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York University
Environmental Studies
ENVS 1000
Rebecca Jubis

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 Introduction 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
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