Reality Re-Asserts Itself

The floods are a reminder of our inability to conquer Nature

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 2nd November 2000

Just as floods and tornadoes were laying waste to our homes, we earthlings watched the launch of an exciting new venture. Three cosmonauts were blasted into orbit, to pioneer the permanent inhabitation of space. Humanity is already making plans for its escape.

Our attempts to avoid the constraints of earthbound life are, of course, what got us into this mess in the first place. The wild weather of the past few days is a reminder not only that the earth is warming up, but also of a more profound environmental lesson: the idea that we can free ourselves from nature is a delusion.

It is a fallacy of which some people have long been keenly aware. “Let us not flatter ourselves for our human victories over nature,” Frederick Engels warned. “For every such victory, it takes its revenge on us. … we with flesh, blood and brain belong to nature and exist in its midst.” Or, as an old Indian proverb has it, “when you drive nature out of the door with a broom, she’ll come back through the window with a pitchfork.”

Yet, even as science determines where natural limits lie, their denial has become a major industry. We have, we are assured by some of Britain’s most prominent economic and political theorists, entered the age of the “weightless economy”; we are now “living on thin air”. The virtual world they celebrate was rolled back by the storms this week, as reality brutally re-asserted itself.

Our environmental crisis is often blamed on our materialism. I have long argued that our problem is that we are not materialistic enough. Most of us have no idea where the materials we use come from, how they are produced and where they go when we have finished with them. We find it hard to conceive of the finity of nature, to understand the simple thermodynamic and biological limits which govern the planet’s ability to support us. We have difficulty making even the most obvious connections between human activities and their environmental consequences. Reports of the flooding on Monday were immediately followed by the news that lorry drivers are threatening a new blockade to support their demand for cheaper fuel. Yet none of the bulletins I heard connected the two stories.

Our attempts to cheat life have progressed to an attempt to cheat death. Human beings, we are told, will live for 150, even 200 years, by the end of the century. Some people are now convinced that they can evade death altogether. Yet, even as we defy mortality, the horrors associated with old age are multiplying. The incidence of some cancers has risen by 200 per cent since 1950, with the scarcely-publicised result that sixty-year-olds are more likely to die of cancer today than they were 50 years ago. The cause, it appears, is the ever-increasing burden of toxic chemicals to which we are exposed.

In the era of eternal youth, we shut our ever more ancient old people away, perhaps because they remind us of the inexorable biological processes which will lead to our own demise. We are, as a result of our attempts to avoid the constraints of nature, in danger of exchanging a life which was nasty, brutish and short for one which is nasty, brutish and long.

Yet it seems clear to me that, though we might do our best to deny that it governs our lives, we are also deeply reluctant to leave the natural world behind. The abstractions of money are illustrated in the pages of the financial press by images of bulls, bears and tigers, 800-pound gorillas, sharks and minnows, mice that roared and wolves in sheep’s clothing. Our metaphors remain agricultural: putting the cart before the horse, taking the bull by the horns, counting our chickens before they’ve hatched. The highest-paid executive in the world, Michael Eisner of Disney, runs a corporation whose core business is investing animals with human characteristics, a practice as old as humanity.

We still revere certain forms of physical labour. Look, for example, at the contrast between the veneration of lifeboatmen and the hatred of social workers and probation officers, whose tasks are really very similar. The romanticisation of such engagement with the physical world is surely a symptom of our detachment from it. Our assumption that we can build our way out of trouble is another. Flood defences designed to protect homes built on the floodplain turn out to have exacerbated the floods. Space programmes designed to remove people from the planet accelerate, through their extravagant use of fossil fuel, the very problems from which some people fantasise about escaping. The more we insist that the world has no place in our lives, the more we ensure that our lives have no place in the world.