Johnny Appleseed and our present predicament

2010-02-12

in Economics, Music, Politics, Science, The environment, The outdoors

The first version of the song ‘Johnny Appleseed‘ I learned was the secularized version, in which Appleseed thanks ‘the Earth’ for giving him the things he needs: “the sun, and the rain, and the appleseed.” He concludes that “the Earth is good to [him].”

Later, I learned that this is a stripped-down version of a Christian song about ‘the Lord’ being good to Appleseed. I can understand why this song wasn’t sung at the province-run Outdoor School I briefly visited, but I have to say in retrospect that it makes more sense. It is at least internally coherent to thank a conscious, benevolent entity for giving you things you need. By contrast, it makes very little sense to thank ‘the Earth’ for anything. The Earth is a 5.97 x 10^24 kg ball of iron that has existed for about 4.54 billion years. For most of its history, it would not have been at all hospitable to Appleseed, or any other human.

Indeed, for most of its remaining history, Earth is likely to be terribly hostile to human beings. The carbon cycle may cease, when erosion overcomes volcanoes, killing everything. The sun may become a red giant, burning away the oceans and atmosphere. Much sooner than either of those, human beings may kick off a runaway greenhouse effect, killing ourselves and maybe even all life.

That is the rub. In this day and age, we shouldn’t be thanking the uncaring Earth for bounty. We should be thanking other human beings for not quite killing us yet, often despite their best efforts to destabilize the climate, kill off species, and poison the air and water. The dangerous implication of the thin-soup version of Johnny Appleseed is that the planet itself somehow determines whether or not any particular person gets the things they need. This is demonstrably less and less true.

In conclusion, it is increasingly pointless to thank or condemn any abstract entity for what happens to people. To an ever-greater extent, what happens to people depends on what those people and other people decide to do. As a result, libertarianism is dead, and we really need to learn how to live together.

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{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan February 12, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Zizek on why we are not pre-programmed to deal with catastrophe:, why ecology is reactionary (i.e. Gaia, Pastoral), and what kind of relationship we need with nature to be real ecologists today.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGCfiv1xtoU

“We need more alienation from our life world… we should become more artificial. We should develop a much more terrifying abstract materialism where there is nothing, just formulas, technical forms, and so on. The difficult thing is to find poetry, spirituality, in this dimension. To recreate beauty in trash like this> Because what is love? Love is not idealization. Every true lover knows that true love of a woman or a man is not to idealize her – but to accept the person will all their failures, ugly points. And yet, this person is absolute for you. You see perfection in imperfection. This is how we should learn to love the world. This is true ecology.”

Milan February 12, 2010 at 2:47 pm

We certainly need to shed the assumption that the world will remain a nice place for us. It also makes sense to question the assumption often layered on top of that: even if the world becomes hostile in some way, we will be able to adapt through some technological or technical means.

Rachel February 13, 2010 at 12:51 am

You went to the North Vancouver Outdoor School?

The tour company I work for operates a tour to Whistler and we stop at the Outdoor School to do a “naturalist guided nature walk” so I’ve been there before on a fam trip.

How was it as a student?

. February 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm
S2 February 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm

I like this post – as a student of physics and an astronomer I think you’ve encapsulated the long term and short term very neatly.

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