This is a picture of plastic on the sea floor, a rape of nature and another instance of hubris—that ultimate kind of human arrogance—here putting the stuff out of sight, out of mind.
Some of our oldest and greatest human stories involve hubris—meaning, for the Greeks, “excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods.” I like writing about hubris because it never goes unpunished, at least in the Greek myths. Pride always goeth before a fall, and our fall could be a long drawn-out catastrophe.
We are now in the process of committing one of mankind’s greatest acts of hubris ever in challenging the gods of nature. Climate change may be the final act in response to man’s defiance of the natural world. The punishment is going to be severe beyond our imagining. COVID-19 is a signal warning, its spread enabled by climate change.
A catastrophic loss in biodiversity, reckless destruction of wildland and warming temperatures have allowed disease to explode. . . . The diseases may have always been there, buried deep in wild and remote places out of reach of people. But until now, the planet’s natural defense systems were better at fighting them off.
The hubris embodied in our myth of perpetual progress and growth has led modern capitalism to this state. Our myopic focus on extraction, deforestation, paving, overfishing, carbonizing (the list goes on) has made us blind to what we are doing to nature and what this disrespect will lead to. One who does understand this is Amitav Ghosh, whose book The Great Derangement I reviewed here last year.
For Ghosh, the imaginative, psychological and cultural failures keep us from talking about climate change or confronting it. So does our concept of time as something linear, progressing, moving always forward. In fact, progress is the spurious idea behind modernity, which fostered the separation of mankind from nature.
It has become difficult to make sense of all this because we are deluged daily with data and information. With coronavirus we are met with “dizzying numbers of disease prevalence, fatalities, ventilators, unemployment claims; models predicting time to hospital overload, time to reopen for business.” Trump doesn’t even bother with a plan for getting the virus under control. Coronavirus has eliminated any safety net, and as many thousands of Americans die, Trump has set himself to take no responsibility—an act of utter hubris.
The consequence of the data dump also applies to climate change as the onrush of climate data provokes “everything from anxiety, numbing, and complacency to hubris and finger-pointing.” It’s overwhelming and so we proceed with business as usual. As Ghosh revealed, we are now meeting the limits of human understanding and our response is “out of sight, out of mind.” This, as the old stories tell us, cannot continue.