It’s Earth Day once again, and after touching base with Ira Einhorn – the Earth Day co-founder who lived out his principles by composting his murdered girlfriend – via LU contributor Rusty Weiss, I was enticed into the EPA website through an Earth Day post by EPA blogger Jennie Saxe.
I learned the following from Dr. Saxe:
For anyone who is passionate about environmental protection, Earth Day is like the Super Bowl and the Final Four combined.
But I assure you, that’s not the quote of the day. Nor is this:
This year, EPA is focusing attention on reducing food waste, and has made food recovery the theme for Earth Day 2016.
Although I’m intrigued by the possibilities here. What, exactly, is “food recovery”?
I followed Saxe’s link to the EPA website and its page of inspiring environmental quotes, and you probably think one of them is going to be the quote of the day. Hah. Gotcha. One of them set me on the road to the quote of the day, but the QOTD isn’t there either.
I do pause to note that there are two presidents represented on the page, and both are Republicans. One is a guy you can hardly ignore if you’re the EPA: Richard Nixon, the founding father. (The other is Teddy Roosevelt.)
The EPA webpage manages to derive environmental themes (somewhat elliptically) from Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mother Theresa, and Langston Hughes, among others. So, you know, kudos.
But I was arrested by the quote from Lewis Thomas, late physician and polymath, who had some popularity as a writer on biology, and on humans in the natural world, thirty-odd years ago. I remember it as a time when “everybody” had to read his books The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail, and profess enlightenment. (He was an excellent writer.)
EPA’s Lewis Thomas quote is from an essay in 1990:
We owe our lives to the sun… How is it, then, that we feel no gratitude?
And we could bat that around all day, but I just mention it because running a couple of searches on Thomas, whose name and quote took me back to my undergrad days, is what turned up the lines that are the QOTD for Earth Day 2016.
Shortly before he died in 1993, Thomas, who was then 80, did an interview with Roger Rosenblatt, which was published in the New York Times Magazine. In Thomas’s obituary, Marilyn Berger extracted a few passages from the resulting article. The first is not our QOTD; I just like it:
Dr. Thomas described the human race as being at a very early stage of development, yet having achieved much. “Any species capable of producing, at this earliest, juvenile stage of its development . . . the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, cannot be all bad,” he wrote.
His fascination with the wonder of music was almost as great as his lifelong infatuation with science. In one essay in “The Lives of a Cell,” he offered a proposal to facilitate interstellar communication: “I would vote for Bach, all of Bach, streamed out into space, over and over again. We would be bragging of course but it is surely excusable to put the best possible face on at the beginning of such an acquaintance. We can tell the harder truths later.”
The second passage will hit anyone who was an adult in the 1980s squarely between the eyes, however. When he wrote at that time, Thomas’s certainties about what was the biggest mess humans had gotten themselves into seemed well justified. I don’t think anyone foresaw that his prognostication would become a melancholy antique less than 30 years later. Emphasis added:
He was haunted in his later years by what he called “the risk of earthly incandescence.” It was unlikely, he believed, that the world would be done in by natural forces. “If we are to be destroyed we will do it ourselves by warfare with thermonuclear weaponry,” he wrote in his essay “Basic Science and the Pentagon.” To him the military’s term “unacceptable damage” was itself unacceptable, because, he wrote, it “carries the implication that there is an acceptable degree of damage from thermonuclear bombs.” …
But, turning back to his customary optimism, he wrote, “Get us through the next few years, I say, just get us safely out of this century and into the next, and then watch what we can do.”
And here we are. Safely out of that late century and into the next – and see what we’re doing.
(As a quote of the day, you can perceive why this one required backstory.)
Lewis Thomas is not to be faulted for not seeing what no one else saw either. But our QOTD from him is a reminder that even the most captivating and thought-provoking insights are rarely foresight.
Earth Day, meanwhile, is always a reminder of how much stock we put in our efforts at foresight. So it’s instructive to recognize that not much looks the same now, 25 or 30 years later, in terms of man’s meta-perspective, and the narrative in our heads about the fate we’re hurtling toward. Cataclysmic predictions about the earth’s environment keep turning out to have been ridiculous, and so do predictions about what success will look like for the world of men. We see through a glass darkly, and we are all products of our time and place – even the rarest of us.