A selective guide to arts commentaries in print and websites elsewhere.
Introduction to Broad Street Review, plus biographies and contact points for our editors and contributors.
See a list of coming appearances by BSR's writers.
The case against Mother NatureBY: Dan Rottenberg 02.07.2012
Are we humans really worse stewards of our planet than Mother Nature herself, left to her own devices? And are clergy really better guides to a worthwhile life than economists?
Mother Nature, clean up your mess!DAN ROTTENBERG
In his review of Sylvia Nasar’s Grand Pursuit, Tom Purdom rightly celebrates the unsung economists who’ve unlocked the secrets of human productivity and consequently liberated much of humankind from poverty. (Click here.) In reply, reader Connie Briggs rightly notes, “Humankind isn’t the only consideration here.” (Click here.) But Purdom, in his rejoinder to Briggs, argues that economic growth actually benefits lower life forms and the planet. (Click here.)
May I add my own two cents’ worth?
If spiders eat insects…
1. Why do so many ecologists and animal rights activists assume that humankind and Mother Nature are mutually exclusive? What makes the birds and the bees “natural” and humans “unnatural”?
Why is it “natural” for lions to kill zebras and spiders to kill insects and big fish to swallow little fish, but “unnatural” for people to slaughter cows or chickens or even each other? Aren’t we all just doing what comes naturally as fellow members of Mother Nature’s wonderful world of killing? To the extent that we humans try to curtail our impulses to kill and pollute, don’t we deserve some recognition as a higher life form?
Who created coal?
2. We humans may be terrible stewards of our planet, but compared to what? Are we really worse stewards than Mother Nature herself?
Ever since the 1930s, when the Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky made the startling observation that people— by virtue of their technology as well as their sheer numbers— were themselves becoming a geological force, many scientists and people of conscience have routinely blamed our species for overheating the Earth, polluting the atmosphere, threatening the ozone and otherwise tampering with the balance of nature. Yet by any commonly accepted definition of disorder and change, the turmoil produced by humans since our arrival on the planet remains minuscule compared to the ecological anarchy that reigned when natural forces were left to their own devices, unchecked by human interference.
Humans, after all, did not create coal, that despised and dirty substance that still generates nearly half of America’s electricity. Mother Nature did. And how she did it is a messy story in every sense of the word.
The Earth of some 225 to 350 million years ago, long before the age of dinosaurs, was a far warmer and more humid place than today— so warm that much of the land in what is now considered the Earth’s “temperate zones” consisted of large, muddy swamps where tropical plants, trees, ferns and mosses grew and multiplied with reckless abandon.
As these plants and trees inevitably invaded each other’s turf and collided, their accumulated leaves, twigs, branches and trunks broke off and fell into the swamp bottoms or matted over the water’s surface in thick floating masses. Younger plants lived on these mats of dead plant life and eventually died as well, further swelling the accumulated plant debris.
Compounding the mess, stagnant moisture and bacteria preserved this dead plant material and converted it into peat, a spongy substance whose primary elements— carbon, hydrogen and oxygen— are also the primary elements of coal. As these peat bogs sank beneath the surface over the course of millions of years, the heat from the Earth’s core, combined with pressure from above, compressed and hardened this peat into a sedimentary rock capable of igniting and burning freely: coal.
What do you suppose would have happened to the planet if humans hadn’t ultimately harnessed two of Nature’s most dangerous and unpleasant elements— fire and coal— to impose some sense of order on the chaos that Nature had bequeathed to them? As the author of a book about coal, I can tell you: If the earth’s coal reserves were left untouched for hundreds of millions more years, the Earth’s pressure would eventually convert all of it into diamonds, to the everlasting detriment of plants, animals, insects and, yes, people.
Eye of the camel
3. What are the religious implications of this discussion of human economic productivity? We are often told that religion has the answers we seek, but in fact most religions have been clueless about improving life on Earth. Like 19th-Century doctors, whose most valuable tool was their soothing bedside manner, the best that most clergy could provide was assurance of a better life in the next world.
While channel-surfing the other day, I came upon The Greatest Story Ever Told— specifically, the scene in which Jesus breaks the news to a rich follower that it will be harder for him to get into heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle.
The rich man insists that he gave a third of his wealth to the poor, and what more could Jesus want of him?
“I know a woman with just two pennies,” Jesus replies, helpfully providing a role model, “and she gave them away.”
Which leaves just one question: Why did the Romans bother to crucify Jesus? Any good economist would have torn that argument to shreds long before the Romans showed up.♦
Respond to this Article