I bought an expensive book last year called Principles of Planetary Climate, by Raymond Pierrehumbert. It’s full of equations of the sort I need in constructing my ice age simulation model. But it’s also full of Pierrehumbert’s Big Questions – and Pierrehumbert has lots of big questions about almost everything – along with lots of Pierrehumbert’s settled beliefs and opinions on matters climatic. And somewhere in the book (a brief search through its pages just now failed to turn up the passage) he writes that we’re living in “the Anthropocene era”: a time when humans have become one of the prime influences acting on the Earth’s climate.
But if we are now living in the Anthropocene era, it means that we have taken control of the natural world, taken command over Nature. If so, it marks the end of a long human history of being subjected to the forces of nature, and the plaything of storms and winds and earthquakes and plagues and famines.
And there is a lot that would suggest that we are in command of the natural world. After all, we chop down entire forests, herd animals, shoot foxes and wolves and lions, dig deep mines, and cover the world with our towns and roads and railways. The natural world is in retreat before us.
And I was thinking this morning that modern Environmentalism grows out of a certain sympathy for this defeated natural world. Modern environmentalism is a form of nature worship. It’s a vision of a Garden of Eden into which Adam and Eve have intruded with lawnmowers and secuteurs and chainsaws, and left behind them only a few stumps of trees, and heaps of discarded beer cans. Modern environmentalists are less interested in Adam and Eve than they are in the Garden over which they trampled. Modern environmentalists take the side of Nature in its losing struggle with omnipotent humans. So they set out to Save The Whales, and more or less everything else natural. And to the extent that environmentalists have become pro-Nature, they have also become not just anti-human but also inhuman. They see humans as a sort of plague on the face of the Earth, and they think that there are far too many of us, and the best thing that could happen to the world would be for humans to be reduced in numbers right back down to one or two: Adam and Eve. And in that world, Nature would flourish again, and the Earth would become covered in forests and rivers, and all plants and animals would multiply everywhere.
I think that environmentalists exaggerate the power of human activities in the world. I think they exaggerate the effect of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere in the same way that they exaggerate the dangers of tobacco smoke, and they exaggerate the effect of everything else us humans do, while underplaying the real power of the natural world.
I’m highly sceptical that us humans have become Masters Of The Universe. I think it’s more wishful thinking than anything. I think we are still as much at the mercy of the natural world as we always have been throughout human history. And that’s why lots of people still die in hurricanes and earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and epidemics and landslides and floods. The natural world remains far, far more powerful than we are. It’s almost infinitely more powerful than we are.
MIT meteorology professor Kerry Emanuel, an expert in hurricanes, calculated that the amount of energy in Hurricane Irma is about 7 trillion watts, about twice the energy of all bombs used in World War II. He said it close to how much energy people use around the world. Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor Paul Markowski estimated it could be three times that.
(Perhaps he meant that the amount of power in Hurricane Irma was about 7 trillion watts, because a Watt is a unit of power rather than a unit of energy like a Joule or a Calorie.)
I used to be a bit of an environmentalist back in the 1970s. But these days I think we’re anything but Masters Of The Universe, and are more like a few bugs on the surface of a spinning rock – just bugs with delusions of grandeur.
It’s one reason why I’ve got interested in ice ages. Because the return of an ice age would soon rid us of our delusions of grandeur, and put us back in our place as one of the minor bit-part players in unfolding events. And in his book, Raymond Pierrehumbert has lots of Big Questions about ice ages too. And if he’s got lots of questions about them, it means that he hasn’t got answers yet. He doesn’t know, and he has the candour to admit that he doesn’t know, which is refreshing in a discipline (climatology) which seems to think it has all the answers.
The truth is that not only are we not Masters Of The Universe, but we also know next to nothing about anything, and should be the first to admit it.