Other Writing

Us and the Earth: A Faustian Bargian
January 9th, 2008

Globe & Mail

Thomas Homer-Dixon recently advised Globe and Mail readers how to use technology to tame the rising oceans. A man named Faust had a similar idea in 1832. The real Faust was a shadowy figure. The Faust we know, who has entered Western myth, was created by German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Goethe’s Faust loved wild nature – it gave him back the hope he had lost through excessive study in books. But Faust also wanted to help “mankind” by “developing” nature. One day, he saw “the high sea: it surged and swelled, mounted up more and more.” The sea was “useless … spreading its barren will.”

Faust became determined to “conquer” the sea, to “drive it back into itself.”

Faust was noble to a fault. He remained noble by averting his eyes from the tragic consequences of his projects. The darker, more cynical, more realistic dangers of Faust’s plans were brought to fruition by his sometime friend, a certain Mephistopheles. Faust fell in with Mephistopheles, who, if the truth is to be told, prodded him on to good, as well as ill.

Faust succeeded in gaining “hospitable” land for mankind, yet he was still unhappy. Mephistopheles said, “Your lofty plan, your industry, have made you lord of land and sea” – so why are you so restless and unhappy? Faust had a great estate. Beside it, perhaps blocking his clear view of the sea, was a small piece of land with a few trees, owned by an old couple. Faust wanted that land to build a great platform for surveying the “masterpiece” of his work remoulding nature. But the “stubborn” old couple liked their land and would not move. Faust was upset because his massive estate was “not pure … that line of linden-trees, that little shack … are not mine.”

Mephistopheles was sympathetic: “Why scruple then at this late hour? Are you not a colonial power?” Faust was pushed beyond restraint, and, knowing the likely consequences but hiding from them, said to “clear them out.” He’d build them a fine new cottage somewhere else.

At the same time, a stranger was visiting the “kindly” old couple. They told him of the “wonders” of the changes to the area. It was now a “paradise.” Dams and dikes “built in a day pushed back the sea.” Sea waves, “fierce and foaming,” gave way to a park, villages and gardens. But everything had been done too quickly. “Strange doings … things unnaturally hurried,” worried the old woman. “Things were not as they should have been.” There were cries in the night, human sacrifices, and “Fire ran down like rivers burning.”

Mephistopheles visited the old couple that night. Predictably, things did not go as planned. That evening, Faust’s watchman surveyed the land and saw “eternal beauty,” but then noticed the “fiery sparks” roaring through the linden trees. The hut was soon ablaze, its mossy beams “burning red.” He feared the old couple would not escape. Later, Mephistopheles told Faust that the old couple had “misconstrued” his meaning, that some “force” was needed. The old couple died immediately. The stranger was killed. The “merry, blazing fire” was a “triple funeral pyre.”

Faust felt terrible, but quickly got over it. He had new projects.

Faust’s story has passed into human history. It can be interpreted in countless ways. Perhaps in his restless need to develop, to cultivate himself and nature, Faust is the quintessential Western man. All cultures used nature to survive, and where possible, to prosper. In the Western world, nature was prodded, interrogated, mastered, dominated, transformed and – sometimes – destroyed. The results are astonishing in medicine, science, technology, economics, and social organization. Those who hate technology forget how many women died in childbirth, and how many children died from common infections, before modern medicine. Now, the achievement of the West has spread, and there are Fausts everywhere around the globe, men and women, from New York to Beijing, New Delhi to Toronto. This is fair, yet poses new dangers. There is, after all, only one nature, one Earth.

The murder of the old couple – and Faust’s willful blindness to the destructive underside of his noble plans – reminds us of the destructive underside of the West’s astonishing achievement. We have deluded ourselves that we are special, and somehow detached, separate, better than the very Earth that spawned us, raised us, supports us now, and is our only home. What gives us the right to lay waste whole species and ecosystems to satisfy our blind growth? Can we continue in this Faustian way? Will we destroy ourselves and the Earth? Can we control our restless wills, even if we want to? Does endless competition woven into life mean that we must go-go-go until we destroy ourselves? Can we co-operate? Can we develop wisdom?

Goethe and Faust both needed wild spaces to give them hope and make them feel alive. Yet the logic of Faustian development is the destruction of nature itself. What will become of us – if we are even alive – when we have turned the world into a parking lot? Our Faustian bargain is with ourselves: We can achieve, if we remain blind. We see what we want to see. Humans rarely do a true accounting of costs. At bottom, perhaps we are afraid. One way or another, things will change. Can we tame ourselves? Can we learn to see? My mind says no. My heart says yes.

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