Ernest Dempsey — In his recent article “The Five Horrorists”, which appeared in Philosophy Now (Issue 88), Tim Delaney, Associate Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York in Oswego described five threats to sustaining global civilizations. In the following interview, Tim Delaney answers some questions about the five horrorists in relation to social factors and forces.
Ernest: Tim, let’s start with a fundamental question. On what basis do we distinguish between “human” and “natural” causes? Is this distinction made primarily to attribute responsibility to the human species?
Tim: There are a couple of primary reasons to distinguish between human and natural causes for the compromise of the Earth’s environment. One reason is to address the skepticism that some people still have about the seriousness of climate change and the potentially impending deterioration of the environment. There are those, generally conservative and wealthy special-interest groups and individuals, who do not want to make changes that might result in the lessening of their profits. From this standpoint, skeptics do not want to even acknowledge that things like automobile emissions cause harm to the environment because that would mean making changes to business practices that would cut into the profits of the oil and automobile industries.
Human dependency on fossil fuels has increased steadily for more than a century, lessening this dependency would result in drastic behavioral changes for individuals and nations. As a result, it is easier for those who profit from human dependency on fossil fuels to ignore the reality of environmental harm caused by humans. Furthermore, in some cases, plain ignorance helps to explain skepticism.
The second reason to distinguish between human and natural causes for the compromise of the Earth’s environment is directly related to planning strategies; that is, how can we sustain the environment so that all species can live? It is clear that humans cannot control nature. We have found ways to survive in the harshest of climates, and we have the capability to tunnel through mountains, dam rivers, irrigate deserts, and drill for oil beneath the ocean floor, but we cannot control hurricanes, earthquakes, tornados, and other natural disasters. We also know that nature itself compromises the environment. For example, nature compromises clean air via volcanic eruptions that spill a variety of toxics in the air. According to the United States Geological Survey, the volcanic gases that pose the greatest potential hazard to people and the environment are sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen fluoride. Sulfur dioxide gas can lead to acid rain pollution downwind from a volcano. And this is just one example of how nature compromises the environment.
However, the damage done by nature to the environment pales in comparison to what humans do. Of all the Earth’s organisms, humans place the highest demands on the environment and yet we also represent the greatest threat to the environment. In brief, we cannot control nature but we can control, or at the very least influence, human behavior.
Ernest: The five horrorists that you discuss in your article in Philosophy Now are attributed, beside others, to social factors. Can you tell us how societal evolution over centuries has increased the risk of environmental disasters?
Tim: Humans have evolved from simpler creatures that were once the hunted to the planet’s greatest and most dangerous predator. Never the fastest or strongest species, humans developed their intellect to become the dominant species. Our intellect, however, seems to be lagging behind our capability to develop new mechanisms to make our lives easier. This has especially been the case since the time of industrialization as human technology has created more harm to the environment than it has done good. Pollution caused by industry (e.g., factories that pollute the air, land and water) has been compromising the earth’s environment for over two centuries. But once again, it is our dependency on fossil fuels (e.g., crude oil, coal, and natural gas), especially during the past 100 years because of automobile use, that has really caused the most harm. The burning of fossil fuels has compromised the quality of the air we breathe and has compromised the ozone layer. Acid rain, the greenhouse effect, and global warming are among the other concerns with our reliance on burning fossil fuels.
Ernest: One word knocking on my thinking here is “instinct.” Broadly, does it lead to enviromares through determining the course of societal evolution?
Tim: I define an “enviromare” as an environmentally produced nightmare that causes great harm to humanity. The term “nightmare” is used to highlight the dire consequences of humanity’s attack on the environment. When people finally wake up to the problems facing our environment, it may be too late to do anything but scream. Enviromares are one of the “Five Horrorists” that I collectively refer to as the “destroyers of humanity” specifically, and the environment in general.
Enviromares are all associated with some type of pollution that causes a problem for the environment. Among the enviromares are water pollution and shortages of drinkable water (due to, among other things, the deadly toxins dumped into bodies of potable water); land pollution (especially as the result of overgrazing by domesticated animals, deforestation, the depletion of the rainforest, agricultural mismanagement, the increased use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, erosion, urban sprawl, and strip mining); solid waste (Americans produce more than4.5 poundsof garbage per person, per day); noise pollution (mostly an urban problem resulting in high-density living); celestial pollution (yes, space is already littered with trash); air pollution (caused by both nature and humanity); and chemical and nuclear pollution (dangerous chemicals, radiation, and radioactive fallout). I have also argued that terrorism is a type of enviromare.
As a sociologist, I downplay the role of “instincts.” Surely humans have certain instincts (e.g., a survival instinct) but for the most part, they have been kept in check through the socialization process. The survival instinct possessed by humans combined with an intellect that allows us to create new technology helps to explain how we have evolved as a species. In turn, our survival instinct has led us our dominance and arrogance over the other species on the planet. As Peter Singer said, we have developed a speciesist attitude. Speciesism occurs when humans have a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interest of our own species and against those of members of other species. Until a greater number of humans begin to equate speciesism to the other “ism” words, like racism, sexism, and ageism, humans will continue to think of themselves as the “lords of planet.” If humans are to reverse their negative impact on the environment, we will need to keep our survival instinct intact, at least to the point where we learn to respect all life forms. Perhaps, when we learn to view other species as valuable as our own, we will have evolved to the point where we might be able to sustain our environment.
Ernest: With knowledge of the “Five Horrorists,” how is this awareness, if responded to on a global scale, likely to shape human societies in the future?
Tim: I describe the “five horrorists” as the destroyers of life. These five horrorists are war, famine, pestilence, disease, and enviromares. This concept is an updated version of the “Four Horsemen” concept utilized by Thomas Malthus when he claimed that forces of nature would keep the population in check. Malthus also had a theory that population grew geometrically while our ability to produce food grew only arithmetically, implying that eventually nature would weed out large numbers of people because the planet could not sustain them. (This theory has been disproven but it fuels the discussion on why there is so much food for the wealthy nations while so many other people starve to death around the world.) My argument is that the five horrorists are primarily the result of human behavior and not nature. After all, war is a human-made condition; famine is the result of both social and natural forces; pestilence (plagues caused by swarms of locust, grasshoppers and other insects) is also a result of both human and natural forces; disease (most diseases are human-made); and enviromares (all ready discussed) which are mostly human-made.
The Five Horrorists will most definitely shape human societies in the future as they have shaped societies in the past. Long ago, Herbert Spencer applied his concept of “survival of the fittest” (what some people refer to as Social Darwinism) to explain why some societies evolve and others dissolve. It is the fight for scarce resources (both social and natural) that leads to war and conquest by dominant societies over dominated societies. The possession of superior military generally aids a nation in their attempt to secure enough resources to survive. This generally comes at the expense of other nations. For the past few millenniums, history has shown that some societies evolve while others dissolve. There is no reason to suspect that this will ever change as dominant societies are likely to always take advantage of the dominated ones. Despite our capacity for caring, loving and forgiveness, it would seem that our aggressive tendencies (an instinct, if you will) reveal the very essence of humanity.
Ernest: War leads to famine and in light of the fact that we live in an age of military-industrial complexes, war also makes a particular class pretty rich and overfed. About one sixth of our population is at or close to hunger. What does this imply for humanity at large?
Tim: One of the most devastating forces facing humanity is war, so that is why it is listed as the first horrorist. War has been waged against clans of people throughout humanity and full-fledge wars between nation-states have been waged for millenniums. The participants of war, soldiers and non-combatant citizens alike, face death, injury, rape, and torture. Entire nations “disappear” when conquered in war and survivors of a “conquered” people have their cultures taken away from them. Even nations that “win” a war do so at great expense. The environment is often a victim of war too. Conflict theorists, such as sociologists C. Wright Mills and Randall Collins have long warned about the “triangle of power” (military, industry, and politics). Even former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, himself a military general, warned that power elites wage war in order to profit from it. All one has to do is “follow the money trail” to see who is profiting from any given war.
It is an unfortunate reality of humanity that the powerful nations have long placed their will (through military might) against those lacking power. The cliché “to the victors go the spoils” summarizes the mentality of war. The developed nations are still exploiting the developing nations in contemporary society and this trend will, seemingly, continue long into the future. There are nations that have so much food and consumer goods that they can afford to throw away items when their people grow tired of them, or feel overfed. Sadly, people around the world go without food and drinkable water. It is highly unlikely this will ever change unless drastic changes occur (e.g., an environmental “meltdown” of the planet). It would almost seem inevitable that social unrest will continue to occur around the world as people facing starvation and death will initiate their own survival instinct and do what they must to survive. After all, when people have nothing to lose, they have nothing to lose.
Ernest: Your point that only specific diseases have changed over the course of human history as against a decisive victory over disease leads me to ask whether humans are really capable of wiping out epidemics of all kinds. Will disease stay with us long as long as we exist on this planet?
Tim: Disease, listed as my fourth horrorist, is the result of both natural and social forces. Infectious disease has been a destroyer of human life (and other forms of life) since the dawn of humanity. The lack of even elementary forms of medical knowledge (a social factor) throughout nearly all humanity allowed for the easy spread of germs (a natural factor). Whenever any member of a community was inflicted with a disease, such as small pox, the potential for its spreading throughout the region was great. Despite modern technology, disease is as prevalent today as in the past, although the specific diseases that kill people have changed. Societal and environmental changes such as a worldwide, explosive population growth, expanding poverty, urban migration, and a dramatic increase in international travel and commerce, are all factors that increase the risk to infectious disease. There is a reason why the film Contagion was scary—the scenario depicted in the film could in fact happen in that very manner.
Ernest: To avoid the “toxic cage”, what approach of reformation do you think will be more practicable: a top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top approach of transformation?
Tim: Max Weber, a German sociologist, warned us that bureaucracy and rationalization seemed an almost inescapable fate of modern societies. He believed that bureaucratic and overly-rational societies were characterized by a lack of human emotion and personal involvement in decision-making. Weber viewed future society as an “Iron Cage” (inescapable from bureaucracy and rationalization), rather than paradise. I see a parallel to Weber’s concern about bureaucracy and my own concern about the environment. It seems that the decision-makers (the power elites) have ignored our emotional and practical need for a clean, safe environment and substituted it with a desire to maximize profits, even at the expense of the environment. Thus, I fear that we have created a “Toxic Cage” wherein our very survival has been compromised due to our environmental neglect.
It is the people on the top, the power elites, that make the major decisions that affect us all. If a change doesn’t occur at the top, the status quo is the result. Trying to change the system from the bottom, the masses, has been effective in the past, but not nearly as often as it has not. In developed nations like theUnited States, it would take an entire change in cultural habits to save the compromised environment. And changing culture is very difficult.
Ernest: What role will the media play in helping to prevent enviromares, remembering that we live in times when epidemics are to be kept off record under the reason, or excuse if we may call it, that masses may be driven to panic?
Tim: Every society has a culture. Culture is shaped by societal, social institutions. The mass media represents a significant social institution in society. The mass media includes television, radio, film, cyberspace (e.g., social network sites, YouTube), news outlets including televised news and newspapers, books, magazines, and sound recordings. The mass media is a collective term used to describe the vehicle by which large numbers of people are informed about important, or popular, happenings in a society. As an agent of socialization, the mass media helps to shape public opinion on a variety of subjects.
Although the mass media can cause hysteria and panics among people, I believe that the media can cause more good than harm. Ever since the days of the penny press, the media has attempted to inform the masses on the happenings of society and especially the dealings of the power elites. In the past couple years, we have witnessed how social networking sites (e.g., Twitter and Facebook) have mobilized people into collective action. Posting videos of industries that pollute the environment are increasingly popular on such sites as YouTube. The media is not solely controlled by the power elites: the masses can use the media to help save the environment. That is, if they want to.
Ernest: To conclude, what are our biggest strengths to count on against the threat of enviromares, in particular, the five horrorists in general?
Tim: Humans have created the greatest harm to the environment but humanity also represents the greatest hope in combating the five horrorists and saving the environment. There are individuals among us that possess great intellect and this brain power can be used to develop technology that can accomplish great things (e.g., technology to lessen our dependency on fossil fuels). Furthermore, humans are capable of change; let’s just hope we change our behaviors in time to halt the five horrorists from truly becoming the “destroyers of life”.
Ernest: That’ll be our best hope I’ll say. Thank you so very much Tim for taking time for this conversation.