Delusions Of Grandeur

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.

About Frank Davis

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11 Responses to Delusions Of Grandeur

  1. Joe L. says:

    Here’s a video I stumbled upon recently discussing the “Climate-Industrial Complex”.

  2. beobrigitte says:

    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.
    Nope. A couple of friends and I have embarked on a project: walking the Liverpool – Leeds canal from start to as far as we can get without too many (to come) overnight stays somewhere further away.
    Today we covered the last 3 miles we haven’t done near Liverpool: the start of the canal. In the most industrial part (near the docks) we saw this:

    It DEFINITELY was this butterfly, as the black and white stripes, as well as the body are striking! I should have photographed it but I just watched it for a while.
    Nevertheless, the picture above was used in the telegraph
    https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/earthnews/3701626/Butterfly-species-may-be-lost-from-Britain-due-to-climate-change.html
    Unlike the claim of this article in the telegraph that this tortoise shell butterfly only existed in the south of Britain my local friends assured me that this butterfly has been in the area for at least 2 generations; their parents knew it as well and so did their parents.

    In short, nature adapts. Incredibly quickly. I rest my case.

    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.
    Sure. Just ask the people who in the last 10 years encountered any/more than one of the above.

    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.
    Ditto

  3. Joe L. says:

    As of May 1, Disney will begin banning smoking inside its US theme parks. Boycott Disney (if you weren’t already, that is).

    Disney bans smoking, large strollers from US parks

    On Thursday, Disney announced that starting May 1, smoking and certain large strollers will no longer be allowed inside Florida and California Disney parks including Walt Disney World, Disneyland theme parks, water parks, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Downtown Disney.
    Guests who smoke will still be able to light up in designated areas outside park entry points and in smoking areas at Disney Resort hotels and Disney Springs.

    • Smoking Lamp says:

      I have left comments at several sites regarding this draconian and necessary smoking ban. Walt, smoker, would be disgraced! There is no rationale other than persecuting smokers for this outdoor ban since there is no real threat from second hand smoke–especially outside!.

    • Lepercolonist says:

      “As we expand our offerings, we will continue to take steps to enhance the guest experience and make it more enjoyable for everyone who visits,” said a Disney spokeswoman.

      Yea, everyone except smokers. It looks bad….

    • That also means that smoker Walt Disney himself would be denied entry into his own theme parks nowadays.
      From Wikipedia: “Disney had been a heavy smoker since World War I. He did not use cigarettes with filters and had smoked a pipe as a young man. In November 1966, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was treated with cobalt therapy”; “Disney was a heavy smoker throughout his life, and died of lung cancer in December 1966 before either the park or the EPCOT (“Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow”) project were completed.”

      Other great entertainers such as Humphrey Bogart or Nat King Cole died around the same time, and get the same treatment on Wikipedia: “A heavy smoker and drinker, Bogart developed esophageal cancer…” “Cole, who had been a heavy cigarette smoker, had lung cancer and was expected to have only months to live…” (I will not expatiate on why the respective aetiologies of oesophagus and lung cancers are essentially unrelated).

      No allusion to smoking on Buster Keaton’s Wikipedia page, but from Marion Meade’s Buster Keaton: Cut to the Chase: A Biography: “In recent years Keaton had developed a wheezy smoker’s cough that left him gasping for breath. His doctors diagnosed bronchitis and suggested that he stop smoking. He promised to try.” (my emphasis)

      • Fredrik Eich says:

        Yes, it seems pretty standard stuff for wiki authors to check the smoking status
        of a dead celeb, even though it is impossible to say whether smoking played any part in the death. They never seem to point out that a dead celeb never smoked.

    • beobrigitte says:

      Definitely giving Disney parks a miss. Over here Alton Towers started the “designated smoking areas” lark back in 2012. This was largely ignored then and no-one picked on me when I ignored it, too. However, in case they were going to employ enforcement staff I have given the place a miss since.

      Smokers, boycott these parks!

  4. ianl says:

    Not the Anthropocene, but rather the Idiocene.

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