The Silent Running Fallacy

One of the privileges a wry providence has granted to the arts is that even their missteps have more to teach than the best productions of more sensible men. I was reminded of that a few days ago when a discussion among Druid friends turned to the 1972 SF movie classic Silent Running.

I have no idea how many of my readers remember that film, so I’ll summarize it here. Bruce Dern plays Freeman Lowell, a geeky ecologist on Valley Forge, one of a fleet of orbiting space freighters with domes containing the last wild plants and animals from a future Earth where only human beings and their technologies remain. His fellow crew members simply want to get through their one-year tours and get back to a world where there is no more poverty or disease and it is always 70° F. everywhere, but the forest is Lowell’s obsession and his life.

Then the order comes to jettison the domes, destroy them with nuclear charges, and return the freighters to commercial service. Lowell rebels, kills the other three crew members on his ship, and flees into the outer solar system with only the ship’s robot drones for company. When Valley Forge’s sister ship Berkshire locates him again months later, Lowell rigs lights in the last remaining dome to keep the forest viable, jettisons it on a course into interstellar space, and uses the last of the nuclear charges to blow up himself and his ship.

It’s a powerful and profoundly moving film, and a favorite of mine for many years. Still, even the first time I watched it – I was ten years old at the time, dropping most of a week’s allowance on a tall root beer and tickets to the Saturday matinee at the local movie house in suburban Federal Way, WA – two of the movie’s core plot elements gave me trouble. The first issue was a vague sense of doubt about the premise that there could be a world full of healthy, happy humans with no biosphere to support them. The second was more specific: when Lowell sent the dome into deep space, I wondered, where did the electricity for its lights come from?

It took me more than a decade to realize that these two points both pointed to the same common but disastrous misunderstanding which – with apologies to an excellent movie – I’ve named the Silent Running fallacy. Like most of the garbled thinking that has doomed our civilization and threatens the survival of our species just now, it’s a simple error with profound consequences, and it’s thus best approached indirectly.

Start with some details of the movie’s premise, then. How much energy would it take to maintain the Earth’s entire surface at a steady temperature of 70° Fahrenheit? The Earth’s atmosphere does a relatively efficient job of distributing heat from the sun around the planet via the intricate heat engine we call weather, but even so, the temperature on a hot day in the Sahara can differ from the temperature on the same day at the South Pole by more than 200°F. Balancing that out would be ferociously expensive in energy terms.

How much energy would it take to keep a planet full of people free from poverty? Our current industrial civilization hasn’t even come close; average out today’s income per capita over the population of the Earth and you get a Third World existence – and of course there’s the hard question of just how long we can maintain today’s profligate energy expenditure of 450 exajoules (that’s 450,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules, for the prefix-challenged) per year.

The short answer to both of those questions, in other words, is “more than we’ve got.” That’s generally the answer when the question comes up about the costs of replacing any significant process in the biosphere by human means. When a working group headed by Robert Costanza tried a few years ago to work out the economic value of the free services provided to humanity by the Earth’s biosphere, for example, the mid-range estimate they came up with was around three times the total value of all human economic activity. For every dollar of economic value you get, in other words, 25 cents was produced by human beings and the other 75 cents was produced by nature.

The reality of our dependence on living nature goes well beyond this, however. Consider the oxygen in the air we breathe. It doesn’t just happen; it’s put there, moment by moment, by complex ecological cycles centering on photosynthesis in green plants. If those cycles go away, so does the oxygen, and so do we. The Earth’s supply of fresh water, similarly, is renewed by intricate biogeochemical cycles in which a wide range of living things play a part. The experiment of producing food by treating soil as an abiotic sponge into which petrochemicals are dumped is proving to be a long-term failure; here again, only natural cycles in which countless living things participate put food on our table and keep us all from starvation.

It’s in this context that we can define the Silent Running fallacy; it’s the mistaken belief that human industrial civilization can survive apart from nature. It’s this fallacy that leads countless well-intentioned people to argue that nature is an amenity, and should be preserved because, basically, it’s cute. That sort of argument invites the response, just as stereotyped and more appealing to our culture’s governing narratives, that hard-headed practicality takes precedence over emotional appeals and nature can therefore be ravaged with impunity.

Yet nature is not an amenity, and the “practicality” that leads current political and business leaders to ignore the disastrous consequences of their own actions doesn’t deserve the name. If anything, industrial civilization is the amenity, and it’s not particularly cute, either. Nature can survive without industrial humanity, but industrial humanity cannot survive without nature – no matter how hard we pretend otherwise, or how enthusiastically we stuff our brains with science fiction fantasies of electronic reincarnation and the good life in deep space.

What makes this irony mordant is that nature is also a great deal more resilient than industrial humanity. A recent book on global warming, Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, argues that a global temperature rise of 11°F or so would cause global catastrophe. It’s a common claim these days, but Lynas apparently failed – as so many prophets of apocalyptic change have failed – to check his claims against the evidence of history.

A little more than 14,000 years ago, according to recent research on Greenland ice core samples, global average temperature jolted up 22°F in some fifty years. A couple of thousand years later, it lurched back down a similar amount, only to pop back up again 1200 years later. Climate shifts like these are apparently fairly common in Earth’s long history.

Does this mean that we have nothing to fear from global warming? Quite the contrary. We – meaning here human beings living in industrial societies – face dire consequences even from so modest a temperature shift as Lynas’ six-degrees-Celsius rise. In such a future, widespread crop failures caused by unpredictable shifts in rain belts, and the drowning of half the world’s largest cities due to the breakup of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps, are likely events. Even without the other causes driving modern industrial society down the long ragged slope of catabolic collapse, a century or more of regular famines and rising sea levels would likely do the trick; added to the rest of the predicament of industrial society, they promise a harsh future with far less room for our species than we have come to expect.

In such a future, on the other hand, the living Earth will be fine. Temperature changes as large or larger than the one we are facing have happened countless times in the last 500 million years or so, and the planet we live on has flourished at much higher temperatures than our mismanagement can produce even in the most extreme scenario. From the perspective of deep time, it has to be remembered, the crises of the present are barely a blip on the planet’s radar. They will pass, and so, in due time, will we.

We have all grown up, in other words, thinking of nature as an adorable, helpless bunny that some of us want to protect and others, motivated by the will to power that is the unmentionable driving force behind so much of contemporary culture, want to stomp into a bloody pulp just to show that they can. Both sides are mistaken, for what they have misidentified as a bunny is one paw of a sleeping grizzly bear who, if roused, is quite capable of tearing both sides limb from limb and feasting on their carcasses. The bear, it must be remembered, is bigger than we are, and stronger; it is also better adapted to survival in the world outside the fragile shell of our industrial society. We forget this at our desperate peril.

The stunningly beautiful final image of Silent Running shows the last of Earth’s wild plants and animals, cradled in a dome of glass and steel, lit by artificial lights and tended by a robot drone, as it moves through deep space toward the stars. Brilliant cinematography though it is, it also makes a perfect image of the fallacy I’ve been outlining here. Long before the industrial civilization needed to build the dome, power the lights, and manufacture the robot can get around to stripping the Earth of its green fabric of life, that civilization will have been overwhelmed by the consequences of its own ecological mismanagement: as predicted in the Seventies,and as beginning to manifest around us right now.

Swap out nature for technology and vice versa in that final scene, in fact, and it becomes a good image of the best hope for what will be left of our industrial civilization in the future we’re making for ourselves right now. In that image, a frail and vulnerable scrap of modern society, surrounded and supported by the strong arms of nature, moves forward through the starry void along with the rest of the living Earth. How that process might be set in motion will be central to the next few posts on this blog.