I have a conservative friend, a global warming skeptic, who wrote on his Facebook page this week the following.
The pathetic thing about all of this is that we grew up in an America that could do anything. “In fact, we can put a man on the moon.” Now, we look so incapable and pathetic. It isn’t about BP anymore. This is a national crisis. Its not about who pays or whose fault it is, its how we fix it and clean it up. The whole thing ultimately, for a million reasons, just makes me sad.
And this led me to think about the basis of the country’s foul mood since the Deep Water Horizon blew up. The history of Western civilization has been an immense effort made over the past ten thousand years to bring the natural world under human control. But as Thoreau once wrote, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World”, believing that nature had her own powers that might thwart our efforts towards total domination. And that wildness might also remind us of the true spontaneity that is the root of our creative soul.
I have been writing for the past two years about the concept of an Interregnum–a time when the “old story” about how things work is no longer valid and yet a “new story” is emerging but is not widely accepted. I have thought of this in mostly political terms and have tried to elucidate such phenomena as the Tea Parties in this framework. But the greatest ecological crisis in American history has led me to a deeper conclusion—the Interregnum is a much deeper cultural moment.
The old story: that man’s role on earth was to subdue the natural world has been the gospel of the political, economic, religious and intellectual elites for millennia. From the book of Genesis onward, Man had “dominion” over the earth and every wild thing on it. The new story is that we are all passengers on spaceship earth, flying through the cosmos. Everything we have for the journey is already on board the ship (except sunlight for life generation). There is no resupply vehicle. I think this story (ironically) emerged for me and many others when the Astronauts first returned from moon orbit. Edgar Mitchell told of looking at earth from outer space and seeing “this blue and white planet floating there” .He said he was overwhelmed with a feeling of “a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos.” Stewart Brand heard that they had taken pictures of “the Whole Earth” and eventually forced NASA to publish the pictures. The cover of Brand’s first Whole Earth Catalog is adorned with one of those images.
Drilling two miles beneath the ocean surface is part of the old story. Nature is ours to fuck up. My conservative friend feels incredibly frustrated—that we “we look so incapable and pathetic”—because we can’t just fix it this time. But maybe we need to acknowledge that the wildness is part of “the great liturgy of the heavens”. Maybe we need to experience nature not on the Discovery Channel, but in the wild.
Maybe we need a new story. One that both the scientists and the religious can agree about. We do not have “dominion” over the earth, we have “stewardship”—the promise to leave the planet to our children and grandchildren in no worse shape that what we inherited from our parents. And stewardship would mean a lot of people living simpler lives and using a lot less fossil fuel. I know there are some of my undergraduates thinking, ” WTF-I’ll be dead before this spaceship earth runs out of food or fuel”. But quietly they admit that the whole earth needs to listen to the new story in order to get out of this sad interregnum.