step in social adaptation. This world of the mind encompassed the large mammals of the Palaeolithic environment as artistic metaphors for the survival strategy of small bands of hunters dependent on carnivory. The current unifying concept is that cave art is the outcome of trance-induced, supernatural journeys of shamans whose goal was to look into the life of things and reveal how their adherents should behave to survive. Painting a damp rock surface in the flickering light of a tallow flame was not an expression of joy in Nature. The making of pictorial mindmaps of humankind’s relationships with the environment was then a vital part of the Homo sapiens survival toolkit produced in response to synesthetic experiences heightened by sensory deprivation in narrow rock passages and black cavernous chambers. The view is gaining ground that synesthesia-phenomena are the basis of artistic creativity. There is a spectrum of its expression, from a norm scattered among the mass of the population to rare persons with hallucinatory powers, such as Bosch and Goya. Most works of art are created at the 'normal' end of the scale. In contrast, Munch's description of his state of mind that gave birth to ‘The Scream’, a pictorial metaphor of primeval fear, points to hallucination as the source of his imagery.
"I was walking along a path with two friends - the sun was setting - suddenly the sky turned blood red - I paused, feeling exhausted, and leaned on the fence - there was blood and tongues of fire above the blue-black fjord and the city - my friends walked on, and I stood there trembling with anxiety - and I sensed an infinite scream passing through Nature."
The ultimate expression of social evolution is the inventions of science, which provides us with space and time to integrate with Nature. Also, just as the roof and walls of a house shelter us from the deadlier moods of the elements, the scientific classifications of Nature shield us from our fears of a wilder kingdom: the chaos of the unknown. Prehistoric art is bound up with the psychological meaning of homeland as a symbol of the unconscious. Its pictured bulls, bears and big cats represent dreams about untamed primitive instincts. Horses symbolise the gentler side of their ecosystem. The caging of Nature by European artists only emerged a few centuries ago in Medieval art, where plants and animals, real and imagined, where used as symbols and illustrations of Nature's potential fertility, beauty and its transience.
Thirty millennia after the first rock paintings were made art is still the province of human dreamers. The French painter Henri Rousseau, a confirmed urbanite, captured the wonderful mystery of the beings with which we share planet Earth by caging them in dream paintings such as La Charmeuse de Serpents 1907.
Gregory Tozian when reviewing the paintings of the contemporary environmentalist artist Alexis Rockman recently took a more prosaic view of musing on Nature:
"Humans drift off to sleep better each night knowing that their species, alone, has been dubbed the crown of creation. There's some comfort in the notion that the cockroaches will disappear from Eden-or at least from beneath the kitchen sink-with a few strategically placed squirts from the right aerosol can".
Rockman's work, like science and cave art, is concerned with ordering Nature, but with a disturbing message for the future of humankind. Through his tapestries of hybrid, warring and mutated species he ultimately ask us what really is our relationship to Nature, to the plants and animals we are eradicating at breakneck speed. He says his artworks are information-rich depictions of how our 21st century culture perceives and interacts with plants and animals. They are commentaries on the feedback between new cultures and the future direction of natural history.
His painting 'The Farm' depicts the explosive advances in genetic engineering within the history of animal breeding. The image is a wide-angle view of a cultivated soybean field constructed to be read from left to right. The image begins with the ancestral versions of the narrow range of animals, the cow, pig, and chicken that make modern life possible. The story pans across to an informed speculation about how these creatures might look in the future. Also included are geometrically transformed vegetables and familiar images relating to the history of genetics. Rockman says he is:
"interested in how the present and the future look of things are influenced by a broad range of pressures- human consumption, aesthetics, domestication, and medical applications among them. The flora and fauna of the farm are easily recognizable; they are, at the same time, in danger of losing their ancestral identities".
Many would admit that they have already lost their connection with this 'growing to kill' aspect of the domestic human food chain, which was a frequent bloody experience for the ancestors of most people only a few generations ago.
Rockman's work is an expression of moral naturalism, which takes the view that moral systems are explained in terms of the social or biological properties of humans interacting with many living beings in Nature. Cave painting tells us that making art is a fundamental biological characteristic of being human. In this evolutionary sense art has a purpose and serves a human need. The expression of a personal view of Nature in the form of a work of art satisfies a human need by generating awareness that we are part of Nature in everything we do, from planting grain to painting a house. Art therefore serves the preservation and survival of our consciousness. In this respect, art is something next to religion or science, representing an order of behavioural values in the mind of the artist. In the words of the naturalist Thoreau the big test of a philosophy is whether it helps us to solve the riddle of everyday living: "How to live, How to get the most life". For this test it is more important to discover the real facts of an artist's life than peruse any of his works of art. In this context, no artist has been more scrutinised for environmental credentials than Gauguin.
"Art is an abstraction," Gauguin wrote, "as you dream amid Nature, extrapolate art from it." Gauguin sought to re-enchant the world through his visions of the biodiversity of tropical islands. In ‘Matamoe (Death, or Landscape with Peacock 1892) he creates an exotic Garden of Eden. Verdant shades of greenery rise layer upon layer from the foreground up the sky. A fruit-bearing palm tree crowns the scene and a lush, impenetrable forest growth surges in from the left. Earthy yellows and oranges break up the verdure, like almost living lava flows. In the middle ground, a vision of a toiling native appears to be chopping twisting, serpentine-shaped tree limbs. Behind the figure a nearby fire sends up a thick white cloud of smoke. Further up and back, two figures walk past a thatched native hut. The image is oddly still, yet pregnant with invisible South Sea heat. A pair of peacocks strut in the foreground. The painting has also been called 'Sleeping Eyes', possibly weaving a connection between the male peacock's tail feathers and the symbolic presence of death. The image states many of the contradictory and enigmatic tendencies in Gauguin's art: the rich, complex colour palettes, the blending of "savage" (non-European native) and Christian symbolism (jungle as garden of Eden) in visual rhythms. They express a pictorial idealization of happiness-noble, self-unaware, sexually self-possessed natives. Gauguin did not identify himself as a "savage," neither at home in metropolitan Paris or in the relatively un-Europeanised native settlements of the South Pacific. He painted dreamscapes, seeking less to find than to create a vision of earthly paradise.
In contrast, Henri Rousseau (1844-1910), another dreamer and contemporary of Gauguin, was as a city bureaucratic, reflected in his nickname, "the customs official". An employee in the Paris customs bureau he never left Paris. Yet he worked his way into a position among the Parisian artists who were renewing the European art world at the turn of the century. It was a difficult journey. For years the art world derided his untaught icon-like figures, simple landscapes and, in his late phase, exotic jungle scenes inspired by picture books. However his "naive" compositions became an emblem that piqued the interest of the avant-garde. Rousseau's jungle paintings consisted of ornamental variations of plant leaves, among which he set brilliantly coloured predators, natives and naked beauties. In so doing, he defined the intuitive principles of design and composition, which subsequent avant-garde artists had to work out for themselves with great effort. Ultimately winning recognition as an uncompromising modernist, Rousseau inspired comparison with Derain, Cezanne, Matisse and Gauguin. He became acquainted with Apollinaire, Delaunay, Picabia, Brancusi and other influential figures in the Parisian art world; in 1908, Picasso held a legendary banquet in his honour. Today, ‘Rousseau's myth’, a fascinating mixture of primitive idyll and parallel universe of the mind, holds a secure place in an urban dreamland.
Environmental art and future humankind
After the Palaeolithic, the beings of land, water and air have always inhabited the dreaming human brain. Initially they were bound up with the myths of gods who had to be placated to keep the sun in the sky, such as the bloodthirsty plumed serpent of the Aztecs. Other legends were comforting and sometimes humorous, such as Arachne the Greek spiderwoman, who was punished because she tried to rival the gods. Now, via the film character of Tarzan, who could speak to animals, pictures of Nature have become urban wallpaper through countless television programmes. Post-tribal artists have entered the global market in domestic pictures.
By-passing the images of popularist environmentalism, in the 1960s, new direct connections between art and Nature developed and became among the characteristics of contemporary art. This is referred to as 'Earth art', a movement of artists with wide ranging goals, but all employing such materials as stones, mud, and leaves. Many earthworks, some constructed on a vast scale, are intended to help us to better understand Nature. Some often point out artists' desires to understand, conquer, and control natural processes. Through this movement the distinction between art and Nature became increasingly blurred.
A good example of earth art is the project Art of the Desert - Holy Cartography and Land-Art. It is a creation of Mauricio P. Bedoya a Colombian architect. This regionally acclaimed UNEP approved project can be classed as a latter day romantic approach towards the aesthetic, spiritual and environmental enhancement of the daily lives of the Wayuu, a global aboriginal ethnic group in northern Colombia. This tribe has come off badly in its encounter with multinational investment in the search for natural resources.
Bedoya's artistic endeavour is nevertheless considered a benchmark or point of initiation in studying the impact of deserts and desertification on other aboriginal communities elsewhere in Latin America and rest of the world. Based on extensive interaction with the Wayuu it may be taken as a general model pointing out that people have used art to emphasise their dependence on other beings of land, water and air since time immemorial. It can be taken as the art of unsustainability.
Following close on Earth art, as part of the search for sustainable development, came the conjoint rise of environmental ethics in the 1970s and discussions began about Nature as an independent source of moral values, rather than a mere stage for moral life which derived its value from relations among humans. A view was taken that Nature might have independent moral value; much like persons are thought to have such value, and that Nature can be an active participant in a morally virtuous life. But for this to happen all great philosophers in history have believed that no spiritual progress could be won in the midst of the distracting corrupting pursuit of material comforts. Even today, economic simplicity is thought to be crucial for people to tap into pagan animism in an age of social fragmentation. However, all national governments are committed to on-going economic development powered by a mix of renewable energy, including nuclear power, and fossil fuel, providing it is coupled technically with the fixation of the carbon emissions. The role for environmental art is, as stated in the manifesto of greenmuseum.org, to advance creative efforts to improve our relationship with the natural world. The goal is to inform, inspire and connect people through environmental art whilst encouraging the creation of new work that serves both communities and ecosystems. To achieve this goal, art comes in line with other human behaviours that aid the preservation and survival of our consciousness in the coming age of sustainability. This equivalence of behaviours was perceived by Daniel Conrad writing on the topic of aesthetics in science and art:
"Consider again things that invoke feelings of beauty (music, poetry, painting, Nature, mathematics, cosmology). They all have at least this in common:
· a structure (including texture and detail) that provokes and challenges specific parts of the mind:
· the parts that perceive and interpret, that make sense, that draw out meaning and pattern from initially random input, that creatively organize and make sense out of a chaotic universe.
And this provocation occurs through an implied or explicit transformation, even if it is just a simple transformation of paint into an image, or a metaphor in a poem, or a melody from a sequence of sounds".
Transferring Nature from the imagination to a rectangular two-dimensional canvas cage fulfils Daniel Conrad's critieria to make sense out of our place in a chaotic universe. In the 21st century it can fulfil a fundamental need is to bring our private economy close to Nature's economy. Thoreau described the response in this way:
"I derive real vigor from the scent of the gale wafted over the naked ground, as from strong meats, and realize again how man is the pensioner of Nature. We are always conciliated and cheered when we are fed (such) an influence, and our needs are felt to be part of the domestic economy of Nature."
For most people, a picture in the style of a Gauguin reverie, a Rousseau jungle or a medieval tapestry serves the same purpose. They satisfy a human need for a mystical experience in our global pro-man, pro-wealth, pro-capitalist culture that from the Enlightenment has been built to protect us from Nature by the application of rational beliefs and actions.
James Lovelock:Nuclear power is the only green solution:
Settlement of Jamestown:
Kalmykia in transition:
Contemporary jungle art:
Tarzan: Images of engulfment:
Earth honouring paintings by Susan Cohen Thompson:
Paintings of Alexis Rockman:
George Reisman's Blog on Economics, Politics, Society, and Culture:
Jungle’s lethal secrets:
The jungle art of Conrad and Rousseau:
Vision on the rocks:
Art and synesthesia: