Opinion: Listen to the signs

by Paul Edmunds

‘Only an ignoramus can imagine now that pollinating insects, migratory birds, and pelagic fish can depart our company and that we will survive because we know how to make tools. Only the misled can insist that heaven awaits the righteous while they watch the fires on Earth consume the only heaven we have ever known’ writes the extraordinary Barry Lopez in a recent essay entitled ‘Love in a time of terror’.

These days, you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone telling you to ‘listen to the science’, or describing something as ‘evidence-based’. You’d be foolish to reject this outright, but, I would suggest, you’re mistaken to use it as your sole organising principle.

We have become suffused with the idea that science, facts, rationality are a kind of ultimate reality, that they proceed with blind objectivity – not subject to feelings, views or ideology – leading us somewhere better. But we forget that this very idea, and the reductionist view it fosters, lies at the heart of the Enlightenment project, in which Newton’s physics alloyed to the philosophy of Descartes gave birth to the anthropocentric notion of progress and untrammelled growth that brings us here, to the point of collapse.

We forget that one scientific model is inevitably supplanted or modified by the next. Newton’s physics was superseded by Einstein’s relativity. Quantum mechanics followed. The first industrial revolution was succeeded by the second; already we find ourselves on the brink of a fourth. Each of these is harnessed to an ideology, if not integral to it, and inevitably that is espoused by those with the greatest wealth and influence. This is truer today than it ever has been, as power gathers around the ever-sharpening apex of the pyramid.

When one day a Theory of Everything replaces a Penultimate Theory of Everything, will we still mistake this map for the territory? And if we don’t, will we remember that this is only one map, perhaps not the right map, or maybe a map which is useful only in the presence of other maps?

Lopez writes: ‘I’ve felt for a long time that the great political questions of our time – about violent prejudice, global climate change, venal greed, fear of the Other – could be addressed in illuminating ways by considering models in the natural world. Some consider it unsophisticated to explore the nonhuman world for clues to solving human dilemmas, and wisdom’s oldest tool, metaphor, is often regarded with wariness, or even suspicion in my culture … But abandoning metaphor entirely only paves the way to the rigidity of fundamentalism.’

He concludes: ‘In this trembling moment, with light armour under several flags rolling across northern Syria, with civilians beaten to death in the streets of Occupied Palestine, with fires roaring across the vineyards of California, and forests being felled to ensure more space for development, with student loans from profiteers breaking the backs of the young, and with Niagaras of water falling into the oceans from every sector of Greenland, in this moment, is it still possible to face the gathering darkness, and say to the physical Earth, and to all its creatures, including ourselves, fiercely and without embarrassment, I love you, and to embrace fearlessly the burning world?’

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