Monday, 20 January 2014

Ren ding sheng tian ('Man must conquer nature')

Why must man conquer nature? What is the purpose? And has he? Man has certainly believed he can since well before Mao Zedong's* exhortation:

  Confucius believed in controlling nature (vs Taoism which is about balance with nature, yin and yang)
And consider God's agenda -

Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, And subdue it:
and have dominion
Over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air,
And over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis

Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made
low: the crooked straight,
and the rough places plain. (Isiah 40. 4)

We may not believe this, but we do really subscribe to this illusion one way or another; it underpins an assumption of Man's superiority (Primates – above all others, homo sapiens: wise men) and entitlement - to holidays in the sun, to pets, to mountains, which are there for us to ski on, to countryside, which is there for us to walk in and write poetry about, and entitlement to the earth's resources, which we keep on consuming without giving anything back. 

It's not just the 1% who are doing this. Each and every one of us is, even those of us white middle class bods who have this view of ourselves as stewards, caretakers of the planet, who believe that honeybees can't survive without beekeepers. Conservationists like to 'give Mother Nature a little helping hand', and do 'rewilding'. Tree wardens plant trees that are a drop in the ocean compared to the deforestation that is happening.

We're deluded. We are not going to save the world. We don't own it. We inhabit an artificial environment that is disconnected from the real, infinitely complex natural world.

 'We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them', Albert Einstein

We wont solve the problems until we achieve some understanding of this amazing, complex planet. And since we keep flocking to cities, we're not going to get that understanding.

Which is why, with all the emphasis on climate change, the disintegration that has already happened is going unnoticed. The degrading of 40% of agricultural soil. The decline of 50% of pollinating insects and the birds that feed on them. The rate of mass extinction that is 100,000 times the background rate. Is this conquering nature? It is a self destructive path to follow.

98% of land vertebrates on the planet are now people, their pets and livestock? 10,000 years ago it was less than one tenth of 1%. Even with such a tiny human population, men with spears had wiped out slow mammals 3000 years earlier. Not women - men, with spears. For no apparent purpose, since food was not needed in that quantity.

*From Tim Flannery's book Here on Earth:
[Communist] countries mounted their own wars on nature which were, despite the lack of chemical weapons, as lethal as those of the west. In Mao's China, brute human effort was the tool of choice which, following the aphorism ren ding sheng tian ('man must conquer nature'), in just a few decades, turned China into an environmental basket case. 
Mao's war on nature reached a peak around 1958 to 1960. 
In a famous and widely reported campaign the population was mobilised to bang pots and pans together until the sparrows and other birds fell to earth, dying of exhaustion. The idea was to spare grain crops from their depredations. But because insect-eating birds were persecuted as vigorously as the grain-eaters, the result was to leave the fields vulnerable to insect attack. The mass relocation of population during the Maoist era led to further devastation. The rainforests of southern China, which had been previously spared because of steep slopes and poor soils, were settled and felled, and the land left in ruin. Delicate grassland ecosystems in the west were put under the plough, with equally appalling results, while elsewhere forests were felled to fuel useless backyard iron smelters. Many of these vulnerable ecosystems have never recovered, and today their destruction continues to engender landslides and dust storms. To quote one expert, 'Air and water pollution … deforestation, erosion, desertification, habitat destruction, and falling water tables followed in the wake of [the] program.' 

But perhaps the most enduring environmental legacy was Mao's encouragement of population growth. At the beginning of his time in power China had around five hundred million people, and was widely believed by experts to be on the verge of dangerous overpopulation. Yet Mao made contraceptives hard to get and exhorted women to have large families. As one Chinese census official said, 'Chairman Mao has direct responsibility for the population problem'. 

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