Cultural context Humankind's transformations in the age of environmental destruction
I Looking down from the Moon, or the end and eternity of nature
The cultural context in which our patients’ life is embedded in the Western world is extremely complex and multi-faceted. But whatever we might say about it, in my view it is or will be dominated in the next two decades by just one dominant theme: climate change. How we respond to this phenomenon will - politically, economically and culturally - determine our future including the fate of the civilising process. In the West survival concerns will be mixed with ethical issues and both will severely affect psychological well-being - our own and that of our patients. In fact, I expect ten years from now this topic will dominate our therapies and create an extraordinary challenge to our craft. Therefore, in this last chapter 1 will focus exclusively on this theme.
Let me first explain how I came to this conclusion, which will surely surprise many readers. 1 will begin with a historical observation.
In the 18th century, Europe saw the gradual development of a new kind of aesthetics of nature, matching and complementing the new mode of nature observation with its instrumental perspective. Kant’s aesthetics conceptualized this development when he distinguished between natural phenomena as either wild and sublime or tamed and beautiful. From that point on, even the rough, the angular, the wild and the crude in nature could be seen as sublime. Romantic painting opened the door for art to develop this mode of seeing, which in turn became the precursor of the wide varieties of nature photography which characterize the Western world’s relationship with nature today. At the same historical moment when we escalated our interventions, manipulations and exploitations of nature to the maximum extent, we were able to experience untouched nature as something of particular aesthetic value. This too is part of the dialectics of progress, that we could not discover the beauty of nature in its wildness until we had tamed it and thereby lost our fear of it. This phenomenon is rather important for our topic, since our capacity to see nature from an aesthetic perspective is so far the only counter-balancing position from which to avoid raping nature by using technical means to satisfy our needs, not to mention greed. And we have not yet developed this aesthetic perspective sufficiently.
Today our ways of seeing have been unexpectedly enriched, revealing a host of implications: we can now see the Earth from the Moon; we can consider the view of the whole terrestrial globe from cosmic space. For the first time, Earth sees herself in a mirror - and behold, she is beautiful! (Photographs in: Kelley, 1988). Even before this time telescopes and cameras had allowed us to see early pictures of the cosmos. Through the discovery of a spatial perspective in the Renaissance, human beings discovered themselves in their glorious symmetry, in their divine potentiality.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, when people discovered the beauty of natural wilderness they also discovered the untamed nature of their own desires and needs. As space flight revealed a perspective back from the cosmos onto ourselves, it allowed us a new kind of sensuous experience of our place in the cosmos, forcing us to come up with a new spiritual definition of this position. This is not yet clearly developed. Never before had human beings been able to see our complete habitat in all its beauty, but neither had we seen how small it is and how fragile. They say that nobody seeing this for themselves came back untouched by the experience. For those of us who weren’t there, the image has to suffice. But this image alone (if we truly open ourselves to it) will have a profound effect, 1 believe.
Viewed from the Moon we see the “blue planet”, our terrestrial globe, with huge blue seas and slightly smaller brown land masses, pervaded by air currents visible as huge white cloud eddies. In fifty or a hundred years the same view may show yellow-white masses of cloud fumes covering up the face of a greying planet - completely impenetrable and doomed to remain in that state for incalculable time. In photos showing our planet backlit by the sun. we can see the minute habitat available to us humans between the blazing fire of the Earth’s interior and the radiant cold of space. If the globe had a circumference of four metres, the human dwelling space with air to breathe on its surface would be no more than four millimetres.
These images matter greatly, because they resonate emotionally and create emotional clarity, where cognitively we are increasingly confused. As a research task, the environmental catastrophe is of such complexity, that it cannot be compared to any other problem ever to confront science (Dreitzel I Stenger, 1990). The Gaia hypothesis1 may well be right when it assumes that the whole globe is a self-contained system of physical, geological, biological and climatic components interacting together. Surely everybody has experienced smog burning the eyes, polluted foam making it impossible to bathe in the seas, rubbish and poison everywhere welling up from the ground. We know enough to realize that rays coming from space itself, cannot be directly experienced through the senses. We know that we are beginning to be less well protected from them.
What is new is that not only astronomical observation but the ever more precise observation of our home planet by satellites travelling in growing numbers around it, have begun to protocol every aspect of how we humans have self-defeatingly wreaked destruction on earth. Satellites notice the fires which extinguish parts of the Amazon rainforest - and recognize the effects caused by oil palm plantations as they grow field by field. Every tree is recorded in Indonesia; they notice the dwindling of the scarce sweet water resources as well as the disappearance of corals in our seas, they register the worldwide melting of mountain glaciers, as well as melting ice caps in polar regions, they protocol the forest fires in Siberia which melt the perma-frost thus releasing huge amounts of methane gas poisoning the atmosphere - as on the micro level our microscopes detect the otherwise invisible Covid-19 virus causing the corona crisis. Here again progress in photographic technology directly helps to increase our awareness of what is happening. The growing quality of nature photography in documentaries contributes to our awareness and speaks directly to our emotions.
What is called environmental consciousness is more a function of our emotional sensibility than our cognitive understanding. The emotions have more power of helping us to orient ourselves in our highly complex world than intellectual comprehension.
The situation is quite different when we consider the effect of greenhouse gases on climate change. What the gardener takes as a sunlight-permeable, warming and insulating glass roof of a greenhouse, for the Earth is a layer of gases and dust particles trapping part of the sun’s warmth near the earth. Without this layer there would be no life on earth, since the average temperature would be lowered by 35 °C, i.e. it would sink to -20 °C. Humankind has begun to seal in this glasshouse, effectively shutting down the ventilation system by feeding in trace gases, which reflect back to the Earth some part of the emitted warmth, causing temperatures to rise. This greenhouse effect has been known for a hundred years and had been predicted by scientists. But how quickly and how strongly temperatures will rise and what effects should be expected remains unknown - due to their complexity these issues pose very difficult questions to researchers. During the last hundred years our average temperatures worldwide have risen by 1.0 °C, and ocean levels by 20 centimetres. Emissions of carbon dioxide are responsible for at least half of the greenhouse effect. Today it is no longer controversial among serious scientists that warming will happen to an above-average extent near the polar regions, and in consequence the moderate zones will probably have more rain, while the tropical zones will have less. Simultaneously, sea levels will rise by an unknown factor. Researchers are working to find out what consequences this will have and where. But it becomes ever more apparent that the weather anomalies we can observe everywhere - unusually warm summers in Europe; extreme heat and dry periods in the USA; extreme fires and rainfalls in Australia, California and Bangladesh; the fiercest ever tornados and hurricanes -all seem to be immediate consequences of the greenhouse effect. We are sure that sooner or later large areas inhabited today by millions of people, for example the Nile Delta or large parts of Bangladesh, will be flooded and lost. It is also certain that there will be no winners, simply because these intense climate changes, very different from natural variations, happen too quickly for us to have time to gradually adjust - and this is what makes them climate catastrophes.
What kinds of changes inexorably hit us can be estimated by considering the role of carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide is released each time we bum something: cooking our meals, heating or cooling our houses, melting metals, driving our cars, uprooting our forests, when we burn our dead. In addition animals like cows and the warming of the permafrost by huge fires in Siberia release methane gas, a particularly dangerous pollutant reinforcing the effect of carbon emissions.
Anybody can access the internet and the newest literature regarding climate change and learn everything there is to know about this process, its causes and its burdens (Wallace-Wells, 2019; Rich, 2019; Foer 2019; Scheffler, 2013). It seems as if a part of world society has woken up from its environmental sleep, but largely we become paralysed by exhortations, with appeasements and denials. However even before Donald Trump came to power it was very doubtful whether the Paris agreements of 2016 would be realized. The necessary changes in our lifestyles are too large and too unclear at once for us to develop a truly action-oriented imagination.
The American naturalist Bill McKibben wrote a penetrating and wonderfully poetic book about these concerns, entitled The End of Nature (McKibben, 1990). He makes it clear that no longer can we ever or anywhere be certain that nature - wherever we encounter it on this planet - is pure nature, untouched by human beings; as it were “authentic” nature. So a mother’s milk may be contaminated; the weather may be entirely taken over by smog; coloured pebbles at the beach may turn out to be bits of plastic. The star turns out to be a satellite; the mushrooms we collect may be radioactively contaminated, and the genetically manipulated animal would never have been produced in this form by evolution. We can never be sure whether and when and to what extent the beneficial and harmful forms and qualities we find “in nature” are the result of human interference or are not. We influence the weather, without knowing quite how we do it. We get into the act but know very little about the effects of our contributions.
While all this is happening, an epoch has come to an end - the time where it was possible, at least theoretically, to adjust to nature, to fit in with it, to entrust ourselves to it. But this is the age of the Anthropocene, the age dominated by our own species and its way of life: Mother Nature is dead, and I grieve for her, even while 1 know she was just an idea; she was a beautiful invention and discovery of human beings. Still, the life and death of ideas has very real consequences: with “Mother Nature” die many beautiful species of animal and plant which developed on the blue planet. This is the qualitative aspect. The quantitative aspects of these processes are barely imaginable. Up to a hundred species daily disappear from our globe in consequence of climate change. But the expression, the “end of nature”, also reminds us a little of the story of somebody painting on a wall: “God is dead - Nietzsche” and a second graffito responds: “Nietzsche is dead -God”. Human beings need nature: indeed, we are nature - but nature does not need humans. Or perhaps it does?