A poisoned fruit from the tree of knowledge

tree_of_knowledge.jpgLife sure seems hard these days.  Yes, I know, in the material sense it could hardly be better for Americans like me, and it’s obscene to complain when so many people worldwide are barely surviving.  The hardness comes instead from what might be called the curse of knowledge, the curse of beginning to see with alarming clarity the debt that this prosperity has generated, and the realization that it’s coming due.  IPCC reports, statistics on deforestation and biodiversity loss, and so on.  What certain right-wingers like to refer to as “the litany”, seemingly thinking that a contemptuous tone of voice can magically make the litany go away.

When I was a kid I would sometimes daydream about what it would be like to know the future–how cool would that be, but then . . . would you want to know what fate awaits you?  Would the burden be too much to carry?  How would you go about your life if you knew in advance the exact day of your death? 

This, it strikes me, is not far from our situation at the beginning of the new millennium, with our dawning understanding of the irrevocable mess we’ve made for ourselves on this planet.  The dawning sense that the planet itself has become synonymous with the scale of our activities, from the sublime to the hideous.  Now we really can see the future, admittedly within broad confidence limits, but the picture is growing ever clearer and harder to ignore. Even the professional diplomats at the UN, infamous for the infinitely dilute pronouncements that emerge from consensus-building among representatives from hundreds of nations, are sounding really alarmed (from the NY Times):

“Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, describing climate change as ‘the defining challenge of our age,’ [said] ‘Today the world’s scientists have spoken, clearly and in one voice . . . In Bali, I expect the world’s policymakers to do the same . . . The breakthrough needed in Bali is for a comprehensive climate change deal that all nations can embrace.’

‘The sense of urgency when you put these pieces together is new and striking,’ said Martin Parry, a British climate expert who was co-chairman of the delegation that wrote the second report. ‘I’ve come out of this process more pessimistic about the possibilities than I thought I would.’  The panel, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last month, said the world would have to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to prevent serious climate disruptions.  ‘If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late,’ said Rajendra Pachauri, a scientist and economist who heads the IPCC. ‘What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.’”

The curse of knowledge is as old as humanity itself.  I’m reminded of the ancient story of primal man taking that fateful bite of apple from what is sometimes referred to as the tree of knowledge. After which humanity was symbolically booted from the garden of earthly delights. Of course, the main moral of that story was about the danger of getting too big for your britches, and the importance of maintaining the appropriate humility in the grand scheme of things (a worthwhile moral of our present predicament, for that matter).  Nevertheless, the effect of having surreptitiously taken that bite — of taking on the role of god — was very much the same as our present predicament, the loss of innocence and the exile to a less perfect world, where we will have to make our way as best we can.

I wasn’t particularly interested in climate change even a year or so ago, and certainly never intended for it to become a theme of this blog — being depressing is surely not the way to attract readers.  But the devil, as the old saying goes, fools with the best-laid plans. As difficult as it is to face the emerging picture of our future, it’s even more difficult to ignore it without entering a fantasy land.  Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that this latter option is precisely what the vast majority of humanity is doing.  As Ian Jack of the Guardian writes:

“I suppose we are in that state called denial, though that word suggests a refusal to acknowledge what Hulme wants us to stop calling a looming catastrophe. But a catastrophe is what it is, and our behaviour may be a reaction to that knowledge rather an avoidance of it; we may, in fact, be full and overflowing with acknowledgment. Future historians, should they exist, will surely look back on our time and see in its manic excesses the evidence of a society gathering its rosebuds while it may. At a conference on climate change last year I heard someone say that the fear of global warming was like the fear of death: always there but impossible to dwell on.”

earth_from_apollo_8_1968.jpgIndeed. I’ve often felt that facing the emerging environmental future is a lot like walking up to the edge of a precipitous cliff.  It’s frightening enough to make you dizzy.  One has to recognize that it’s there, lest you stray off into the void.  Yet you simply can’t look straight at it for long.  And of course that inability to face the threats is precisely the problem that seems likely to ensure that they will arrive. 

Wow, that was depressing, It ought to kill my blog stats once and for all.  Right, now that I’ve got that off my chest, I pledge to turn to something lighter and happier next.  For my own sanity if nothing else.  Perhaps pumpkin pie.  There is, after all, a big wide world full of things to be thankful for, when one looks beyond the shadows.  And I don’t think it’s pathologically optimistic to believe that there will still be an amazing world to stoke our sense of wonder in centuries to come.  But it seems increasingly certain that it will be a world we would scarcely recognize. 

Happy Thanksgiving to all.


About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biophilia, Politics, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to A poisoned fruit from the tree of knowledge

  1. “Nevertheless, the effect of having surreptitiously taken that bite – of taking on the role of god — was very much the same as our present predicament, the loss of innocence and the exile to a less perfect world, where we will have to make our way as best we can.”

    Yeah, I dig that. Now that we know how our actions affect the earth, we shouldn’t just play dumb and keep wrecking it.

  2. Lars Gamfeldt says:

    Very well written, and captures exactly what I’d like to say myself. Emmett, keep up the good work with this blog, I really enjoy reading it. Hope it reaches people outside the group of the “already-believers-of-the-effects-of climate-change”.

  3. Emmett Duffy says:

    Hey Lars,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your support. It always helps to know people are out there paying attention and thinking about these issues.


  4. Yeah, I dig that. Now that we know how our actions affect the earth, we shouldn’t just play dumb and keep wrecking it.

  5. Very nice article , your right this is the downside of knowledge , it seems the more advanced as a species we become the more destructive we seem to be. From what I observe many of us ( especially those on the top of multimillion corporation ) have little if no concern to the welfare of the environment , they are more devoted to the accumulation of wealth and the planet be damned. Thus they use knowledge to develop themselves to the detriment of the ecosystem.

    But knowledge has a light side as well , already we see conservationists beg to develop technological solutions to help with healing and conserving the environment.

    What we must do now is move to that side so that we can cause the global shift of the evolution of knowledge to the right direction.

  6. Emmett, I like the theme here. And I empathize ever so deeply with what is not being said here.

    In your thoughts I can sense not only the end of an era, but perhaps also the beginning of the end for much of mankind.

    We humans have messed with this planet and toyed with it like it was given to us exclusively.

    Here is a radical thought – who gave us permission to divide the planet up into parts and then go to war over our imaginary lines.

    In warring with each other, and spending trillions on armaments, we have neglected the very earth under our feet ( yeah the same earth that in theory we are spending trillions to defend )

    It is unfortunate for us 2 legged beasts that the earth will reclaim her own and will do so with or without us ( probably without )

    Perhaps if we were to be given the opportunity to look a thousand years into the future, we would see a peaceful place where insects a few bird species and a much smaller chaste group of humans live in peace harmony with nature — gosh who am I fooling, would our short memory species really remember? Nah, we would probably recycle thru the same mess again, Emmett.