Toward Meaning: The Shadow of Ignorance in Middle World (Part III)

This is part III in a series of posts that come from thinking on how we often use the word “we.” In particular, it came from many readings of Derrick Jensen’s essay “Beyond Hope” in Orion Magazine and wondering, “Who are we? How do we find meaning?” Read Part I and Part II.

III. The Shadow of Ignorance in Middle World

I read things like “Managing Planet Earth” by Dot Earth blogger and former New York Times science writer Andrew Revkin. The piece quotes Harvard biologist William C. Clark as saying, “We’ve come through a period of finally understanding the nature and magnitude of humanity’s transformation of the earth. Having realized it, can we become clever enough at a big enough scale to be able to maintain the rates of progress? I think we can.”

Please read that quotation again and ask yourself these questions. They aren’t flippant or snarky. They are real questions?

We’ve come through what? We have realized what? Who did this? I can’t decide if Clark wears rose-tinted glasses. I’m afraid, really afraid, that he is deluded to the degree of power he and we have. As people as disparate as Dr. Richard Alley (IPCC AR4 “Cryosphere” chapter coordinating author and host of Earth: The Operator’s Manual) and Ivan Illich have made clear: we have energy slaves all around us doing an incredible amount of damage.

Is clever the measure?

Am I just hopelessly ignorant and doomed in my ignorance? How do Jensen and Clark live on the same planet?

I have to admit, I am practically terrified. It’s a nagging terror. A fucked-ness.
Here I am, looking at myself, my deeds, my values, at us, the land we share, and I wonder, “What is my part in this circus of death?” I feel paralyzed. As well-informed and imaginative as I’d like to believe I am (debatable of course), this monster’s proportions go beyond my capacities to see, assess, or comprehend totally.
My ignorance‘s shadow covers everything I cannot and will not know. Clark has his own shadow. So does Jensen. Those shadows are larger than the light created by their intelligence and knowledge. They are as part and parcel of being the human animal in this “developed” world. And this human animal lives in what Richard Dawkins calls “middle world.” We’re middle-sized with medium speed and medium senses. We live as long as we do, can project our imaginations so far, and not very far very accurately. Humans are limited and some of us are more limited than others.

Take eyesight. If it works right, you see in color and at a level of acuity better than lots of animals but worse than a falcon’s. But you can’t see in infrared like a viper or ultraviolet like a bee. You can’t look at a coal plant, your car’s exhaust pipe, a valve on a natural gas tank, or a produced water pit and see carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, various and sundry hydrocarbons, or carcinogens going into the air. Even if you could, there might be no evolutionary guarantee that your direct experience could understand that their presence has created some serious problems.
Here in our “middle world” we used science to get past our senses to determine our cultural directions. 400 years of the scientific enterprise has generated thermodynamics, nuclear theory, electromagnetism, the germ theory of disease, and the modern synthesis of the theory of evolution an the amazing nature-dominating technologies that have come along with them from combustion engines to magnets on wind turbines to phatmaceuticals. All of these scientific breakthroughs have been used to supersede limits and push political agendas of domination.
For all of science’s and technology’s good, they have gotten the biosphere into a pickle. Even Bjorn Lomborg the so-called “skeptical environmentalist” and new cornucopian, agrees. In an essay in which he declares “Technology is the only game in town,” he also writes, “Technology might in some cases transform the surrounding environment in ways that were neither anticipated nor wanted.” He makes caveats about rising incomes and lowering pollution. But the point is clear. Innovation on the status quo chokes the biosphere.

Call it an argument from ignorance, but I can’t think of a way to refute the belief that the most scientifically literate, technologically advanced, and educated people in Earth’s history have created one of the greatest disasters in Earth’s history. The science, engineering, business, and economics departments at most universities, the companies their graduates work for, or the state and federal governments that work for the multinational corporations are not full of people who respect limits.
Middle world me is a very limited creature by birth. And yet by society, culture, economy, and technology I am a superhuman with preternatural capacities judged against human history. My sensory and physical limitations do not limit my impact. A couple of years ago, climatologist and IPCC contributor Richard Alley told me that modern people have the equivalent of 100 invisible servants working for us every day. The fossil-fuel-fed technologies that support us burn about 200,000 kilocalories per day. That’s a lot of food for a lot of machines. All that food generates wastes somewhere showing Commoner’s laws that “Everything is connected to everything else” and “There’s no such thing as away.” Much of it is invisible to me. The dots are disconnected from our perception.

This disconnection feeds why people think medical technology that fights cancer is progress. It makes pollution progress.

Recently I read an online comment by a man who said he likes hydraulic fracturing for shale gas development. He is in the water purification technology business and the toxic chemical cocktail called “produced water” that comes up from a fracked well drives his technology and gives him a job. Jobs are #1. We can create jobs by solving problems.

Jobs keep people out of poverty and that’s good insofar as it goes. I like meaningful labor more. Making jobs to make jobs that enable the hydra of development to grow more heads are not jobs we should be creating. How about jobs for an industry that doesn’t toxify our air, land, and water instead of fails to successfully detoxify frack water? But we have a fully sanctioned and barely regulated industry dumping this water into landfills, deicing roads with it, recycling it for more frack jobs that make it even more poisonous, pouring it into rivers and streams, and injecting it into high pressure earthquake-causing wells. It can make you want to throw up your hands and walk away saying.

My friend Richard Kahn has said that we don’t need just problem-solving. It’s problem-posing. With such an emphasis on solving the problems we continue to accelerate, spinning out new heads on the hydra of sprawling development. Were we to shift some of our time to posing problems with critical eyes before we embark on yet another new technological endeavor, we might save ourselves and much of the biosphere some pain. We might shorten our shadow or at least name it the right name. Us.


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