January 25, 2013 7:17 pm

Inhospitable? No, just impatient

Earth’s increasingly strong reactions to our thoughtless behaviour may be an indication that our host’s patience might be running out

One of several sinister trends I have noted recently – sorry, this is not going to start as the cheeriest of late-January columns – is the tendency to speak of our planet as an inhospitable place. The Earth, the globe which over unimaginable stretches of time gave birth to us (or do we really imagine that we gave birth to ourselves, like Athena springing from the head of Zeus?), as our remote ancestors crawled out of the sea and found ways of surviving on the exposed land, is increasingly seen as a place of dangers, perhaps a place to bale out of altogether, as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and other space-colonisers suggest.

Of course this partly reflects the fact that, as Ulrich Beck wrote more than 20 years ago in Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, we are making the Earth progressively more uninhabitable. Living through Australian summers, according to the climate scientist and chief commissioner of Australia’s Climate Commission Tim Flannery, has come to resemble “a compulsory and very unpleasant game of Russian roulette”. This year a whole suite of climate records has been broken. Two new colour bands, denoting temperatures above 50 and 52 degrees Celsius, have been added to Australian weather prediction maps.

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Harry Eyres

It is not just in Australia that conditions appear to be getting less liveable. Superstorm Sandy, by inundating the New York subway and parts of Lower Manhattan and New Jersey, suddenly made the world’s richest city seem vulnerable and may even have helped turn the presidential election.

Extreme weather events – storms, floods, heatwaves – “cause rising damage each year”: that is not the view of an environmentalist, but of the soberly calculating insurance actuaries of Munich Re.

Our response to the conditions brought on by our own actions seems to be to retreat into the technosphere – imagining synthetic environments or ever more extreme manipulations of ourselves or what surrounds us. No matter that our nearest planets look mighty inhospitable; it is surely only a matter of time, the extreme techno-optimists believe, before we can escape to a better home.

I happen to think there is a very different way of looking at all this. The Earth, far from being inhospitable, is supremely hospitable. We grew out of it, and are adapted to it, as it is to us. The only truly uninhabitable continent is Antarctica; otherwise we humans have been able to withstand the extreme cold of Arctic winters, the aridity of deserts such as the Kalahari in southern Africa, the loftiness of the Tibetan plateau, even the unrelenting grey skies of Britain.

David Attenborough’s new television series Africa is a triumph: who could fail, in the first two episodes on the Kalahari and the Savannah, to be entranced by the filming of intrepid lizards hunting flies on lions’ backs; the titanic conflicts of bull elephants and, more surprisingly, giraffes; the delicate nocturnal socialising of black rhinos?

However, in those episodes very little time is devoted to human beings, apart from the magnificent Attenborough himself, creaky of knee but vigorous in mind and heart. That belies the fact that just as amazing as the flourishing of so many animals in the Kalahari is the persistence of the oldest of all human cultures, that of the Bushmen or San people.

The San have lived, anthropologists believe, for at least 80,000 years as nomadic hunter-gatherers in one of the world’s driest places, developing astonishing skills using arrows and spears tipped with deadly poison. In all their existence, the San never destroyed the delicately balanced ecosystem in which their culture allowed them to flourish.

If we speak of the Earth as hospitable, that implies that we are guests, not owner-occupiers. No ancient culture as far as I know has envisaged human beings as owning the Earth, though some have imagined us playing a crucial part in its maintenance. When the psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung visited Taos, New Mexico, in the 1920s, he met and conversed with an elder from the Hopi tribe named Mountain Lake. He told Jung that the Hopi, through their religious observances, believed that they helped the sun to cross the sky every day.

The elder also made the following observation to Jung about white people: “They say they think with their heads ... We think here,” he said, indicating his heart. For Jung, these observations were of huge significance. They revealed the extraordinary arrogance of western, Christian civilisation, whose religion was no less superstitious than that of the Hopi, and whose “insatiable lust to lord it in every land” might well be considered crazy.

If the Earth is our host and we are its guests, we have become very troublesome ones, with insatiable appetites and a penchant for vandalism. You might think it fanciful but I see Earth’s increasingly strong reactions to our thoughtless behaviour as an indication that our host’s patience might be running out.

harry.eyres@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/eyres

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