WordsDay: environmental issues…


As we watch gas prices surge past $4 per gallon many places in the country and we receive ever more alarming reports of the self-destructive effects of our war on nature, it behooves us to indulge in what John Stuart Mill might have called the consolation of poetry. First, we look at Wordsworth’s warning to us in “The World is too much with Us”:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not….

Then, there are Sara Teasdale’s lines to remind us of what the planet may be once we have, as Ray Bradbury chillingly describes for us in his short story of the same name, disappeared because of our folly:

There will come soft rains and the smell of the ground,
And swallows circling with their shimmering sound;

And frogs in the pool singing at night,
And wild plum trees in tremulous white;

Robins will wear their feathery fire,
Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire;

And not one will know of the war, not one
Will care at last when it is done.

Not one would mind, neither bird nor tree,
If mankind perished utterly;

And Spring herself when she woke at dawn
Would scarcely know that we were gone.

If that’s not enough to give you a shudder, here’s a cartoon based on the Bradbury short story I mention (which is, in turn, based on Teasdale’s poem):

Finally, for all the global heating deniers out there, a quote from the aformentioned John Stuart Mill:

Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.

Happy Earth Day, all….

12 replies »

  1. The romantic poets were like canaries, weren’t they? In a world just beginning to understand that nature was no longer the enemy, they managed to see even farther to a time when we would become our own enemies.

    Thanks Jim. I wish you had been my teacher.

  2. Not only is the Wordsworth appropriate, it highlights the depths to which the Romantic movement was technophobian. One of the greatest of all Romantic works was Frankenstein, and the more out of balance with Nature that our tech becomes, the more we seem to see that story recycled….

  3. How would you define “out of balance with Nature,” though? Is coal out of balance because it emits CO2? Or is wind out of balance because it’s composed of plastics, ceramics, and metals that had to be drilled/pumped/mined/refined/baked in high temperature ovens powered by electricity and natural gas?

    I appreciate that this could be a “gut instinct” thing that defies easy quantization, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    Or, put another way, why are genetically modified crops “frankenfood” because we did with genetic engineering what human beings have always done with generations and hundreds or thousands of years of selective breeding? If the only difference is the speed of the change, then the problem isn’t balance or lack thereof with nature, but rather the pace of change.

  4. Brian:

    Here’s a shot at a definition: “Out of balance with nature” describes those things that interfere with natural, systemic processes that produce equilibrium in the ecosystem.

    Just a start.

  5. JS – Would mining fit your definition? How about computers, individually? The Internet collectively? Electricity generation in all of its various forms? Plastics? GPS satellites?

    I ask because I can make an argument that everything I just mentioned, either directly or via precursors and/or antecedents, has the potential to violate your definition. Human beings, by our nature of being tool-users, have been interfering with ecosystems to greater or lesser extent since we hunted our first prey to extinction, domesticated animals, and developed agriculture.

    I’m not trying to pick on you, JS, but you offered up your definition first, so I got to use you as the example of how the entire idea of “out of balance with nature” is a very difficult proposition. Hell, I could make a strong argument that nukes aren’t out of balance with nature – all I have to do is define the amount of time that the Earth has to recover from our collective self-immolation as a million years or so. And nuking ourselves into oblivion would probably solve a lot of our other “out of balance” issues for the planet WAY faster than anything else would. Assuming, of course, that you agree with Agent Smith that “humanity is a virus.”

  6. No problem, Brian. I don’t feel picked on. I specifically threw out a definition to get a reaction and a test, and that’s what I got. Good for you.

    I think what you’re saying is that there isn’t a definition that will work, right, because all tool-using screws with nature. Of course, one could postulate that tool-using is natural in that it’s produced by natural beings, and that using a digging stick is no different from using an antler to scrape away the snow.

  7. JS – that’s close to what I’m saying, but not exactly. I’m saying that the definition is arbitrary. However, as with so many other things that are arbitrary, we can still determine what qualifies as “out of balance with nature” both for ourselves and for our society/planet. That definition will probably have two lines with a fuzzy region in-between – to the far side of the first line is “always in balance with nature” and to the far side of the second is “always out of balance with nature”. The fuzzy region is where where we can choose for ourselves whether something is, or is not, OK.

    In yet other words, reality will lie somewhere in between the extremes.

  8. Thanks, Jim. Nice to revisit Wordsworth. And had never seen that damning Mills quote before.

  9. Mill said,
    “Although it is not true that all conservatives are stupid people, it is true that most stupid people are conservative.”

    I wonder if he said that before, or after his nervous breakdown. Although I enjoyed studying Mill, his elitist philosophy of wanting to entitle university graduates with extra voting power somehow turned me off to him.



  10. I’ve about reached the point where I’d support a measure requiring a U degree to vote at all…

  11. Jeff:

    It’s interesting that Mill is often quoted by the right when he holds forth on the demonstrably incomplete hypothesis of “economic man.”

  12. JS: I’ve noticed the same thing. Mill is one of the few that both right and left borrow from extensively. However, you’ll find scant positive mention of Mill in the writings of the influential members of the right.

    Bonseparkle: A university degree to vote? Aren’t all people created equal? Just because one is uneducated shouldn’t reduce their full rights of citizenship and disfranchise them from the voting process. That smacks of elitism to this stupid conservative.

    Anyways, if a university degree was required to vote, the Democrats would be hurt the most, as their rank and file comes from labor.