December 17, 2017

President’s Address 2007

President’s Talk, delivered at ASEH conference, 2007

Citation: Stephen J. Pyne, “The End of the World,” Environmental History 12 (July 2007).


Stephen J. Pyne

The End of the World

THE END OF THE WORLD. I’ve been there.

It’s called Dome C, an infinitesimal rise in the East Antarctic plateau atop 14,500 feet of ice. There is little else. What distinguishes the scene is just this synthesis of the huge with the simple. It is the most singular environment on Earth. Space and time dissolve. Land is reduced to a solitary mineral broader than Australia and higher than Mount Whitney. The cycle of days and those of seasons collapse into a single spiral. The energy budget is always negative; none during the dark season, reflected away during the light. There is no life. There is nothing to live on. When Dante imagined the innermost circle of hell as an inferno of ice, he had Dome C in mind. Here is the Earth’s underworld.

The place is the sum of its losses and absences. There is no color, no movement, no sound. There are no mountains, valleys, rivers, shores; no forests, prairies, tide pools, corn and cotton fields; no hurricanes, no floods, no earthquakes, no fires. The only contrast is between an ice-massed land and an ice-saturated sky. Everything simplifies into its most primordial elements. Even snowflakes crumble into icy dust. Nothing holds; there is no center and no edge. There is no near or far; no east or west; no real here or there; no Other, and during a white-out, no self. Words, too, shrink and freeze, as language and ideas shrivel into monosyllables: ice, snow, dark, sky, blue, star, cloud, white, wind, moon, light, flake, cold.

Improbably, there are, from time to time, people at Dome C. They are an eccentric gaggle—”society” is too formal a term—for the Ice acts on that group as it does on everything else. They are as disaggregated as the Dome’s snowflakes. Their condition yields a host of individual pathologies but especially prominent are an extreme anomie and a lassitude referred to, respectively, as the Big Eye and the Long Eye. The Big Eye is insomnia. There is no way to reset one’s biological clock and no society sufficient to impose an alternative chronometer. The Long Eye is aptly defined as a twelve-foot stare in a ten-foot room. Where there is no horizon, there is no means to judge distance and place, and the default setting is a kind of comatose gaze. At Dome C there is no dawn or midnight, no ecological order with which we must reconcile our behavior, no institutional arrangement with which we can recalibrate our thoughts and deeds. There is no one to organize, no one to obey, no one who needs to reconcile what he or she does with what anyone else does. When you rise, eat, work, and sleep is completely capricious, for where there is no contrast or context, there is no real choice.

So, too, the scene has its intellectual pathologies. The Ice is geography’s ultimate quantum, a singularity uncluttered by anything save itself. Its crystals have the purity of triple-distilled water, its setting is as unblemished as a moon of Uranus. Clarity is close to absolute, and that clarity means almost nothing because it is about nothing. Yet if we follow the reductionist model of understanding, this is where our quest should lead. Here is the most elemental of all earthly environments, and upon it we should erect our models and narratives and analyses. Start with the isolated, the simple, and the pure. Build and compound into complexity.

That premise is nonsense, a literal reductio ad absurdum. Reductionism is good for extracting resources and for creating instruments, medicines, gadgets; but it does not—cannot—tell us how to use them or when or why. It cannot convey meaning because meaning requires contrast, connections, context. It cannot tell us what we need to know in order to write genuine history, even when that history involves nature. At Dome C there is no doubt that nature matters. There is nothing else. Here nature is immanent and immense and, by itself, meaningless.

President’s Address continued online in issue 12.3