Recently, I spent a few days at the west coast of Sweden. Again, I found it amazing how the coast lines in the Nordic countries can be so similar and so strikingly different at the same time. There in Bohuslän the archipelago was shallow but the outer coastline and the islands were almost free of any vegetation. Now major tourist destinations, the little villages and towns along the coast earlier had been fishing communities. Then, beginning in the 1840s the local granite, valued for its durability, became a major commodity and a whole quarry industry developed. Now, this industry has mostly disappeared but it has left many scars in the landscape.
At places, islets in the archipelago had partially been dismantled. Of course, this is not specific to Sweden. And don’t get me wrong: I am not blaming the Swedish stonemasons. They did what we we humans do: we use, exploit and shape the landscape everywhere. Here in Finland the major roads are characterized by the deep artificial canyons blasted into the rock. Still, the sight of these scars in the land made me think – and also sad.
I am not sure why this seemed special. Was it that the current primary source of income in the area, tourism, seemed somewhat at odds with these earlier industries? Would the locals now prefer the islands and rocks had been left intact? Was it that the rock, formed some 950 million years ago, seemed as something so lasting that its violation seemed more hurtful? I can’t say.
We speak often of renewable and non-renewable resources. The borderline is somewhat flurry, though. Rocks will eventually erode and through volcanic activity new rock will form – in a couple of hundred million years. Likewise, new oil might form in similar time frames. Still, for any forseeable time, use of these resources seems final. My guess is the stonemasons in the quarries never asked themselves whether they had a right to take the stone. More generally, people assume that they own the land they settle. The legal construct of real estate and land property assumes that the owner not only can prevent others from use but that all natural resources on that property can be exploited by its owner. The (ethical) question, though, is who gave mankind this right to exploit the Earth in the first place?
In an article in the LA Review of Books, French philosopher Bruno Latour recently reflected on Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis. He explains that Lovelock’s Gaia had been misunderstood as Earth and its inhabitants forming a single organism. Instead, he writes, Gaia has to be understood as a constant system of interaction. What we call the Earth (as opposed to a simple slab of rock in space) is the result of millions of years of interaction of life with the planet. Our shaping of the Earth thus would seem as nothing special, or rather, we do what we are supposed to do. Why then do I still feel this uneasiness?
Latour quotes Lovelock in stating “The Gaia hypothesis implies that the stable state of our planet includes man as a part of, or partner in, a very democratic entity.” In other words this means that not man but the whole of life on Earth “owns” this planet. Maybe, we should from time to time remember that we are thus only a junior partner in a larger enterprise. Maybe then we could also realize that our ownership looks more like a stewardship and all of life, not only man, inherits the Earth.