‘The Earth Bites Back’ – Recent engagements with past and future catastrophes

Last week I went to my first UCL lunchtime lecture, entitled ‘The Earth Bites Back’. It was given by Professor Bill McGuire from the Aon Benfield UCL Hazards Research Centre. Talking about how the solid Earth is not immune to climate change, and how climate change triggers catastrophic events such as earthquakes and tsunamis, McGuire seemed to prepare his listeners for what was going to happen a few days later off the coast of Japan.

Although presented in a bitingly humorous way, the figures McGuire offered made many people in UCL’s Darwin lecture theatre reconsider continuing with their lunch, particularly after hearing about the effects of past and predicted landslides which resulted in catastrophic mega-tsunamis. In fact, the lecture ended on McGuire’s conclusion that half the world may become uninhabitable by the end of the century. This statement underlined McGuire’s main point and motivation: to argue that the situation is far more serious than it is currently being handled in society and in politics. As he recaps, emissions are not being cut enough, and we keep on fuelling the journey towards a total collapse of the world as we know it.

A related argument has been presented by Nigel Clark in his book ‘Inhuman Nature – Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet’ (Sage). In fact, he has jokingly begun to worry that the book itself may have become the cause of some minor disasters – people who have been given or have purchased copies of the book have had strange accidents or unpleasant run-ins with natural forces. (For the record, I have not had any misadventures of this kind so far, but then I’ve got two copies lying around, which may cancel out each other’s effects…) Not that this should put you off getting hold of the book… even despite its disastrous potential, the book’s content is certainly making up for material damages. One of the reviewers on the back cover (Adrian Franklin, University of Tasmania) certainly seems to agree by boldly stating: ‘This is possibly one of the most important books you are ever likely to read… You won’t look back (the view is better)’.

In the book’s introduction, Clark, like McGuire, touches upon the irony of the situation ‘in which it is the scientific experts who are scared and who desperately wish that publics could be even more worried than they already are’ (page xix), whereas during other controversies, it is the non-experts that are accused of panicking or scaremongering. However, rather than McGuire, he zooms in on what living with such earthly reactions might entail for human action. Particularly, Clark seeks to highlight the radical asymmetry between human dependency on the earth (and extra-planetary forces) and the earth’s indifference to humanity (page 50). As Clark asks in the second chapter:

‘What does it mean to say that life, or the earth, or nature, or the universe are not just constellations of material and energy with which humans forge connections, but realities upon which we are utterly dependent – in ways that are out of all proportion to life, nature, the earth or the universe’s dependence on us?’ (page 30)

However, rather than diverting attention away from the human impact on climate change, Clark sees these foci as complementary: to be able to understand the kind of impact we may be having on the planet, we need to know what would be happening without our influence. Like Bill McGuire, who suggests that carbon dioxide levels are now the highest for 15 million years and who wonders what might we learn from that particular time in the history of our planet, Nigel Clark draws out attention to the Earth’s beginnings and early human history. Such histories, Clark proposes, have frequently been confined too readily to the realm of the sciences, and should be engaged with in the human sciences too, especially now that drastic global changes are afoot.

He further draws attention to the problems current theoretical solutions pose: while it is a valuable acknowledgement that the ‘nonhuman’ can no longer be ignored, the direction that has frequently been taken – to integrate the nonhuman via the notion of ‘co-enacting’ – may be equally dangerous (page xviii). What both Clark and McGuire emphasise is the need to acknowledge not only global change, but sudden global change, the need to move away from an image of the Earth as responding in human-friendly spatio-temporal progression. To give an example of epic time delays, McGuire discussed events such as ‘post-glacial rebound’ – the process of the earth’s crust bouncing back after the off-loading of ice from the last ice age – are still taking place today. At the same time, he emphasised how minute changes in pressure can trigger volcano outbreaks or landslides, leaving the audience to speculate whether the two phenomena might amplify each other. Such asymmetries of experience and impact highlight the problematics of notions of ‘co-enacting’.

A keyword in both McGuire’s lecture and Clark’s book is also ‘tipping point’ or ‘threshold’. As Nigel Clark writes:

‘At every spatial and temporal scale, the physical world has its own thresholds: boundaries which separate one domain of existence from another, turning points where systems transform themselves into a different state, extremes in the ordinary rhythmical expression of variability’ (page 215).

Both researchers give a strong sense that we already have gone over one of these, and that all we can aim for is damage reduction and finding ways of dealing with unfamiliar patterns and dimensions of change. What interests Clark as a human rather than physical geographer is how people respond to and are shaped by such catastrophic transitions, or, as he puts it, he is ‘hitching the issue of earthly volatility to that of bodily vulnerability’ (page xx). Here, he addresses questions that are being asked ever more frequently in relation to recent catastrophes. An example is Christina Patterson’s outcry in Wednesday’s (16 March 2011) Independent ‘Viewspaper’ that journalists cannot ‘write about how terrible it [is] that the universe [does not] seem to care about these people’.

Rather than ending in a fatalistic statement about the impossibility of being able to make sense of, or intervene in colossal changes, Clark explores a more life-affirming dimension. The theme which he develops is that of generosity. By this he not only means the outpour of money and support from large numbers of strangers at times where disaster strikes, but also a long-term offering of knowledge and practices that have been passed to us across generations – from those who had to face such extreme events and (sometimes) found ways of dealing with them. An example he names is the history of fire management in Australia – humans experimenting with controlling regularly occurring extremes, but also exceptional events they are surprised by. Clark suggests that we ‘bear witness to this indebtedness’ and use it as a starting point for our current negotiations around climate change. As Bill McGuire might add, before we ‘end up getting the worst of both worlds’: large populations panicking in the face of world-altering catastrophes and governments resorting to draconian measures.

If you would like to read more about this, Nigel Clark’s, ‘Inhuman Nature – Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet’ (Sage) is out now.
Bill McGuire’s book, ‘Waking the Giant’ will be out in February 2012 (Open University Press). Until it’s out, you will be able to see the lecture on youtube via UCL’s lunchtime lecture channel.


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