WHERE DO WE STAND WITH THE EARTH?
adapted from the April 15, 1993 lecture given at the School of Graduate
Studies-Massey College Symposium, University of Toronto
The voyage of spacecraft to the moon in the late 1960s and early 70s brought back an image of
the living Earth against the lifeless cold blackness of outer space. It was the unintended cargo of
those voyages: intending to revolutionize our views of the moon, the voyages instead
revolutionized our views of the Earth. It still hangs on bedroom walls, is pasted on refrigerators
and on the bumpers of SUVs, and enlivens the covers of annual reports by multinational
corporations. A symbol of all things green, it nevertheless ushers us into paradoxes. For to get
that picture required what was until then the most stupendous technological achievement of
modern times, and was driven by the military and propaganda needs of the Cold War between
the United States and Russia.
Figures and Grounds; Problems and Mysteries
But the image is even more iconic and mysterious than that. At first glance, it appears a lonely
image -- devoid of human reference, at least when seen from the distance of the moon. Yet the
nagging question is: Where are we in this picture? The easy answer is that we are in there
somewhere, maybe waving or drowning. More intriguing is the answer that we are the picture --
that it took all of science and technology to get us to the point where we could take such a
picture, and all of the arts and history to get us to the point where a human being thought it
would be a good idea to take such a picture.
The Canadian literary critic, Marshall McLuhan, made a typically prophetic remark in 1970,
when he said:
whereas the planet had been the ground for the human population as figure; since
Sputnik, the planet has become figure and the satellite surround has become the new
ground....Once it is contained within a human environment, Nature yields its primacy to Art.
Here McLuhan invokes the classic “figure-ground” reversal, where faces turn into vases and
back again, or ducks into rabbits and back again. This perceptual shift, as he says, now means
that the Earth is emerging as a human work-of-art. Before now, human beings were the
creations of the Earth; we are beginning to take over that role partly because of our increasing
power over parts of the biosphere, our ability to affect natural systems, but more significantly
because now that we can grasp the Earth in our mind’s eye, we increasingly see that we have it
in our grasp, period.
This encroachment on the Earth and its systems has been a long time coming, though human
beings have affected substantive parts of the Earth before (for example, in processes of
desertification and in the extinction of large mammals at the end of the last Ice Age); but we have begun something on a scale so new and so massive in its scope and implications that it
should completely alter our ways of thinking, doing, and being.
I have been exploring recent suggestions about this need to alter our ways, and in this context I
find it useful to distinguish between “problems” and “mysteries” -- taking up a suggestion made
long ago by the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel.
A “problem” is something that is in front of us, placed or thrown in our path to solve (the
original Greek word, problemata, means “that which is thrown in front”). Students are
constantly faced with problems on exams, and “problem-solving” is essential to our
technological way of life. These are things that are in theory or in practice solveable, if we can
come up with a solution.
Different from this is a “mystery”. A mystery is a problem that, as one begins to try and solve it,
starts to involve the solver, begins to implicate the solver, to the point where the solver is so
involved, so woven into the problem, that he or she can no longer pretend to stand aside from it
and take a neutral stance. To solve a mystery one must often solve oneself. A couple of
examples must suffice here: sex is a problem; love is a mystery. Other people have “problem
children” ; why one’s own children act the way they do is a mystery that calls into question
everything a parent has and is.
The distinction between “problems” and “mysteries” seems to me to hold quite well for the
evolution of the modern environmental movement, which was characterised until the last few
years with solving problems. These problems -- smog, industrial pollution, strip mining,
chemical waste -- were of a size and scale that with political will, money, and engineering, they
could often be quickly solved, and the impacts reversed. Many of these were what
environmentalists call “point-source” pollutants: the place, people, company, whatever, who
were doing these things could be pointed out and stopped. But beginning in the 1980’s and
accelerating since then, we have been confronted with issues and contexts that have involved
longer time scales (e.g. climate change), possible irreversible losses (e.g. loss of species), and
problems that could not be automatically attributed to individual industries or culprits. These
were not “point-source” problems, but “non-point source” problems, where the finger points at
everyone -- entire dynamic processes of modern society, life styles, and perhaps the very burden
of the human presence on the earth. When the finger points at everyone, it points at us, and
moves into the realm of mystery.
I believe that the problem-solving component still predominates in environmental action;
however, we now increasingly find ourselves having to deal with issues of environnmental
ethics: what ought we to do? what are our responsibilities to ourselves and other members of the
planet? Who are we?
The Deepening Mystery
We can see this shift f