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What Is a NATURAL Disaster In the Age of Anthropocene?



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Note: this video covers the same topic.


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Remember the last time there was a natural disaster in your country or elsewhere?


When you saw the news online or on TV about a flood, storm, heatwave, hurricane, tornado, drought, or bushfire...


…was the media coverage ONLY about the natural disaster and its impact on people, infrastructure, and the economy…


Or was climate change also mentioned?


Maybe you heard things like:


  • Worse flood/heatwave/storm/fire in a hundred years,

  • Third time this fire/flood/storm happened this year,

  • “In my 30 years, I’ve never seen a fire/flood/storm like that!”,

  • Driest/wettest/hottest year on record


I dunno about you but over the past few years I’ve been noticing climate change mentioned every second time a natural disaster hits, and possibly every time during more in-depth coverage, right after the emergency/economic info (number of casualties, houses destroyed, economic loss…).


The below points are usually raised in that disaster/climate change media coverage:


  • Why are these events (storm/fire/flood) getting more intense and frequent?

  • Are such events more likely in ____ area?

  • To what extent is climate change involved in this particular event (if at all – although the ‘if at all’ is retreating)

  • How are we going to adapt to more severe and frequent storms/fires/floods (building seawalls, building houses away from floodplains and eroding shorelines..)

  • Are we doing enough to mitigate climate change to reduce the severity and frequency of storms/fires/floods (What trees are we planting/clearing? What materials are we using to build houses? Are we burning less fossil fuels? Are emissions rising?)


In Australia, the last major natural disasters were two big floods in 2022. The first floods were, according to BOM, devastating and record-breaking - inundating whole towns across south-eastern QLD and eastern NSW. Wilsons River at Lismore peaked at 14.4 metres. The damage bill from these first floods alone reached $4.8 billion from around 225,000 claims.


The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) said about the floods:


“In recent decades, there has been a trend towards a greater proportion of high-intensity, short-duration rainfall events,” and


“As the climate warms, heavy rainfall events are expected to continue to become more intense. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour than a cooler atmosphere, and this relationship alone can increase moisture in the atmosphere by 7 per cent per 1 degree Celsius of global warming. This can cause an increased likelihood of heavy rainfall events.”


Now, we know that climate change is human-caused.

We also know that there is a link between global warming and extreme weather events


There’s even a new sub-branch of climate science, called attribution science, that studies this link.


The term ‘Anthropocene’ - a “period of time during which human activities have impacted the environment enough to constitute a distinct geological change” has also been around for a while.


Although:


(a) we don’t yet know exactly the extent to which climate change contributes to extreme weather events, e.g. is it two, 12, or 42 per cent? Are storms and hurricanes more climate change-enhanced than floods?...


(b), the term Anthropocene isn’t official...


We know that humans have a considerable influence on something that has – until recently – always been considered separated from us, outside of our control.


Does the recognition that ‘natural’ disasters are no longer ONLY natural – that humans are contributing – end a four-hundred-year-long period of human separation from nature?


For four centuries until now, there has been a separation between humans and everything else, including nature. But that separation is now eroding thanks to the no-longer-only-natural disasters.

But how did that separation even begin?


This dualistic approach started* with Rene Descartes - a 16th century French mathematician and rationalist philosopher. Contemporary of Galileo and Thomas Hobbes, Descartes wanted to free people from the shackles of medieval mysticism and superstition. (*by started, I mean he was a key figure of this approach, not the only figure.)


Descartes’s view of the role of philosophy was that of exact science that followed mathematical, logical formulas and was backed by mathematical proofs. There was no room for ambiguity, murkiness, darkness, doubt, and speculation.


Clear and distinct ideas, and proven concepts


One of the key principles of Cartesian Dualism, his system, is the separation of body and mind (hence the term ‘dualism’).

Descartes believed – and according to his logic, proved – that the human body, including the brain, follows its own, distinct, physical, material laws, a bit like a machine, whereas the human mind follows its own, immaterial laws, such as the way we think.


The human individual embodies this dualistic coexistence of a material, mechanistic body, and immaterial mind, in a sense of a ghostlike soul inhabiting a machine-like brain and body.


But Descartes, a mathematician seeking proof for everything, initially struggled to prove his beliefs, thoughts, and theories. He was ripping himself to shreds..


..until one day the penny dropped.


Using deduction as a method of reasoning to arrive at that which can be absolutely certain (and doubting everything else), he realized that the only thing he can be ABSOLUTELY certain of is him thinking. He could be doubting and questioning everything in the world, but even if he was, in that moment of doubting, he could be absolutely certain that he is doubting.


Doubting is, of course, a form of thinking and that’s how his famous maxim, Cogito, ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) emerged.


This was, for the first time, absolute certainty (and proof) of the mind’s existence.


Because if the only thing I can be certain of is me thinking, that elevates me thinking to a higher ground than anything else. It gives me confidence, and a sense of detachment; I can coolly observe and appraise the outside world, including my own body. Everything outside me thinking is out there - plants, animals, people, resources, tools, rivers, nature, and my own body. This duality, separation between subject and object, gives me distance and confidence, I can explore, exploit, and experiment, because I am not connected to these objects.


It also implicitly challenged the primacy of theology (Descartes had to be careful about this to save his life), because I think, irrespective of what the doctrine says. My thinking is the only real proof of existence, a starting point for everything else. Not my belief in God.


This SEPARATION of mind and body, and also, subject and object, corresponded with and contributed to the scientific revolution of the day. Renaissance was at its peak and the Enlightenment was entering the scene.


As Norman Doidge states, Descartes’ mind/body division has dominated science for four hundred years.


But this artificial Berlin wall is breaking


Every time there is a natural disaster, climate change is mentioned. Living in the Anthropocene, attribution science sharpens our understanding.


We don’t all have to become tree huggers and suddenly worship Indigenous cultures.


We can simply reflect on our own behaviour against extreme weather events that remind us of the connection between us and nature.


These reminders are thundering, storming, and burning their way into our collective consciousness.


Thanks for reading.



Jan



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