In the West we conceive of tragedy as involving catastrophic downfall. That is one reason why Al Gore has had such astonishing success in drawing our attention to global warming, a development that, if some of his scenarios come true, will provoke a cataclysmic series of events that our civilization may or may not survive. (Another reason is that Gore is a famous politician, and a tragic one at that, hence his crusade captures our attention in ways that a mere scientist’s could not hope to rival.) Equally serious environmental threats, such as resource depletion, deforestation, land erosion, species extinction, groundwater contamination, and loss of biodiversity, do not have nearly the same claim on the public imagination, no doubt because the prospect of the worst consequences of global warming induces terror, while the reality of environmental degradation induces demoralization.
Global warming is a worldwide natural phenomenon, yet it is largely a first-world cultural obsession. The anxiety about it that is felt in the West these days has something to do with the bad conscience of the first-world citizen, who consumes a much greater share of the planet’s resources, especially its fossil fuels, than his or her counterpart in the third world. Acknowledging the reality of global warming amounts to a confession of responsibility, and all good tragedies revolve around the hero’s hamartia (or “tragic flaw,” as it used to be translated). In its consumerist frenzy, the first world today lives with an uneasy and often inarticulate environmental guilt (“guilt” is in fact a more adequate translation of hamartia). The daily massacres that provide the meat, fish, and poultry on which we gorge week in and week out, for the most part thanklessly, may take place in slaughterhouses far removed from the worlds we inhabit, yet few of us are oblivious enough not to recognize, at some subconscious level, that our relation to the natural world is one of outstanding debt. This aggravated debt is our guilt, and our best stories, from time immemorial, tell us that it must be punished by the gods or the laws of nature or the hounds of our own conscience.
What human civilization must do to survive materially is a question that is bound to engage us in the decades to come, yet alongside it there are other questions, easily brushed aside, that are no less paramount in import. Will a greener technology transform our relation to nature? Will a more sustainable economy merely provide a more sustainable basis for our consumerist sloth? Does nature make any spiritual demands on us, or is it purely the supplier in a supply–demand relationship? In short, if the setting is what the story was all about, what moral truths, if any, does it contain?
These are questions one pursues fruitfully in Donald Worster …
John Muir’s First Life May 28, 2009