Climate change as a new phenomenon needs rethinking, particularly along the lines of culture. Cultural history can help us understand ourselves and come to terms with those who refuse to accept the enormous mountains of peer-reviewed, scholastic and scientific work concerning our earth’s current warming trend. Embedded within those who refute science is a rabid search for alternatives to data and hardcore evidence. I must warn, however, that this search is a sensibility born not entirely upon ideological grounds. Indeed, there are centuries of culturally-minded decisions made by generations of human beings, stretching back at least a few centuries that demonstrate mankind’s proclivity to alter their physical landscapes. These decisions are sometimes made for money (oil, gas, drilling, etc.) but sometimes made for conveniences.

The city of San Diego is an example of the latter. In 1887, the local paper reported that the city would proudly install a new state of the art sewage line. In fact, at a cost of $400,000 – not a small sum in those days – the paper declared it was twice the amount of money that Memphis similarly spent in removing unhealthy human waste away from its city’s borders. The San Diego sewage line, however, would include a “new tidal flow outlet,” a small reservoir located underwater in the middle of San Diego Bay. San Diego boosters felt certain that the power of nature’s tides would close the reservoir when coming in, and open the reservoir when receding. The tide’s flushing action would open and close the reservoir door – shut it when the tide came in, open when the tide goes out – and thus, with the tug of the moon yanking on the great Pacific, outflows of San Diego’s human waste goes out to sea. It rarely, if ever, worked.

But there, in San Diego, was a cultural mindset made up of part hope, part insistence, and – more importantly – part blind. I use “blind” rather than “naïve” since the latter insinuates full knowledge of nearly all choices these city boosters could have made, but naïvely chose this one. I’ll insist, as historical evidence suggests, that San Diego’s city founders knew quite a bit about sewage and treatments, but chose the underwater reservoir with tidal action so as to “boost” the city and its bay as a self-cleaning health destination. In short, they were blinded to any other possible remedies, but especially blinded to the question: what if it doesn’t work?

Today’s climate change deniers think, more or less, along the same cultural principals. Human ingenuity, American hubris, and technological wonders will solve all problems. Trumped, however, are common senses. San Diego Bay could no more flush the sewage of a growing population anymore than today’s atmosphere can absorb all of the billion tons of metric carbon and methane we humans pump into it year by year.

Yet, we don’t stop. If anything, since Al Gore raised the alarm bells with his An Inconvenient Truth documentary (2006), the amount of carbon and other pollutants we pump into the atmosphere continues to increase at a steady rate while climate change deniers point to – ironically – the blinders and biases of scientists.

Defoe's 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe depicted an Englishman capable of altering the earth - even it didn't need altering.

Defoe’s 1719 publication of Robinson Crusoe depicted an Englishman capable of altering the earth – even it didn’t need altering.

Our human determination to alter the earth in our own liking is also culturally embedded within our religions. Judeo/Christian tenets confess a God-given right for humans to have dominion of all the earth. This concept is well represented in a 1719 publication by Daniel Defoe, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner. Defoe depicts a shipwrecked Englishmen on a Caribbean island. One man, one island, man in the state of nature … literally. The fictional Robinson Crusoe spends twenty-six years on this deserted island (note the base word “desert” even though the island is lush, tropical, and full of fruit and other food stuffs). Defoe, however, writes into this account not a lackadaisical, lonely human being, but a rather industrious, pious, and earth-altering Englishman. Crusoe “works” the island, creating home and hearth, fortifications, vineyards and meadows, fields of corn and grain, store facilities for the grain, he even invents new methods to bake bread from the grain – all this work, which in the end, when rescued, allows Crusoe to claim property rights on the very island that imprisoned him and, given the chance, would have fed and housed him anyway, without all the work. It’s culture that made Crusoe do it, and culture that gave him his just rewards.

Yes, ideology does play a role in the debate on climate change. But let’s attempt to understand whence this ideology arises, let’s pay heed to our cultural past for that.

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