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Articles, Commentaries, Philosophy, The Edge

Nothing like a Good Disaster to Keep Us Humble

By Ooi Kee Beng

The Edge Malaysia Weekly (May 2017)

Humans are land animals. The history of humanity has been largely played out on land. The sea was something that rivers emptied into, and much of seafaring had hugged coastlines. Lakes were simply smaller seas.

Access to fresh water, though, is vital to human life. And so, Civilization, meaning the attainment of the ability by humans to live together in huge populations, occurred along huge rivers, where fresh water was freely available. From such centres, technologically better equipped and more regimented humans could move inland to colonise territory and exploit natural resources.

The seas were always frightening—unbounded and unpredictable. Calm one minute, fierce the next. One can’t really call them “territories” really, since that word comes from “Terra”, land. The seas are the negation of Terra. They take over where Terra ends. More correctly, Terra exists where there is not enough water to cover all the surface of the Earth.

Humans had therefore had an uncomfortable relationship with Earth’s oceans, which in the end are one huge expanse encircling the Earth, and leaving islands of continental sizes scattered here and there. The oceans are one, while the continents are the gaps in that watery expanse.

This is as much a watery planet as it is a rocky one.

Land animals and plants rose from the oceans eras ago, but we humans must live where fresh water is in abundance. And written human history is thus filled with forebodings of floods, tsunamis and storms more than it is with drought, deserts and earthquakes.

Humanity has always lived on the edge, surviving in spaces and times where and when the elements—often the watery one—are in abatement. We dam rivers with some success, and we have the ability to turn lakes dry. But even if we are able to contaminate and cross the oceans, tides and storms remain beyond our taming.

We strive against the elements, and we sometimes seem to thrive. But there is nothing like a good disaster to keep us humble. The fear is that we are building up towards a global natural disaster of apocalyptic proportions.

What humanity seems to have managed since it learned over 500 years or so ago to circumnavigate the globe – the preferred term is probably “conquer the oceans” – is to become ignorant of the fact that however much we learn to manipulate the elements, we survive nevertheless on a knife’s edge.

And it is this ignoring and this ignorance that are being called to question today. Having succeeded so well—in our own view anyway—in showing Mother Nature who the Master of the Earth is, we suffer a fateful hubris, a haughtiness that can be cultivated only in the comfort of our closeted apartments, offices and cars.

The debate over Global Warming is therefore a contest between those inured by the fast-pace expansion of Civilization across land, sea, sky and space, and those who are more easily able to feel the total irreverence Mother Nature has for humanity’s ingenuity.

It is a battle of mentalities, not of theories. Of humility and trepidation versus hubris and audacity. Do we charge further ahead under our banners of progress, development and advancement, relying on our brainy capacity to overcome all odds? Do we relent, and discard our technologies and curiosities and say “Here but no further”, and even retreat to an imagined better-balanced age?

Or do we stand our ground, but instead of charging forward as we have been doing, seek a state of mind that accommodates rather than censures Mother Nature? Do we negotiate a ceasefire, and let Nature and Culture find common ground?

Adherents of the first alternative are the deniers of global warming; those who embrace the second are the idealists who in turn may be denying the unrelenting nature of human curiosity; while the third position imagines that the Earth to be a garden where Master and Mother co-exist.

In simpler terms, humanity needs land and it needs fresh water. Rising sea levels and climate change threaten the first, and population pressure and industrial demands threatens the second. Since time is of the essence now, the third option of seeking sustainability in all we do appears the logical stopgap stance to take.

The Denier, the Idealist and the Gardener, who shall prevail? The question really is, “Will Humanity prevail?” Surely the mentality that brought us to this juncture cannot be relied on to solve the problem. At the same time, there is great urgency, and seeking changes that are too immediate and too profound is surely not practical.

We are left with the Gardener. This person’s challenge lies not so much in convincing the others to adopt his mentality but in constructing mechanisms of production and consumption and in inculcating values in the young, which do not destroy the prerequisites of their existence, or of the existence of the whole of humanity.

We do need to disabuse ourselves of the queer notion of “conquering” oceans and mountains; of conquering Mother Nature. The Anthropocene Age does not need to be an anthropomorphic one.

Ooi Kee Beng is the Deputy Director of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, Singapore. His recent books include The Eurasian Core: Dialogues with Wang Gungwu on the History of the World (ISEAS 2015)..


About Ooi Kee Beng

Dr OOI KEE BENG is the Executive Director of Penang Institute (George Town, Penang, Malaysia). He was born and raised in Penang, and was the Deputy Director of ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute (formerly the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, ISEAS). He is the founder-editor of the Penang Monthly (published by Penang Institute), ISEAS Perspective (published by ISEAS) and ISSUES (published by Penang Institute). He is also editor of Trends in Southeast Asia, and a columnist for The Edge, Malaysia.


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