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Sand, Sunlight and Soda Water

Sand, Sunlight and Soda Water

This meditative piece was submitted during the 2006 scenario process. We liked enough to place it here, as a coda to this section.

I sit in morning sun on the flank of Makalu, high in the Himalayas. The spike of Barunstse floats across a gulf of electric violet and gray, glaring white under a sapphire sky. Scraps of black lichen strive in the absolute silence. The sun makes frost-fractured pebbles pop in the stillness. Most life lies lower, with two thirds of the atmosphere.

Nature is here, at this edge of life. I breathe oxygen which was very likely last split from water in the Palaeozoic. The iron which my blood uses was created during the death of a distant sun. Atoms in my body have passed through the system of every being that has lived; being for a time a part of Alexander's horse, of the Buddha and of the first amphibian to crawl onto a muddy Cambrian seashore.

Information guides the manufacture of my blood. The culture which put me on this mountainside embodies information. Myriad contingencies and adaptations are folded into these engines. Life has built up this complexity over three billion years.

We are a part of this grander structure. We are not being kind to it.

Human impacts

There were some 1.5 billion people alive in 1900. Humanity had an area under cultivation equivalent to the surface area of Australia. Today, 6.6 billion people cultivate an area the equivalent of China and the former Soviet Union. We shall be over 8 billion by 2020. Only a much-dissected area of fertile land the size of Australia will remain as wilderness.

The catalogue of human impacts on the natural world well-rehearsed. We have made radical changes to patterns of land use, drainage and predation. Most of the distinctive large animals of North American were extinct within 2000 years of human arrival. One thirds of global fish stocks are exhausted and a third are in decline. Introduced species have displaced native organisms on a grand scale, such that there is virtually no native grass left in California or native trees in Florida. We have introduced in the order of a hundred thousand novel chemicals into the environment. Through greenhouse gas emissions, we may return the world to the patterns of extreme climate instability that characterised the past quarter of a million years.

Policy responses

Humanity has proven to be good at altering nature to meet human needs. We harvest 10-50 tonnes of carbohydrate per hectare where once we gathered one. There are more trees growing in Europe and North America than there were at the turn of the century. Polluted rivers have been cleaned. Urban air and water supplies are cleaner that at any time since mass urbanisation began.

The world economy and its population are, however, both growing at exponential rates. Billions of aspirants need to be housed, employed, transported and fed. Efforts to mitigate the resulting impacts must also grow exponentially in effectiveness if they are to keep abreast. It is not clear how we are to achieve this.

Only public measures can protect public goods. The political process is driven to draw and then re-draw the division between human aspirations and the claims of nature. The gradual nature of this obscures the profound nature of the resulting changes. Goethe was able to travel from Munich to Paris without leaving forest. He found wilderness along the way.

Two perspectives on Nature

Humanity's view of nature has shifted very greatly since our origins as wild animals. Nature was once greater than us, a source of terror and bounty. Nature only became something to tame and to exploit when we had learned to farm, to manage ourselves in large numbers and to build up a pool of knowledge.

Set against this paradigm, a separate model saw nature as distinct, sacred, as being meaningful in its own right. We shall return to this view in a moment.

The utilitarian model defines the proper role and extent of nature as being predicated entirely on what nature can do for humanity. It appears to offer a complete policy tool kit. Environmental issues can be reduced to a frame of reference which weighs evidence and uncertainty, cause and effect, cost and benefit against human utility. This reduces complexity, and so helps the national and international political process. It may be helpful approach, however, but it is not a sufficient one.

Consider the implications of a contemporary example of this approach. India is proposing to redirect its great rivers in order to bring electricity and fresh water to every one of its citizens. It is seen as proper that natural India should turned into a convenient, functional machine, predicated on human welfare. Odd scraps of managed nature will remain, as socially-useful leisure centres.

Beyond the utilitarian model.

It is hard for politicians to argue against utilitarianism and easy for them to work within it. Consequently, it informs international negotiations, aid donors and much policy. The puzzle of utilitarian humanism is that, like Communism and town planning, it can lead to strikingly inhumane consequences. It does this whilst pleading human interest. After all, should Indians go without fresh water so that mere animals can roam free?

This is plainly one way of looking at the issues, but is it the only way? Is all that can be said in policy terms about the Himalayas be captured entirely in terms of their potential for tourism and hydroelectricity? Is nature considerable only insofar as it affects humans, or in that can be caused to benefit them?

There comes a deep, instinctive rage at this, where there is no room nor reason to be seated on a Himalayan range, staring into silence. Where there is to be no dew on the orchid's sepal, save to decorate a buffet.

The utilitarian model would be stronger if we had a clear view of what constituted human utility. However, our institutions are not designed but have evolved. We are as incapable of designing the tools for human content as were our ancestors.

It would be stronger if we understood nature better. Let us consider the depths of our ignorance of life.

Our own genome confronts us with a multi-layered information puzzle. We have no idea how many species are alive, or what their relation is with each other. We classify living nature into Kingdoms, such as the plants, animals, bacteria or fungi. We discovered a completely new Kingdom, the Archaea, two years ago. This is like finding a new Africa, tucked behind South America. It even appears that a significant fraction of all living matter consists of organisms which live slowly, deep in the Earth's crust. We are learning how much we do not know.

Valid utilitarian decisions require technical and social knowledge. Where we have good technical insight, utilitarian choices may lead to oddly inhuman outcomes unless they are executed at a "human" scale. Additionally, utilitarian debate tends to permit a gradual erosion of nature. Nevertheless, many differing voices need to arrive at clear choices. How are these weaknesses to be offset?

The public debate

We have at most twenty years in which to make a lasting disposition with nature. It will be a disposition, a final settlement, with no going back and no second chances. We do not have time to gather complete knowledge, nor the political capability to design a new order. Our policy processes need, therefore, to go beyond the utilitarian to something more visionary.

To speak of the 'policy debate' is to evoke thoughts of formal government. However, corporate and individual choices make or mitigate environmental impact. Such decisions are affected by tacit and formal rules - both by how we think of ourselves, and how we are affected by law and our formal duty of care to others. It is the task of the state to define and enforce the explicit rules, and to settle disputes. Individual choices will then deliver the goals of policy. If the policy aim is to lessen carbon emission, then the means to execute this is to tax carbon burning. Economic rationality will deliver the required outcome.

It is tempting, therefore, to see this as a chain of events. Public values and private concerns struggle for expression at one end of this. Private and corporate responses are managed at the other. Between these poles lies the vast engine of debate, legislation and execution in which the state plays so potent a role. This very linear model is precisely how the utilitarian school do see the issue. However, there are two reasons why this is not an entirely helpful model.

First, the outcome of debate depends greatly on agreement as to what constitutes an answer. There are three qualitatively different forms of justification which can be used as trump cards in debate.

These three forms do not easy unite. The more intense the debate, the more purely any one of them is expressed by a given interest group. What looks like an answer to the adherents of one group appears as a restatement of the problem to those who use a separate set of values. The utilitarian model unites evidentiality with human empathy. It largely ignores the third pole, from which some of the most powerful movements in human history have emerged.

The elemental, visionary issues matter very deeply. They define who we are and what we shall become. How we think about these issues - and, in particular, how we think about the abstract in public, performing the 'vision thing' - depends on the existence of a common framework through which to talk. The evolution of such a framework is a complex, non-rational process. Its component parts are metaphor, analogy, tacit assumption and habit. Ideas change as society tells itself stories, finds ways to isolate concepts and then to string them together in useful ways.

Art should mediate, telling us what economics and religion cannot. It does not much do this. Urbanisation has loosened the connection which many artists have with nature, and popular culture either sentimentalises or marginalises it. The contrast between the early Disney and current offerings show the extent to which this has developed. Sadly, the mainstream arts and humanities tell us nothing because they have nothing to tell.

Yet what a tale there is! Built from sand, sunlight and soda water, life defines our concepts of beauty, delicacy and subtlety. Intricacy and information bind up its sugars and shells, genes, bones and branches, spinning them all from air, water, history and light before dispersing them again. All that persists is information; and our little traces merge with and are enfolded within the whole.

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