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Pi’s tiger and the Anthropocene

General Ideas

Science studies scholar Bruno Latour is fond of the film “Life of Pi” for the metaphor it provides for our current predicament. The main character of the film, Pi, ends up in a lifeboat with a tiger, and not a friendly one. Though Pi builds a raft to give himself distance from the tiger, he must still tie the raft to the lifeboat which holds all the supplies–food, fresh water, and, as we see later, flares. Ultimately, the destruction of his raft forces him to return to the lifeboat and find a way to live with the tiger.

In “Life of Pi” there is no peaceable kingdom like the one depicted by painter and Quaker minister Edward Hicks in the 62 surviving versions of his composition of that name. In “The Peaceable Kingdom” predator lies down with prey and no harm results–a reference to verses in Isaiah depicting an age in which “[t]he wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

In “Life of Pi” viewers are constantly in a state of anxiety about Pi’s fate. The tiger cannot be tamed. And so it is with the biosphere as we enter the Anthropocene, a geological era defined by the large impacts of humans on the Earth and its cycles. As a post-Enlightenment culture, we have long believed that we are now free of the tyranny of nature. We can learn its ways and master it through our knowledge and ingenuity.

But it turns out that mastery over the Earth is an illusion fostered by its huge resources relative to human populations (until now) and the discovery of fossil fuels that have allowed humans to harness tens of millions of years of stored solar energy in just a couple of centuries.

As the dean of the steady-state economists Herman Daly has explained in his essay “Economics in a Full World”:

As the world becomes full of us and our stuff, it becomes empty of what was here before. To deal with this new pattern of scarcity, scientists need to develop a “full world” economics to replace our traditional “empty world” economics.

In the full world we now live in, we are sitting cheek by jowl with Pi’s tiger. The tiger, of course, is the natural world which we have sought to put at a distance. We imagined that we could disentangle ourselves from its fate. But we cannot. Because as much as we might wish that humans and nature could be in separate categories, they aren’t.

The tiger coming at us now is simply the full world pressing down upon us. The effects of the vast stream of entropy that human civilization produces cannot be placed “out there” any more; nor can we simply run away to a new place to avoid it. The effects we humans are having are so great and ubiquitous that we are close to naming a new geologic era of the Earth after ourselves as mentioned above.

Although Pi eventually finds his way back to civilization and the tiger parts with him and enters the forest, we have no such possibility. We must now dance with the tiger, give him some territory (as Pi does), and limit ourselves in our exploitation of the biosphere’s (and lithosphere’s) resources.

Nature, it turns out, is not a passive object, but an active agent. It reacts mightily to our provocations. Pi’s father tells him early in the film that a tiger can never be regarded as a friend, that any feelings Pi thinks he sees in the tiger’s eyes are just projections of Pi’s own.

At the end of the film, Pi tells us that he believes he has seen a glimmer of the tiger’s own feelings and that these feelings are not always geared to hunting and eating, but at times akin to accommodation if not mutual respect. In this he may have something of value for our comparison. For the biosphere itself is made to sustain us and we are made to thrive in it. But if we fail to understand its rhythms and its limits, it will snarl at us and even injure us for our injuries to it.

Our fear should be that the biosphere’s response will end up being all out of proportion to our provocations. In this regard, it is Pi’s father who is right about the tiger and by extension the biosphere. The biosphere will not develop sympathy for our current predicament. It can only remorselessly react. That notion should guide are actions as we move about in the only lifeboat we have, the thin membrane encircling the Earth that makes our existence possible.

Resource Insights by Kurt Cobb

9 Comments on "Pi’s tiger and the Anthropocene"

  1. onlooker on Sun, 16th Jul 2017 2:07 pm 

    We should have practiced restraint in both our population numbers and activities. The question is could we have done it?

  2. Sissyfuss on Sun, 16th Jul 2017 7:16 pm 

    To the natural world we are just one more distraction albeit the greatest one. We have invented philosophyies and religions to exalt our in our imagined status but in the the end we are nothing but a meal for something else. In the past it may have been for insects or big cats. In the near future it may be for our own kind. A delicious fate awaits us all.

  3. onlooker on Sun, 16th Jul 2017 8:35 pm 

    Yes Sissy, we will be humbled and that rings as poetic justice

  4. Apneaman on Sun, 16th Jul 2017 10:53 pm 

    Going underwater: Moscow city center submerged after torrential rain (VIDEO, PHOTOS)

    “Heavy rainfall has pounded the Russian capital yet again, with downtown Moscow resembling large lakes and pools. Muscovites took to social media, sharing what appears to have become the new norm this summer.”

  5. Cloggie on Mon, 17th Jul 2017 2:19 am 

    The Biggest Moscow Flood of 1908

    Mass Moscow Roadworks Caused Flooding, Says Expert

  6. Cloggie on Mon, 17th Jul 2017 2:39 am 

    Collapse, what collapse?

    China still grows with 6.9% year to year:

    Investment +8.6%
    Export +11.3%

    Debt increases also, it needs to be said.

    Massive Chinese steel overproduction, which is of course good news for the offshore wind park builders in NW-Europe, who need massive amounts of steel for their 1000+ ton monopiles and towers times 200,000:

    All these sea jack ships… Aeolus, Neptune, Innovation, Pacific Orca, Sea challenger, MPI Adventure, Veja Mate, Wind Server, Brave Tern, Bold Tern, MPI Enterprise, Sea Jack, Leviathan, Scylla, Kraken (15 ships and I am sure I overlooked a few) are installing on average a single wind tower every day. That’s a lot of steel.

    The cheaper, the better.

  7. Makati1 on Mon, 17th Jul 2017 4:22 am 

    Chinese steel is being used by Chinese companies to build ports, railroads and other infrastructure all over the world, except in the U$. Manila is building a 10 lane flyway, 60 feet over Manila to carry traffic across the city without having to stop. That cuts a 2 hour trip to about 20 minutes and will remove a large part of the city traffic when completed. The amount of steel rebar and beams is mind boggling. Millions of tons of, probably, Chinese steel. I am two blocks from it and am amazed at the scale of the project.

    I hope the price stays down as the farmhouse will need about 15 tons of rebar for construction, not to mention about 50 cu.yd. of concrete. lol

  8. Davy on Mon, 17th Jul 2017 6:03 am 

    China is a huge dynamic county just like the US and the combined EU. It is now deep in dysfunctional debt economics with various bubbles. You can’t trust its economic figures so we can surely write down 6% growth. Of that written down 6% growth how much is growth with a positive return and how much is plain bad debt? What about the zombie companies kept alive by the state pumping out steel, concrete, and other products no longer needed? Malinvestment, excessive debt, and fake economic results all point to a China much less robust economically. Nonetheless it is still growing and some sectors strongly growing. The other side of this strong growth, fake growth, and destructive growth is rapid environmental decline. China represents what is wrong with modern global economics and some here want to praise them.

  9. Makati1 on Mon, 17th Jul 2017 6:45 am 

    Davy, again you could replace ‘China’ with ‘America’ in your comment, and make the SAME claims. Look in the mirror. China does not have half the problems the US does. Not even close. You are so Sinophobic it must hurt.

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