The War on Nature

Mexican wolf. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

Ancient Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Chinese and Indians respected or worshipped several gods. Those gods were usually forces of nature, which opened the mind, eyes and hearts of human beings to the mysteries, beauty and truth of the natural world.

The vast human majorities of the ancient world were peasant farmers and shepherds who cultivated the land and raised food and tended animals.

The winds, rains and the snow, the trees, the different plants and grasses growing for their sheep and goats and cattle, were not abstractions but real manifestations of nature affecting them daily and giving them clues about life and their own fortunes. They noticed the different birds living near them and flying to the water of the creeks, lakes and rivers, according to the seasons. And soon they figured the appropriate time of the year, season, for growing wheat and caring for the olive trees for the life-saving olive oil and grape vines for their sweet wine.

Ancient people tried to make sense of the gigantic forces of the natural world. They looked at the sky and saw countless stars lighting the evening heavens. They were dazzled and sometimes frightened by these flickering bodies in the sky so far away from them. They usually associated these slowly moving stars with gods who influenced their lives.

People saw the gigantic Sun “rising” in the East and “setting” in the West. They noticed the Moon was close to the Earth and, in fact, moved around the Earth, linking it to their monthly calendar.

The priests of the gods were students of nature. They often gave meaning to phenomena difficult to comprehend like rain, snow, lightning and thunder. The priests explained and familiarized nature to those celebrating the gods. They made them confident that humans and other animals and the natural world were related and lived in the same world.

The Earth, the Greek philosopher Plato said, was the oldest of the gods, remaining motionless right at the center of the cosmos. All stars, including the Sun god Helios, moved around the Earth. Another natural philosopher, Aristarchos of Samos, challenged the geocentric view of the cosmos, saying in the third century BCE that the Earth and the stars move around the Sun. However, this Heliocentric Theory all but disappeared until, in the sixteenth century, the Polish monk-astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus resurrected it.

The Sun ripened the crops and brought light and life to the world. This was a god of gods related to Apollo, god of light, music and prophesy.

The Greeks of the island of Rhodes worshipped Helios for millennia. A sculptor of Rhodes in the third century BCE created the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue of the Sun god Helios over the island’s harbor.

Greeks set up festivals celebrating the Olympian gods: the wheat and agriculture goddess, Demeter; the wine, theater, and rural culture god, Dionysos; the god of volcanoes and metallurgy, Hephaistos; the goddess of wisdom, craftsmanship and the olive tree, Athena; the god of climate and the sky, Zeus, father of the gods; the goddess of love holding the cosmos and humans together, Aphrodite; the god of the seas, Poseidon; the goddess of wild animals and the natural world, Artemis; the god of domestic animals, Pan; the god of honeybees and rural life, Aristaios; and the god of light, forecasting and reading the future, Apollo.

These divine models inspired the Greeks to love the natural world and overcome their limitations, just as other ancient people sought inspiration from their own gods. The vision was to study the natural world and learn how to live better lives.

In the fourth century BCE, the Greek natural philosopher Aristotle showed why humans and the natural world share the same fortunes.

He credited the fifth century BCE natural philosopher Anaxagoras with the discovery that the light of the Moon comes from the Sun god Helios. He observed that in a lunar eclipse the Earth covers the Moon with a curved shadow. He concluded the Earth was a sphere.

Aristotle did his most important work on the history and life of animals. He studied some 500 marine and terrestrial animals and established the science of zoology. He urged us to care and love animals because, thought we are “political” animals, we live among them. Equally important, animals are the work of nature that does nothing in vain. In other words, Aristotle theorized, nature and the Earth and the cosmos are alive, immortal, and perfect.

Aristotle invented science. Europe’s greatest biologists, including Charles Darwin, praised his foresight and scientific genius.

Working  with nature makes sense. It is the only way for the flourishing of humans. But “dominating” nature has been consistently offensive and stupid. It can’t be done.

Sometimes, when ancient societies became empires, they damaged the natural world. Building a fleet, for example, would mean cutting down a forest.

Despite this imperial exception, ancient people for the most part were respectful  of the natural world — for millennia. People used wood for keeping their homes warm in winter, but they did not willfully destroy land, forests or slaughtered wild animals for fun.

Turning the world upside down

This sustainable relationship with nature came to an end with the advent of Christianity and Islam. These one-god religions nearly destroyed an almost innate human veneration of the natural world: an awe for the heavens, especially the Sun and the Moon; curiosity and affection for land and water: mountains, forests, valleys, swamps, rivers, lakes and seas; a pleasure of seeing flying insects and birds; and love for fish and wildlife, including animals, domesticated and wild.

It was the narrow vision of monotheism that humans have a duty of dominating nature that turned the world upside down. It motivated the Europeans in their destruction of the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, Asia, Australia and Africa. Christian and Moslem missionaries holding the Bible and the Koran were always accompanied by soldiers holding the sword and the gun.

The same wrong-headed passion for control has been bringing us science and technology giving birth to monsters like the internal combustion engine, still driving billions of cars dumping endless amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and raising the temperature of the planet.

No less catastrophic are the monsters of nuclear weapons, and the deleterious pesticides and industrialized agriculture and genetic engineering.

Hubris and absence of understanding and, consequently, love for the natural world, made it easy to produce electricity from the burning of fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and petroleum. In America alone, more than a billion automobiles are powered by the internal combustion engine burning oil.

These irrational, unethical, and aggressive uses of knowledge are upsetting the delicate climate of the Earth, with the result of global temperatures rising to potentially dangerous and, in time, catastrophic levels for humans and wild life.

The latest (August 2019) UN report (Climate and Land by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) mirrors this chaos. One-hundred and seven experts from fifty-two countries know that the fossil fuel industry is responsible for a world revolution the likes of which have never hit the Earth and societies before; they know the deleterious and global warming effects of a petroleum-addicted agriculture, but they are reluctant to speak the unvarnished truth, be straightforward. Instead, they use a language full of ambiguities in telling the world that industrialized farming (and forestry) are responsible for 21 to 37 percent of all greenhouse gases causing global warming.

The UN report says that, since 1961, world food supply has increased by a third only to be lost as food waste; two billion people are obese because they eat too much; about one billion humans have been surviving, but barely. Hunger has been their master.

Moreover, the UN report continues, humans are destroying a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land: soil erosion is taking place at about 100 times faster rate than the time necessary for the formation of soil; and more than 500 million humans live in lands becoming deserts.

The UN report leaves no doubt climate change makes land use and land misuse and destruction, the raising of food, and the eating of food worse. Human greed, laced by a megalomania of control of the natural world, precipitates and plays in the hands of the gigantic and destructive forces unleashed by fossil fuel temperatures.

One reads — in this UN report and numerous articles and books — about sustainability, climate change adaptation, human and ecosystem health, land degradation, food systems and food security, but very little about the fossil fuel companies and countries supporting these companies continue being the very agents of potential global destruction through the burning of petroleum, natural gas, and coal.

Who is going to punish the fossil fuel executives?

Yet, like the tobacco industry, that of fossil fuels, is under scrutiny. A wave of lawsuits and court battles resemble the ancient Erinyes (Furies) pursuing fossil fuel owners for abominable crimes.

Environmentalists suing the coal, petroleum and gas industry argue that these companies have known for decades their products are causing higher global temperatures, raising the prospect of catastrophe and extinction of life on Earth.

In addition, climate change is responsible for enormous devastation: from sudden intense rains, violent flooding and storms, raising water levels, warming the water of the oceans and altering the temperature and chemistry of the seas and the biosphere, which accelerate the loss and extinction of insects and countless other species. Moreover, climate change is causing enormous damages to cities, infrastructure, the growing of food and public health.

Like the tobacco companies that lied for decades about the hazard of cigarette smoking, oil companies have been spending millions in spreading doubt about climate change. Yet climate change is here and now. Exxon Mobil and other oil companies will have to pay for lying and for the enormous damages of global warming. They are its main cause.

However, waiting for lawsuits to put these companies out of business might be too late. The natural world (its vulnerable species already under deleterious pressures and tremendous rates of extinction) cannot wait.

Are we going to keep reading grim reports about “climate change adaptation” or do something about preventing additional fossil fuel pollution, destructive climate change, and harm?

What to do

Start with things we can do. Solar and wind power technologies are the immediate answer to this awesome stalemate afflicting the ruling classes behind fossil fuels. These businessmen are not likely to admit their crime, pay for damages or reverse course.

Aristotle opened our eyes about animals: love them and stop eating them. Such a moral and dietary decision would eliminate a major source of greenhouse gas emission: animal farms. Second, cover the roof of your house with solar panels, producing your electricity from the everlasting Sun god Helios. Third, stop driving cars and demand public transport fueled by solar electricity. Or, at least, change your petroleum car for a hybrid or electric vehicle. Fourth, eat organic food or grow your own fruits and vegetables.

Finally, vote Trump and the Republicans out of office.

War on nature

The Trump administration is the antithesis of natural philosophy. It started its rule of the United States by declaring war on nature. Like hungry barbarians, the Republican followers of Trump and domestic and foreign companies demanded access to what belongs to all of us: parks, federal lands and forests, protected national wildlife refuses.

The gutted EPA has been putting lipstick on the ecocidal policies of Trump: pretending that deregulation is legal and not harmful to life, including human life. It just approved the gutting of thousands of pristine acres near Bristol Bay, Alaska, favoring the copper and gold mine of a Canadian company. The outcome of such permission, if the State of Alaska allows it to stand, will be a gigantic toxic open cesspool and a greatly diminished or dead salmon fishery.

The Trump cowboy administration is so bad, so careless, so unethical, it even declared war on the endangered species: thousands of plants and animals facing daily threats, death and extinction.

The Trump administration is in the pockets of the fossil fuel magnates. Its deregulation and willful denial of climate change bolster their dangerous behavior, here in America and throughout the world.

Once we dump Trump and the Republicans, we can return to a solar and wind civilization and outlaw fossil fuels.

Our agriculture should be transformed to accommodate traditional knowledge and agroecology and small family farmers. Pesticides and genetic engineered crops would have no place in this agriculture. In addition, our mission should be the building of more ecological, democratic and equal society. At the same time, we would have to join the international community for crafting a post climate change world.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.