Thursday, June 7, 2012

Men Like Gods: H G Wells on the Balance of Nature, Ecosystems Services and the New Ecology.

“It is true; there is something fierce and ratlike and dangerous about Earthly men.” Men Like Gods, H G Wells

In one of his less celebrated fictions, Men like Gods, H G Wells presents to us a most curious Utopia.[1]  The citizenry of Utopia are, quite naturally, more advanced than are those of 1921, the year in which the novel is set.  Their Last Days of Confusion happily are left behind them and they live governed by the Five Principles of Liberty: privacy, free movement, unlimited knowledge, truthfulness, and free discussion and criticism. Our hero Mr. Barnstaple, who along with a small group of other humans, was transported to this other world is a subject of some interest to its inhabitants and is the occasion for some mirth on Wells’ part.  A Utopian girl, for instance, asks casusally, "And you make love?" The answer, "Not habitually, I can assure you," he said. "Not habitually."

Nature in general is well regulated by the natives of this Utopia with some interesting consequences.  In describing the ecological circumstances of Utopia, Wells provides us with a pithy overview of the concept of the Balance of Nature.  Since the history of Utopia differs from the history of Earth in minor details only (their Christ, for example, was put to death on the wheel, not the cross) one can assume that the transition from the Balance of Nature to the Management of Nature proceeded in a fashion that Wells finds to be useful for contemplating the trajectory of nature on this Earth.  

The inquiry concerning nature comes amidst a suite of criticisms that the Earthlings levied at the Utopians during a lengthy ethnographic exchange with their hosts.  The first note of disapproval is sounded by one Father Amerton (a caricature, some say, of G K Chesterton, though a review of the novel at the time of identify him as a Father Vaughan).  Father Amerton’s objection concerns the regulation of human affairs and not those of nature.  He had already expressed concern about the means by which Utopians limited their populations to a mere 250 million inhabitants. “Do you”, he fulminated at the Utopians, “respect the marriage bond?”  To which a Utopian responds, “In Utopia there are no bonds.” Pressing them further our priest concludes that “you have abolished the family.”  Always, it seems, quick with the quippy response he is told that in Utopia the family, in fact, is “enlarged and glorified…until it embraced the whole world.”  Finally, after accusing our free-loving Utopians of bestial promiscuity, a Utopian concluded that Father Amerton suffered from an inflamed and diseased sexual imagination, which would be, on the morrow “examined and dealt with.”

Mr Freddy Mush was next to voice his concerns.  “There had been”, he declared, “something very ancient and beautiful called the ‘Balance of Nature’ which the scientific methods of Utopia had destroyed.”  What this Balance of Nature was, precisely, “neither the Utopians nor Mr Barnstable were able understood all that clearly.”  Mr Mush in a familiar sounding exasperation known to those of us who seek to impose definition of this hefty but nebulous idea finally sputtered “I hold by the swallows.”  He elaborated that there were no swallows to be seen in Utopia because there were neither gnats nor midges.  The Utopians had systematically exterminated these flies with some predicable ecological consequences – although apparently they maintained reserves in which some species were held in isolation.  Swallows had indeed become rare, but the Utopians, wise stewards as Wells would have us believe they were, had not fully vanquished “these delightful birds.”

In making a transition from the primordial Balance of Nature to a subjugation under the management of the Utopians, every noxious species was given an advocate and was put on trial.  “What good is it? What harm does it do? How can it be extirpated? What else may go with it if it goes”… and so on.  They had, after this deliberative process stamped out most infections and contagions.  It had been, remarks Wells, infinitely easier to get rid of “such big annoyances as the hyena and the wolf” than to rid themselves of the smaller pests. The Utopians had made of those big fierce animals which had not been extirpated milk-lapping dolts (“be-cattled”, Wells calls them.)  The imposition of vegetarianism, had, on the other hand greatly improved the intelligence of bears.  Dogs had been coaxed into giving up their bark.  A short step then indeed for the cultivation of animals and plants to the eugenic cultivation of humans.  “The indolent and inferior”, we are darkly told, “do not procreate here.”

Taking up the theme of the Balance of Nature again, Wells reflects that the most vexing question is what else goes when a species is targeted for extirpation.  A nasty grub, a pest in the early stages of it life cycle, may as an adult be beautiful, or can be necessary for the fertilization of a plant.  An offensive species might be food for a more desirable creature.  Or an obnoxious plant may be a source of “a chemically complex substance that were still costly or tedious to make synthetically.” 

The humans represented by a Mr Catskill (supposedly a depiction of the Winston Churchill) responded in tones of admiration, conceding that most of us Earthlings if given the choice to give up “our earthly disorder, our miseries, our distresses, our high death rates and hideous diseases” would avail themselves of this chance.  But Catskill goes on (in a pretty speech that’s well worth tracking down) that for all the misery and lack of order the Earthlings are “tempered to a finer edge” than their Utopian counterparts.  And upon reflection regarding the prices paid for so seemingly successful a control over nature, humans might incline to hesitate and would say no.  No, because despite their attainment of a universal unity, the Utopians successful eradication of both competition, and of “the bracing and ennobling threat and the purging and terrifying experience of war”, has created its own set of unintended consequences which Catskill identifies as the forgotten dangers of “degeneration”.  And the softness bred by their “sweetness and light…and leisure” make them vulnerable to other worlds whose “snarling voices [are] inured to every pain.”

In responding, and quite ruminatively too, to Catskill’s upbeat defense of the life enhancing qualities of unseemly experiences, Urthred, a Utopian, countered that nothing, in fact, had been lost by obliterating ghastly things.  Earthlings may realize that nature can be controlled but they dare not submit it to the harness (I’m paraphrasing here).  For us humans, Urthred accuses, we prefer to leave the workings of Nature to God or to Competition.  The divine and evolution – the very meat of contemporary squabbles – are made equivalent here because they both excuse us from taking up reality “undraped”.  What a scientist might calls The Balance of Nature is in fact merely an “old fatalism”, a supposed source of energy and will, dressed up as science.  The Balance of Nature is a means, in other words, of disguising the frosty meaningless of life as a mother to whom we would abandon ourselves.  The Utopians in contrast have taken the “old Hag, our Mother in hand.”     

We leave the narrative unfurling of Men Like Gods here for now, although there is much of interest in the way in which our “invasive” humans introduced a new pestilence to Utopia, the manner in which the Earthlings prepared for a war of usurpation with their hosts and so forth.  For our investigation of a fanciful articulation of the Balance of Nature we have enough.  Not only does Wells attempt to explain this nebulous concept he, additionally, outlines an alternative for when we decree that this description of Nature is faulty.  In doing so he describes an attitude to the management of nature that, despite its unappetizing aspects, nonetheless, comes close to describing the contemporary dilemmas we face in managing the environmental affair of people and the rest of nature.  


One wonders why commentators on the giants of science fiction see these authors as prophets rather than architects.  Science fiction tends to be both read by scientists and is not seldom influential in their thinking.  With the recent death of Ray Bradbury we are hearing from our astronauts just how persuasive his vision was to them – NASA apparently flew his to Cape Canaveral to lecture there.  As is true then for the other greats of science fiction (or science romances as Wells termed them) there is a small industry devoted to identifying Wells’s prescient moments.  H G Wells supposedly foresaw, for instance, “trends such as the abolition of distance, nuclear war, suburbia, committed relationships outside marriage, even the Internet.”[2] That Wells was an ecological visionary is not fully appreciated it seems to me.  Before it was fashionable to do so he was committed to the conservation of natural resources.  In Men Like Gods speculating about our responsibilities for nature is a central theme, and his solutions, or at least those expressed on behalf of the Utopians, have a contemporary ring to them, even if, phrased as they are in that novel, there is at times also a perplexing and unwholesome aspect to them.  After all, management of nature and eugenic control over “defective people” are part of the one Utopian managerial fabric.

In Men Like Gods H G Wells articulates, on behalf of Utopians, a set of ambitions characteristic of what some term the New Ecology.  Now, of course, the new ecology is a decidedly old term – e.g., Gene Odum gave us a New Ecology back in 1964 (one that was, in its essential features, a systems ecology[3]) – but one particularly fresh New Ecology was annunciated by forest ecologist and polymathic writer Daniel Botkin.  In his Discordant Harmonies – A New Ecology for the Twenty First Century Botkin, our latter-day Urthred, similarly groups the divine and the competitive as inadequate conceptions of the workings of Nature.[4] Or to be clearer, Botkin is concerned to show that the expectations of equilibrium – the Balance of Nature – that come from theoretical models of Alfred Lotka ,Vito Volterra and Georgii Gause, models investigating competitive or predator-prey relations are at times as problematic as the notion of a divine order (“If there must be such an order”, Botkin asks, “how do we explain its absence”).
For the Utopians as for our contemporary New Ecologists, the challenge is this: we must clear aside metaphysical conceptions of Nature whether they come to us in the form of archaic myth or embedded in seemingly scientific, and often mathematical, conceptions of inter-specific interactions.  A world of harmony, either divinely-ordered or ecologically balanced, typically remains, in views of such things, balanced until disrupted by humans.  Thus we are the perennial wreckers.  The appropriate ecological response if this conceptions were to serve us is to “leave things to God…or leave them to Competition” (Wells) or “to emphasize the benefits of doing nothing and assuming that nature will know best.” (Botkin).  Both amount to the same thing – an abdication of our planetary responsibilities.

Once the task of our conceptual self-emancipation is complete and we have set aside these different versions of the Balance of Nature idea we must settle down to the business of accepting, using, and controlling nature and in this we can “make this Earth a comfortable home for each of us individually and for all of us collectively in our civilization.”[5]  Like the Utopians, Botkin regards the proper response ‘for the problems we have created for the environmental with technology is not to abandon civilization or modern technology is not to abandon civilization or modern technology… Having altered nature with our technology, we must depend upon technology to see us through to solutions.”  Like the Utopians, Botkin is aware of the unintended consequences associated with management.  Like the Utopians, Botkin sees a need for wilderness reserves, places to be used as baselines against which to judge our more ferocious impacts elsewhere, pre-agricultural wildernesses where we can get a sense of the landscape prior to its transformation by the might of modern technology, and places of refuge where swallows (or in Botkin’s example Kirtland’s warbler) can maintain a tiny toe-hold.  Like the Utopians, Botkin urges us to know in exhaustive details not only the state of nature, but how it functions. 

Now, there is more to be said about Wells’ novel, and much more to be said about Botkin’s pondering over the consequences of our needful abandoning of imperfect conceptions of Nature.  For now, I note that Wells gives us not only a masterly expression of the very awkwardness of expressing the concept of the Balance of Nature.  He showed that in abandoning metaphysical or glibly formulated scientific views of this balance, the inevitable consequence is that appropriate and careful management is called for.  He recognized that the complexity of ecological systems is such that displeasing surprises may result from management and managers need to carefully assess both the provisioning of services (and disservices) from nature.  The upshot from all is this is that disruptive proclivities of humankind become one with the pertubant order of nature itself.  And this sounds an awful lot like a new ecology.             

[1] Wells, H G Men Like Gods, Wildside Press LLC, 2009
[2] Cooke, Bill. "Wells, H. G. (1866–1946)." Encyclopedia of Anthropology. Ed. . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005. 2310-11. SAGE Reference Online.
[3] Odum E P The New Ecology  BioScience, Vol. 14, No. 7, Ecology (Jul., 1964), pp. 14-16
[4] Botkin Daniel B. Discordant Harmonies: A New Ecology for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford University Press, 1990
[5] Botkin, 189.

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