Saturday, March 28, 2009

Leave Your Lights On, If You Need To

My 10-year-old son informed us at dinner last night that at 8:30 tonight we might think about turning out our lights for an hour, because it will be Earth Hour. When I asked him why, he said because it is a chance to pollute less and therefore help to save the earth. (I am writing this post using dictation software, and when I originally said "the earth," the program suggested "the Earth." But I corrected the software, because capitalization is reserved for the divine, and the earth is ultimately merely inanimate rock, albeit rock whose importance derives from its usefulness for human ends.)

I suspect I was not the only parent put in that situation. And so I explained to him that the electric light bulb is the culmination of thousands of years of effort by human civilization. Until it was invented, we were prisoners first of the natural ebb and flow of daylight and then of whatever we could conjure up with primitive fuel-based lamps. Because civilization, in its American variant, had progressed to the point at which individuals were free to explore new scientific and engineering ideas, and to try them out and see whether they had any value to other people, a fellow named Edison was able to liberate us in this way. Night baseball, emergency surgery in the middle of the night, the broadcast of the national concert on the Mall the evening of every July 4 that we enjoy together, all of it is made possible by civilization, and this little invention itself allows civilization to proceed faster in newer and more interesting directions.

And so it is with all the sacrifices we are asked to make in the name of combating global warming, or if you prefer, in order to appease global-warming hysteria. Throughout civilization's long road, man has turned the earth to his purposes. Even the mighty Amazon "rain forest," now the object of quasi-religious veneration as some sacred preserve of pre-industrial virginal purity, is now thought by many cutting-edge archaeologists to be a creation of prior centuries of agricultural innovation by the local humans, who were simply doing what humans are prone to do.

That is the proper way to think about the relation between humans and the earth. I agree that we have some duty to leave parts of it -- Yellowstone, clean rivers, and so on -- to future generations. But we also have a duty to those future generations, and to ourselves, to push human limits, even if we have to use natural resources to do so. We have left always left the earth differently than we found it, but have emerged better as a species for it.

I told my son that it was a long and hard road to get to this point, where we could have the luxury of a civilized conversation in the midst of plenty and liberty about the necessity of doing without electric light for an hour. It is the function of civilization to free us from the constraints of nature. Nature is not a thing to be worshiped, it is a thing to be tamed. This is an argument that is currently swimming against the tides of the culture, but I hope it sticks with him.


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