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‘O Earth, Pale Mother!’

BY Slavoj Žižek

Our readiness to assume guilt for the threats to our environment is deceptively reassuring: We like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, then it all depends on us.

To many of us, the fear of flying is concrete: We are haunted by how many parts of such an immensely complicated machine as a modern plane have to function smoothly in order for the plane to remain in the air–one small lever breaks somewhere, and we spiral downwards…

When one starts to think how many things can go wrong, one cannot but experience total and overwhelming panic. Is it not something similar to what we in Europe experienced as Eyjafjallajökull erupted? The fact that a cloud from a minor volcanic eruption in Iceland–a small disturbance in the complex mechanism of life on the Earth–can bring to a standstill the aerial traffic over an entire continent is a reminder of how, with all its power to transform nature, humankind remains just another species on the planet Earth.

The socioeconomic impact of such a minor outburst is due to our technological development (air travel)–a century ago, such an eruption would have passed unnoticed. Technological development makes us more independent from nature. At the same time, at a different level, it makes us more dependent on nature’s whims.

Decades ago, when a man made the first step on the surface of the moon, his first words were: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” Now, apropos the volcanic eruption on Iceland and its consequences, we can say: “That’s one small step back for nature, one giant step back for humankind.”

Therein resides the first lesson of the latest volcanic outburst: Our growing freedom and control over nature, our survival itself, depends on a series of stable natural parameters that we automatically take for granted (temperature, the composition of the air, sufficient water and energy supply, etc.). We can “do what we want” only insofar as we remain marginal enough, so that we don’t seriously perturb the parameters of life on Earth. The palpable limitation of our freedom imposed by ecological disturbances is the paradoxical outcome of the exponential growth of our freedom and power. Indeed, our growing ability to transform nature can destabilize the very basic geological parameters of life on Earth.

The fact that humankind is becoming a geological agent indicates the beginning of a new geological era – one baptized by some scientists as “Anthropocene.” With the recent devastating earthquakes in the interior of China, this notion of the Anthropocene has acquired a new actuality. The construction of the gigantic Three Gorges Dam, which resulted in large new artificial lakes, put additional pressure on the surface, thus contributing to the earthquakes.

However, this readiness to assume the guilt for the threats to our environment is deceptively reassuring: We like to be guilty since, if we are guilty, it all depends on us. We pull the strings of the catastrophe, so we can also save ourselves simply by changing our lives. What is really hard for us (at least in the West) to accept is that we are reduced to the role of a passive observer who sits and watches what our fate will be. To avoid this impotence, we engage in frantic, obsessive activities. We recycle old paper, we buy organic food, we install long-lasting light bulbs–whatever–just so we can be sure that we are doing something. We make our individual contribution like the soccer fan who supports his team in front of a TV screen at home, shouting and jumping from his seat, in the belief that this will somehow influence the game’s outcome.

The typical form of fetishist disavowal apropos ecology goes like this: “I know very well (that we are all threatened), but I don’t really believe it (so I am not ready to do anything really important like changing my way of life).” But there is also the opposite form of disavowal: “I know very well that I cannot really influence the process that can lead to my ruin (like a volcanic outburst), but it is nonetheless too traumatic for me to accept this, so I cannot resist the urge to do something, even if I know it is ultimately meaningless.”

The ongoing volcanic outburst is thus a useful reminder that our ecological troubles cannot be reduced to our hubris, to our disturbing the balanced order of the Mother Earth. Nature is chaotic in itself, prone to the wildest disasters, to meaningless and unpredictable catastrophes. We are mercilessly exposed to nature’s cruel whims. There is no Mother Earth watching over us.

Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, is a senior researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities, in Essen, Germany. He has also been a visiting professor at more than 10 universities around the world. Žižek is the author of many other books, including Living in the End Times, First As Tragedy, Then As Farce, The Fragile Absolute and Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? He lives in London.

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