The lord of the manor is not a typical peasant, and doesn’t have the same responsibilities. Nowadays, it is quite fashionable to see humans as part of the natural world, part of a cycle of life, dependent on a nature that could eradicate us in an instant if it chose to. The truth is far less comforting.
We are the lords of the planet. Some have made the entertaining claim that we are not even a very successful species, that technological intelligence isn’t evolutionarily very useful. Yes, viruses and bacteria are wildly successful, cockroaches and beetles have the numbers and the resilience, and all our client species – species that profit from human existence, such as dogs, rats, cattle, wheat and rice – are doing well. We are not the Earth’s only evolutionary success story. But we are a success; we have a population of over 7 billion, dwarfing that of any other wild large mammal. We are reshaping the world on ever larger scales, changing the appearance of the whole planet (rarely for the better, of course). We’ve depopulated the oceans and lit up the sky at night. We’ve put men on the moon, and already have started building space stations, thus claiming an empty but huge ecological niche.
Yes, of course, if the whole natural system turned against us, if our agriculture collapsed or the Earth’s climate disintegrated, we couldn’t ride that out (though some day soon, we could probably even survive that). But the fact that the lord of the manor couldn’t survive if all the peasants revolted at once didn’t make him any less a lord, and them more than peasants.
I understand why people would wish for us to be part of the natural cycle; for if that were the case, then conservation and sustainability would be in our enlightened self-interest. And we could certainly make great improvements in how we log, mine and fish, thinking for the long term rather than the short. But a world in which humans followed their selfish but enlightened self interest, kept their own resources sustainable, their air breathable and their water drinkable, is still a world in which most natural species would be annihilated, and anything of not explicit worth for humans was destroyed. Human self-interest won’t save much of the planet.
Instead, we are the lord of the manor, with no possibility of shrugging that off or of calling a council of villagers to devolve power and decision-making. We need to explicitly decide what gets saved and what dies, what the limits of our exploitation will be, and what costs we are prepared to pay for that. Nature is now our responsibility.
I was just in LA. I was surprised and pleased when a good friend of mine mentioned this brilliant new transportation scheme the city had developed. Basically, with sponsorship from a few businesses the city had placed hundreds of electric cars at street-side parking-spots (where the car batteries recharged) throughout the most frequented neighborhoods. The idea was that anyone (tourist or city-dweller) could rent the electric car by the half-hour, paying by card at a nearby pay station. Then the renter could bring the electric car back to any of the city parking spots by the set time. What was even more convenient was that city-dwellers could get an “LA-Car Card” by paying a nominal fee that would allow them to take out electric cars for up to a half hour at a time for free! Environmental AND convenient! So of course I went straight to the nearest electric car parking-spot, paid the fee, and was soon zooming about the streets of LA. I had never driven an electric car before, so it felt a bit odd, but I was so excited by the new car scheme that I didn’t let it bother me. Everything was grand until a reckless driver ran a red light in front of me and nearly took me off the road. Thankfully it was only nearly. But with that close-call, I realized that the reason the car had felt a bit odd is that the car had NO SEATBELTS! That’s right: no seatbelts. What would have happened if I had been in a car accident?
These electric cars were environmentally friendly, yes. Super-convenient, yes. But wasn’t it irresponsible for the city to encourage needless risk-taking (and traumatic brain injury) by providing this transport without the most basic safety feature?? For worried as I was about my safety in not having a seat-belt (and I would never drive my own car without my seat-belt), I found myself renting and driving the cars for the rest of my stay just because they were so darn convenient. I oscillated between decrying the city’s irresponsible behavior and applauding their creation of such a convenient scheme. Which was the proper stance? And was there a rational reason why these cars did not have seat-belts??