the post-human sublime

In a recent article for OnEarth magazine titled “After We’re Gone,” author Ginger Strand discusses her reaction to being asked to participate in the History Channel’s series ‘Life After People,’ which looks at all sorts of human creations going to ruin after we’re gone and can’t take care of them.

Reflecting on our fascination with imagining the world without us, Strand suggests,

“There’s a word for all this: sublime. The artistic term describes the awe we feel for things larger than ourselves. In the past, the natural world was sublime: mountains, waterfalls, the ocean, and the stars gave people a sense of insignificance in relation to the vast universe. But we have lost the faculty to be so diminished. We move mountains and harness rivers. We have unleashed the power of the atom, unraveled the secrets of our genome, and unbalanced the planet’s climate. What on this puny rock could be bigger than we are? Yet our seeming omnipotence does not satisfy us. We still yearn to see the natural world as supreme, but to do it we have to exterminate ourselves.”

(emphasis is mine in this and in the following quote)

I think it’s a convincing explanation of the meme, despite the fact that I personally still feel quite awe-struck by the natural phenomena she mentions.

Still, I can’t imagine what it was like to live in a time before a human had crossed the ocean in an airplane, or had successfully escaped Earth’s atmosphere. Even while I marvel at nature and the universe, I admit that there is always a feeling in the background of confidence, perhaps ownership. The history of human ingenuity and our constant leaps in technological innovation make it seem that nothing in unconquerable.

Greek and Roman authors loved to come back to ancient stories of humans overstepping their bounds and suffering the consequences: Phaethon’s sun-chariot, Jason’s Argo, Icarus’ wax wings. We are ingenious innovators and explorers, but we need to be reminded to dial back our ambitions from time to time, to consider what we are willing to sacrifice in the name of “progress.” But the “post-human sublime” meme, as Strand calls it, isn’t just a warning to watch our step moving forward lest we lose everything we’ve built, but a reminder that in the big scheme of things, what matters is what we do right now.

Strand concludes:

“The show–though it scared my nephews–was not despairing. Look at the world, it urged us. Human things are not all that matters. Grass matters. Falling water matters. They would matter if we were gone. In forcing us to imagine our own absence, it was calling our for presence, goading us to take up once more a right relationship to a world that must remain, for the foreseeable future, saddled with us.”

One response to “the post-human sublime

  1. I totally agree with you about the power of nature—it bowls me over from time to time (Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance. Any National Park), but it’s not frightening. The power of the place doesn’t seem to bring into question our survival, or ability to exist within it, inhabit it, destroy it. Maybe that’s why people climb the tallest mountains in the world? To experience the fear and excitement of a fair fight? Something in nature that is still lethal to humans and our wax wings.

    We survive the tallest mountains, but in smaller numbers.

    This is a great post, albeit a touch depressing. Once you’ve started moving mountains, how do you learn to slow down? How do you teach 6 billion people to slow down?

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