Gaia and all that 1009

I have been trying for the last few days to discover a coherent logic towards my feelings on man’s relationship with his environment.  This is proving not to be simple.

The process started when I heard on World Service radio a gentleman from the International Panel on Climate Change discussing their latest report.  As you know, I tend to accept the established opinion on climate change, and rather take the view that if all our industrial activity were not affecting the atmosphere, that would be strange.

But what struck me was that the gentleman said that a pause in warming for the last fifteen years was not significant, as fifteen years was a blip in processes that last over millennia.

Well, that would certainly be very true if you are considering natural climate change.  But we are not – we are considering man-made climate change.  In terms of the period in which the scale of man’s industrial activity has been having a significant impact on the environment, surely fifteen years is a pretty important percentage of that period?  Especially as you might naturally imagine the process to be cumulative – fifteen years at the start when nothing much happened would be more explicable.

Having tucked away that doubt, I started to try to think deeper.  Man is, of course, himself a part of nature.  Anything man does on this planet is natural to this planet.  I do not take the view man should not change his environment – otherwise I should not be sitting in a house.  The question is rather, are we inadvertently making changes to the environment to our own long term detriment?

That rejection of what you might call the Gaia principle – that the environmental status quo is an end in itself – has ramifications.  It is hard to conceptualise our relationship with gases or soil, but easier in terms of animals.  I am not a vegetarian – I am quite happy that we farm and eat cattle, for example – and you might argue that the cattle are pretty successful themselves, symbiotic survivors of a kind.  Do I think other species have a value in themselves?  Is there any harm in killing off a species of insect, other than the fact that biodiversity may be reduced in ways that remove potential future advantages to man, or there may be knock on consequences we know not of that damage man somehow?  I am not quite sure, but in general I seem in practice to take the view that exploitation of other species and substantial distortion of prior ecological balance to suit men’s needs is fine, so presumably the odd extinction is fine too, unless it damages man long term.

I strongly disapprove of hurting animals for sport, and want to see them have the best quality of life possible, preferably wild.  But I like to eat and wear them.  I am not quite sure why it is OK to wear animal skin on our feet or carry it as a bag, but not to wear “fur”.  What is the difference, other than that leather has had the hair systematically rubbed off as part of the process of making it?  A trivial issue, but one that obviously relates to the deeper questions.

Yes I draw a distinction between animals which are intelligent and those which are not.  I would not eat whale or dolphin.  But this does not seem entirely logical – animal intelligence and sensibility is evidently a continuum.  Many animals mourn, for example.  The BBC World Service radio (my main contact with the outside world at present – I have just today found my very, very weak internet connection just about works if I try it  at 5am) informed me a couple of days ago that orang-utans have the ability to think forward and tell others where they will be the next day.  Why cattle and fish are daft enough to eat is hard to justify.

I quite appreciate the disbenefits to man of radically changing his environment, even if it could be done without long term risk to his existence – the loss of beauty, of connection to seasons and forms of behaviour with which we evolved.  But I regard those as important only as losses to man, not because nature is important intrinsically.  In short, if I thought higher seas, no polar bears and no glaciers would not hurt man particularly, I don’t suppose I would have much to say against it.  I fear the potential repercussions are too dangerous to man.  At base, I don’t actually care about a polar bear.





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1,009 thoughts on “Gaia and all that

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  • Komodo

    For old and wrinkly read ‘wise’….those of us that escape being cannibalised by our parents have that in common.

    (DANGER! Extended Metaphor. Toxic.)

  • Jon

    Alright Phil, thanks.

    Nextus, there’s two inversions I can’t work out: “span” and “vagance”. I give up 🙂

  • anon


    A pretty gormful performance overall!

    I think “vagance” might be “extravagance” – but I need to be combobulated too for “span”.

  • Nextus

    Well, allow me to “combobulate” you, Anon: “span” isn’t actually missing a prefix. The full expression is “spick and span”. Logic informs us that someone who is “spick and span” must be both “spick” and “span”. But that’s a nonsense, of course: the expression isn’t conjunctive. Read more about its etymology.

    The point of the poem is that language can’t be systematically dismantled. Compound words and expressions take on their own identity and acquire meanings distinct from their components. They function as distinct signifiers and are known in linguistics as lexemes.

    That is precisely what happened with the term “antisemitism”. Like many new terms in political, scientific and technical discourse, it was coined for a specific purpose. It is used globally to mean discrimination against Jews, and this meaning is recognised as primary in the OED, and in publications about UK government and the United Nations. Very few people fail to comprehend that conventional meaning: it is only challenged in certain dark corners of the web. It’s worth enquiring about the political preferences of these semantic mavericks – on whom do they tend to blame most of the world’s ills?

  • Villager

    Nextus, very valuable contributions, based on true knowledge. Not the cut ‘n paste verbose nonsense that goes on here.

  • Chris Jones

    Bizarre to see a few posters trying to defend anti logic and roll out the usual tired, bullying ‘racist’ nonsense. Not only is it sooo 2001, it just doesn’t work anymore Netanyahu/Rifkind lovers. The jig is up. Time to start growing tomatoes or take up knitting.

    Some more logic and perspective to the semite/anti semite palava:

    There is cutlery. If there is an anti cutlery movement, should that movement suddenly become only an anti spoon movement even though it is still clearly defined as anti cutlery?

    That isn’t logic. That’s pure nonsense.

  • resident dissident


    “Have you any evidence that the money came from the German state and not the German bankers who were some of the founders of Zionism?”

    Yes read pages 22 to 24 of Dimitri Volkogonov’s Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire where the matter is covered in some detail drwaing on sources from the Russian and German State Archives. He also includes the following from an article by the German Social Democrat Eduard Bernstein in the socialist newspaper Vorwarts in 1921 “Lenin and his comrades received vast sums of money from the Kaiser’s government for their destructive agitation …..From reliable sources I have now ascertained the sum was very large, an almost unbelivable amount, certainly more than 50 million gold marks, a sum about which Lenin and his comrades could be in no doubt. One result of all this was the Brest Litovsk treaty”

    As for proving that Schiff didn’t give US$30m in gold to Trotsky – or even $10,000 – well can one ever prove a negative. But perhaps you might just want to consider the following about the 3rd party quote attributed to his grandson in 1949.

    1. It was said to be made in a gossip column in the New York Journal American a New York evening paper owned by Randolph Hearst
    2. The main rival of said newspaper was the New York Post owned and published by the sister of Schiff’s grandson Dolly Schiff. Why would the brother be giving quotes to his sister’s main rival
    3. Dolly Schiff was a noted liberal and used her paper to oppose the witch hunts and Joe McCarthy – do you really think if there was any evidence about her grandfather funding Trotsky that the McCarthyites would not have used it and there would be some public record of that happening/
    4. The Nazis in Germany were publishing the allegations about Schiff funding Trotsky – there is a 1943 documnet on Google books – who told them and why didn’t they reveal their sources if they any?
    5. If the Zionists did fund Trotsky then they were singulalry unsuccessful given subsequent events – that is unless of course you believe the stories that Stalin’s father was Rothschild as published onthe same websites from which this theory originated.

    Of course you are free to believe what you want to believe whether it is governed by instinct, prejudice or facts.

  • resident dissident

    Villager and Nextus

    Many thanks for the help in filling in some of the gaps in our friend’s education. I’m sure that Nextus is absolutely right about our friend’s political preferences even though his comment about Netanyahu and Rifkind shows that he has little clue about my own.

  • Jemand

    Guns vs Dialogue

    Yes, I’m inclined to believe that conflict ends with dialogue in the same way that an armed robbery ends with “thank you”.

  • Nextus

    I argued that the meaning of a word isn’t necessarily equivalent to the logical combination of its constituents. The response? “Poppycock!” (Er … what? A cock made of poppies? A cock on a poppy? A cock that looks like a poppy??) Ahem. QED.

    It’s funny how words work, isn’t it? If you’re not familiar with the science of semiotics, let Google enlighten you before arguing what is and isn’t logically feasible.

    Having adduced the actual dictionary definition of the term, pointed out its origins and modern usage, and debunked the simplistic notion that the meaning of a compound word comprises the meaning of its constituent parts, it’s not clear what’s left to do. They say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink. This particular horse could be dunked in a submersion tank and it would still die of thirst.

    The most authoritative dictionaries in the English language are quite clear that the term “antisemitism” specifically refers to discrimination against Jews, not against anyone of Arabic origin. (I could quote the OED and Merriam-Webster, but again Google will oblige.) But perhaps their lexicologists were bribed by Zionist conspirators! Depends what you’re prepared to believe, I suppose.

    Thanks for prompting me read up on this further, CJ. It led me to the Wikipedia article on “New Antisemitism”; which lists a number of tropes that avid CM blog readers will find all too familiar. They are known as “antisemitic canards” (I thought “canard” meant ‘duck’, but hey, that’s semiotics for you!) The Wiki page on antisemitic canards should be essential reading: it documents various permutations of the claim that Jews control everything (even the meaning of words! lol). I think it’s quite enlightening, and balanced (but maybe Jews control Wikipedia too!). I certainly think those points are worth consideration. Of course reading doesn’t force us to believe what we read. We all have the capacity to be critical (even self-critical) and can make up our own minds – even in the face of bitter cussing and swearing.

  • nevermind

    Ah ‘se(r)miotics’, the lifeline of the english language, or, more likely, any language.
    Lets talk some more about how to address issues without laelling them, withut saying ‘hmm, look, its another square box’, when we really want to know what is inside it.

    Re: poppycock, would we ever dare to eat it?

    then there is the usual historical cnnotations

    and, not to be underestimated, the thesaurus

    that said, I’m off doing a bit of physical work.

  • Nextus

    Absolutely, Nevermind. Instead of talking about a fancy label for shit food (or whatever else it might mean) we should be paying attention to more important issues … like cultural prejudice and discrimination (see above). I agree that physical work is a fine antidote to intellectual obsession, and I’ll follow your fine example.

  • Chris Jones

    @Resident Dissident

    The fact that one chooses to base his or her points based on anti logic is a substantial flaw in anyone’s education. I’d suggest making points based on logic is the way to go.

    Again, to simplify the point – anti cutlery does not suddenly and magically change to meaning anti spoon

  • Nextus

    CJ, visit an American steakhouse and ask to be directed to the “bathroom”. Then go back and complain that there’s no bath in that room, and rant about how anti-logical the term is. It will be time to ‘get your coat’ as they say (from the “coatroom”, presumably, according to ‘logic’). Words can be downright confusing when you break them down to their logical constituents.

    To simplify the point: language is a system of signs, so words can take on a conventional meaning distinct from their logical constituents when they become recognisable in their own right. (If you find that too highbrow, then think start off by thinking about how road signs work.) Consult the Wiki page on semantic change to rectify a substantial flaw in your education.

    Too abstract? OK, how about some good old-fashioned empiricism (i.e. looking at the facts)? Here’s a relevant article: Loaded words: Evolving interpretations of ‘anti-semitic’ and ‘anti-semitism’ in dictionary definitions and in public discourse

    To sum up: the term ‘antisemitism’ was originally coined as a euphemism for ‘judenhass’. But meaning changes when usages diverge, and it’s arguable that the term has become so muddy it isn’t useful anymore. Maybe we need a clearer euphemism for ‘judenhass’.

  • Chris Jones

    Nice line in otiose condescension you got going there Nextus. Your points are still flawed though I’m afraid

    We know meanings and use of words can change over time but we can all agree what the correct meaning of Semitic is by now I’m sure. This tells us that the term anti Semitic as used in the sense of the Jewish and Hebrew speakers only isn’t logical or correct and is an obvious misnomer.

    Using the example of ‘bathroom’ makes little sense. Being anti – bathrooms would be a logical opposite to the term bathroom. Being anti bathrooms does not magically change to meaning anti sinks or anti shower heads. The name bathroom also happens to make sense as most bathrooms used to actually have baths in them.

  • Nextus

    Thank you, Chris. I was trying to match the high standards of condescension you set earlier (particularly @ 8 Oct, 7:55pm). I agree the tone of debate was becoming quite antipathetic (hostile, antagonistic) … but now I suppose, logically, it must be getting more “pathetic”, right? Hmmm. It might be worth checking those definitions to see if they cohere with your “simple” logic.

    So how was this strange, illogical, meaning acquired? As I said before, it was a euphemism. You’ll find an explanation in the Wiktionary entry:

    Anti-Semitism: Etymology
    From the German Antisemitismus, which was coined in 1879 by German political agitator Wilhelm Marr to replace Judenhass (“Jew-hatred”) to make hatred of the Jews seem rational and sanctioned by scientific knowledge. The similar term antisemitisch (“anti-semitic”) was first used in 1860, by Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider. See Wikipedia’s article on the etymology and usage of the term.

    Of course, you’re not first to have gripes about the distortion of meaning. From the Urban Dictionary:

    “Anti-Semite” is the English version of a Victorian era German phrase used in polite company in place of “Juden haas” or “Jew hatred.
    “Anti-Semite” does not mean “one who is opposed to all speakers of Semitic languages”. That is a recent construct, crafted for propaganda purposes.

    Euphemisms, metonyms and metaphors are perfectly logical when you understand that you’re dealing with the semiotics of natural language (rather than algebra or computer code). There’s no need to appeal to “magic”, as you suggest (but I assume that was just a sly attempt at condescension, right?).

    You’re put me in the mood for a plate of antipasto. But maybe I should just have salami, as I’m no longer sure what antipasto really is.

  • Chris Jones

    @Nextus It was a misnomer when it was coined in 1879 and it’s still a misnomer today. But next time I’m in an anti fracking or anti illegal war protest I will try to remember that I might in fact inadvertently be in an anti biscuits or anti jelly babies protest

  • Nextus

    Yes it was indeed a misnomer, but the fact remains it still got “nomed”. The meaning was fixed by definition and widely adopted by convention. It was used that way intelligibly in communication for over a century, until people with a particular agenda tried to pick it apart to avoid certain political connotations.

    But next time I’m in an anti fracking or anti illegal war protest I will try to remember that I might in fact inadvertently be in an anti biscuits or anti jelly babies protest

    Well, I guess that having dished out a few cheap jibes, I should take that one on the chin … and try to ignore the implicit middle premise which commits an obvious quantification fallacy. Ahem. Still, thanks for crossing swords … and steer clear of babies protesting against jelly! 🙂

  • AlcAnon

    Mark Crispin was the last administrator of the first real public domain archive – Arpanet/Internet (that’s not mentioned in his Wikipedia biography). Lots of people have heard of Richard Stallman but almost nobody knows of Mark Crispin.

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