Thursday, August 25, 2011

A better world?

I'm back from my visit home to Canada, which was fantastic, but of course too short. On the plane I was reading H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine", and was struck by the section below. In it, the time traveler describes the ideal state of the future world he has landed in, a world where man's improvements upon nature have reached their peak.

"The work of ameliorating the conditions of life - the true civilizing process that makes life more and more secure - had gone steadily on to climax. One triumph of a united humanity over Nature had followed another. Things that are now mere dreams had become projects deliberately put in hand and carried forward. And what a harvest I saw!

... Our agriculture and horticulture destroy a weed just here and there and cultivate perhaps a score or so of wholesome plants, leaving the rest to fight out a balance as they can. We improve our favourite plants and animals - and how few they are - gradually by selective breeding; now a new and better peach, now a seedless grape, now a sweeter and larger flower, now a more convenient breed of cattle. We improve them gradually, because our ideals are vague and tentative, and our knowledge is very limited; because Nature, too, is shy and slow in our clumsy hands. Some day all this will be better organized... The whole world will be intelligent, educated, and co-operating; things will move faster and faster towards the subjugation of Nature. In the end, wisely and carefully, we shall readjust the balance of animal and vegetable life to suit human needs.

This adjustment, I say, must have been done, and done well... The air was free from gnats, the earth from weeds or fungi; everywhere were fruits and sweet and delightful flowers; brilliant butterflies flew hither and dither."

Scary stuff, huh? Not just because of technicalities, like the fact that doing away with those pesky gnats and fungi would mean the extinction of life, but because this is the kind of 'ideal' humanity has been aspiring to. I'm not judging Wells here, because a lot of his work actually explores the pitfalls of playing around with Nature. The scariest bit is that although we're supposed to be somewhat wiser and humbler today, in reality we're still on the same course described by Wells: the continuous improvement and subjugation of Nature to fit our needs. And we're all still doing it, including myself of course. There must be a better way of living with nature, but our society is not designed for it. I bike to work and eat most of my veggies from a CSA 5 minutes away where you pick your own. But I also eat meat from the supermarket, rent cars to visit gardens, and fly home to Canada. I spend countless hours on the computer every day, using resources that are destroying our planet to post and store silly blogs such as this. So what are we to do? I think we can try to stop and think about it once in a while. And do the little things, even if on their own they may not seem to change the world.


  1. I think about this quite a bit. I mostly order plants by mail for my garden. I do make use of divisions and plants that set seed, but really, how green is my garden? Not that letting everything go is a better alternative. Once we beginning meddling it's almost impossible to extricate ourselves from our invented ecosystems.

    But I think you are right; we can't try to untangle ourselves completely. We can certainly simplify some things by doing what's best rather than what's most convenient.

  2. Thank you for visiting the blog, Susan. It's great to hear your thoughts. As you mention, I think this issue is very difficult for us gardeners. We're in an interesting position where we have a deep, first-hand appreciation of the natural world, and yet we actively change and control it, not infrequently resulting in negative consequences. I think you've hit the nail on the head with convenience versus doing what's best... I'm sure we can make an difference that way, but it's oh so difficult to ask to forgo convenience. And then there are so many levels of convenience. The discussion could go on and on :)

  3. We are not easily humbled. And even when we are, it wears off pretty quick. Each of us doing our part, and the little things, is all well and good, but I think it will take a catastrophe that tears us down the foundation for change to happen--we are too far down the road of hubris and self love, we are too connected, too accustomed to ourselves in place of everything else. Balance is not something you can show or teach, you have to live it from birth, and that's not happening--we are being cultured wrong.

  4. I couldn't agree more, Benjamin. We are too far down the path for small changes to save us, but at the same time I don't think we should use that as an excuse to do nothing. As you say, we're completely out of balance, but it's hurting us too, we know we're missing something. Maybe trying to do even ridiculously small things is better than nothing. And I'm glad I've found your blog(s) by the way - really enjoyed your "Higher Ed and Me" post on the Deep Middle ...