Horse whisperers…Earth whisperers.

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”[1]

The 21stcentury – the age we live in – will be remembered by historians as the period the Earth transitioned from a wholly-wild planet to a managed one.

This awareness is relatively new. For most of human experience, Earth management has been the furthest thing from our minds. Our Real World has been merely resource and threat. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari puts it this way:

2 million years ago… there was nothing special about humans… they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies, or jellyfish.

Little ambiguity or doubt about this. Where the uncertainty lies is in the next question: what will that future, managed Earth look like? Will it retain much of its current vibe – the landscape, natural ecosystems and by extension their wondrous variety and function most of us have taken for granted all of our lives? Or will it be a sterile, salt-water bathtub of largely denuded dust and rock, offering only minimal ecosystem services[2]?

The answer – the actual outcome – won’t be something that happensto us. It will be a future we create.

We could aim low– allow ourselves to be content with largely technological fixes to the basic problems of water, food, and energy resources; resilience to hazards; and environmental degradation. In that case the planet will likely look and feel austere. Or, we could aim high– and achieve something far richer, more diverse, maybe even glorious.

The two previous LOTRW posts have compared our planetary ride with aviation. Here’s another metaphor that is illuminating: taming and riding a horse.

Note the key difference: the hot-air balloon, or the plane, is inanimate; it has no mind of its own. A horse is an entirely different matter.

A retrospection: When I was growing up, though living in eastern towns and cities in the 1950’s, I was fascinated by the Old West. Much of that culture focused on horses – their innately wild nature, and their domestication. For the most part, that latter process was framed in books (both history and fiction) and on film as “breaking the horse” – teaching the horse, using physical restraint and punishment as needed, that the rider was the master, and had to be obeyed, however reluctantly.

It was easy for the urbanite child reader to accept this uncritically. As I entered adulthood, the demands and allure of work and forming rich relationships with people around me took over; the Old West receded into the background.

Then came 1998 and the film The Horse Whisperer, starring the iconic and singular Robert Redford, and introducing Scarlet Johansson. The movie’s stars and popularity acquainted even urbanite minds with the idea that instead of “breaking” a horse, it is possible to begin with a different premise: a basic respect for the horse and an understanding of equine psychology, and to found horseback riding on a more equitable relationship – a partnership. The film made “whispering” a thing in popular culture. The years following would see the National Geographic series “Dog Whisperer;” a “Ghost Whisperer” TV drama; Vin Diesel in The Pacifiersardonically referred to as ‘the duck(!) whisperer;” and more.

Back to our present discussion: Without too much of a stretch, then, it’s possible to see options for intentional management of the Real World as ranging from “breaking the planet,” to Earth whispering.

Again, the differences find their analog in the “Langley-“ and “Wright-brothers” approaches to flight. Langley and his team sought to make the atmosphere a passive backdrop by upping engine power. The Wright brothers acknowledged that while pilots might have a destination, the atmosphere would always shape the journey. They sought to control the aircraft in the face of head- and tailwinds, updrafts, and down drafts, storms and turbulence.

Reflection on these  (and other!) analogies is constructive. There are at least as many takeaways as there are human participants in this great managed-Earth endeavor.

That said, two lessons matter above all the others. First, we can never know enough about the Earth, the Real World – how it works, what it will do next, and in particular how it responds to the actions of seven billion people. And our efforts to learn more will succeed or fail based on our investment in critical infrastructure: The Earth observing platforms. The instruments. The data assimilation and analytics. The research. The conceptual and numerical modeling. STEM education of the public and professional training for the workforce. Information access for policymakers and the public.

Second, instead of attempting to impose our will on the Earth we live on (show Earth who’s in charge), we need embrace reality (the atmosphere is warming; sea level is rising, ecosystems are struggling, and here’s why; the built environment, especially the coastal built environment, is fragile with respect to storms, and here’s why; air, water and soil quality, habitat, and biodiversity are under siege, and here’s why).

Partnering with the horse begins by listening to it, and respecting it. Start with that, and then a whisper from us will do.


[1]This quote or something closely akin has been various attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Peter Drucker – and even to Alan Kay and Jeff Bezos. If interested in deeper analysis, consult quoteinvestigator.

[2]Not unlike what Mars looks to be, based on the views and science we’ve collected so far.

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4 Responses to Horse whisperers…Earth whisperers.

  1. Ed O'Lenic says:

    Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing. For better or worse, the earth has been heavily, and permanently modified by human activities. As such, the term natural should be required to have an asterisk next to it when it is used to describe the earth’s environment. The environment still responds to the laws of physics, but the forcing has changed.

  2. Bill:-

    “Managed planet”??? Control???? Why do I have a vision of the Irish hero Cuchulain, madly decapitating the white caps while the sea’s surge overcomes his strength? This seems the height of hubris.

    We actually understand so little that our modelers can’t even agree on whether clouds’ interference with climate change is constructive or destructive. Our models (presumably the basis for our “control”) don’t even include many of the natural cycles that extend out a few thousand years. Data would be required from many millenia ago until now to allow us to unpack the complex interactions among all of the cycles that truly control our climate. With so little understanding of our world, any attempts to “control” it must be rife with unintended consequences.

    The earth IS warming. The sea IS rising. But why do we assume that that’s a bad thing. In Iceland last summer I saw that agriculture flourished during the warm spell around 1000 AD. Are we so Panglossian that we believe we live in the best of all possible worlds?

    I much prefer a more humble approach – one that works with nature rather than trying to tame her. One that does not fear change but accepts that change is inevitable. We can call it adaptation but what it comes down to is taking the tools nature provides us to solve the problems presented by our natural world. Understanding local phenomena (like the weather) and taking appropriate actions based on data. After all, absent CO2, NOLA and Norfolk and probably southwest Florida will continue to sink due to subsidence. The sea around parts of Alaska and northern Europe will continue to recede due to the land’s rise.

    An example of what I mean. Two weeks ago I visited La Vinyeta in Catalonia. They use a pheromone-based approach to reduce damage to their grapes from insects. No insecticides, no harming of the critters, using nature’s means to simply nudge them to behave.

    This seems a better approach – using what we’ve learned to live with nature better – and working with nature to live better lives. What does it take to do this? Understanding and humility. An understanding of weather (After all, climate changes but weather kills!); an understanding of the land; an understanding of ourselves and our common humanity. And the humility to recognize that we may never know enough to control but that we must continue striving to learn more so that our understanding of this world and our place in it continues to become more accurate.

    If only a modern Canute would instruct us all on the folly of trying to tame the tides!

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