Reversal of Fortune:
Nature Is No Longer Our Hostage

Michael H. Glantz
12 November
2007

Reversal of Fortune: Nature Is No Longer Our Hostage

 

For the past several hundred years, humans have been on the attack with regard to their desire, attempts, and apparent successes to transform Nature to meet their needs. Societies want Nature to behave in predictable ways. They have embarked on all kinds of activities to get Nature to heel, in effect making it a lap dog to human ingenuity. The fact is that societies have been pretty successful, at least in the short term, in modifying Nature to benefit humanity. A good example is the irrigation of arid lands to produce food and fodder, or the draining of wetlands for economic development reasons.

Former Soviet Union leader Nikita Krhrushchev once said, in the 1950s, that the Soviet Union could not wait for Nature to provide its bounty to society. Society must take it from Nature. At the time, this was viewed as a clear expression of a Communist Party leader but, in fact, it represents the view of many leaders over the centuries, right up to the present day.

Today, though, uncontrolled environmental changes seem to be occurring globally, as well as locally, around the entire globe. This brings into question humanity's age-old attitude toward our relationship with the environment. It is becoming increasingly clear that we do not control Nature but have only managed to influence some parts of it.

At the onset of the Third Millennium (the 21st century), Nature appears to be striking back at society. The Arctic sea ice is melting at rates not previously witnessed by humans. Glaciers around the world are melting at unprecedented rates, prompting feedback mechanisms that are acelerating the melting. Heat waves seem to be increasing in number, frequency, and intensity in unusual places (e.g., San Francisco). Tropical storms also appear to be on the increase, if not in numbers then in intensity, a likely result of warmer sea surface temperatures in various parts of the world's oceans, and so forth. Now we hear that the earth's atmosphere is the warmest it has been since the end of the last glacial period, 12,000 years ago.

What has happened is that Nature, once a captive of society, has turned the tide against civilization and now society has become a captive of Nature. This is an analog for a B-grade movie plot where people who have been taken as hostages by their captors managed to free themselves, turning the tide, and capturing their captors!

Societies are at great risk and this has all the earmarks of being more than a reversal of fortunes. It is much longer lasting than that. We know that the residence time of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is on the order of many decades up to as long as a century. As a result, even if all anthopogenically produced (i.e., human-caused) greenhouse gas emissions were to cease today, previous emissions have "condemned" the global climate to at least another degree Celsius of warming and therefore to the adverse impacts of that additional warming, on top of the warming that has already taken place since the early 1900s.

If societal behavior is any indication, all signs point to continued emissions of greenhouse gases into the foreseeable future, as one of the major producers -- the United States (which is responsible for about one-fourth of global emissions) -- has refused to sign onto the Kyoto Protocol itself, which was a plan to start to limit such emissions. China and India will become carbon dioxide-emitting superstars in the near future, if they have not already achieved that status. They are not ready to forego development prospects, at least not yet, for the sake of trying to slow down global warming.

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I have always kept in mind an image that I saw in the center of Vienna, Austria: a solid concrete wall in the midst of which, several feet off the ground, was a small sapling, the seed of which had opportunistically taken root in a hostile human-built environment. Since then, I have been drawn to look for such examples everywhere: grass growing in the cracks of pavements, on the tops of mosques in desert regions, and so forth. These realities caused me to realize that Nature will survive long after people have perished from the Earth's surface. It should be obvious that Nature does not need us. However, we, individuals as well as civilizations, cannot survive without the natural world.

The reversal of fortune is humanity's: we are now the hostages to Nature's wrath.

--Michael H. Glantz

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