Helium, Aesthetics, and the Problem of Anthropocentrism
On the Lament of Thoreau, Muir, and Abbey
Of course I litter the public highway. Every chance I get. After all, it’s not the beer cans that are ugly; it’s the highway that is ugly. — Ed Abbey (“The Second Rape of The West,” 1975)
The long run is longer than we – anthropocentric humans – think. Taking a step back so that we can see far into the future, the biggest problem facing “our” planet is the buildup of helium at “our” sun’s core, a natural byproduct of a star’s burning of it’s hydrogen fuel. Eventually this buildup will result in the sun getting much more luminous and thus much hotter, which in turn will eventually cause the Earth’s oceans to dry… or more accurately, to boil away. This planet’s climate will become much like that of Venus – inhospitable for “green” life to say the least. [At this point, only a very aged and even more stubborn Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will still be denying global warming, ever vigilantly protecting us from the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people” until the end…] In “the end,” which for this planet’s purposes will be in about 7.6 billion years, Earth will be swallowed by a then Red Giant sun-star, and even the cockroaches will be fucked. It will be one hell of a sunset, and will probably make a very big noise, if only we were around to see and hear it. “If a planet bursts into flames in the middle of a galaxy and no one is around to see it…”
Which brings us to the problem of anthropocentrism, or the belief that we, humans, are the center of the universe, and more important and powerful than any other aspect of it. We are only interested in the planet and it’s “health,” as it relates to us. When we talk of “saving the planet” we are talking about saving it for ourselves. The rocky quasi-sphere we inhabit is eventually going to collapse into the sun regardless of human contributions to global warming. We would like to think that we have the power to destroy “our” planet, but in reality, we only have the power to ruin it for ourselves. Earth will spin on, with or without humanity, for another 7.6 billion years or so, and then it won’t. Despite our anthropocentric arrogance, we are not in the business of saving or changing stellar and galactic fates. We would need to change the laws of physics, not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, if we are really to “save” this planet from it’s scientifically destined end. And why would we, humans, want to alter the natural death of this planet anyway? See anthropocentrism.
I suppose that some of our species members, especially those whose primary concerns are not finding food, water and shelter for themselves and their families, find meaning in green ethics. We as a species once found meaning in conquering an inhospitable planet. It was our destiny. Now we find meaning in saving a doomed one. It is the new White Man’s Burden. Perhaps removing our impact from the planet constitutes the final redemption of our species. Guilt: its what makes up human. Cockroaches don’t feel or do such things.
The environmental movement, of course, did not begin with the ethical cause of saving the planet for ourselves. It begin with the aesthetic (and, yes, typically anthropocentrically selfish) cause of keeping it beautiful for ourselves. Smog in the cities was ugly more than it was unhealthy. We were asked to “Keep America Beautiful,” well before we were asked to save the planet. Now, even the term “green aesthetics” has been hijacked by green ethically inclined artists who seek to create green products. DON’T CREATE ANYTHING AT ALL! Stop being so… human.
So for now, ethics trumps aesthetics in the environmental movement. Longing for an idyllic, pristine, and pastoral planet is, admittedly, selfish. The desire to create and develop in order save is very human(e). We have chosen to hitch our fate to ethics over aesthetics, so let them cry: Thoreau at Walden, Muir in the Sierra, Abbey somewhere underneath the hot sand of the American desert… and Iron Eyes Cody, too, on the side of an eco-friendly highway. But the highway is already ugly and the beer cans don’t contribute all that much to global warming anyway. Nor do more aesthetically pleasing green bottles.
“Take up the White Man’s burden–
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride…”