Nature Strikes Back
On the Brilliance and Misery of Progress
by Eberhard Stammler
[This article by the editor of Evangelische Kommentare is translated from the German in: Evangelische Kommentare 3/95.]
The Rhine finds its way back to its bed but what it has inflicted with its escapades is not yet forgotten. Damages in the billions are just as little straightened out as their causes. Although the world is confronted day after day with blows of fate, it can be frightened now and then by catastrophes surpassing all earlier dimensions and therefore registered as century events.
This is true for the flooding catastrophe in the Rhine and for the earthquake in Kobe. In both situations, nature is experienced as a primal force to which a person feels hopelessly exposed. That was hardly clearer than in the million-fold city of Kobe where in twenty seconds the world collapsed for the population there. While humanity established itself on our earth as though it were an unshakable base, it was not aware that mighty forces simmer and rumble under our feet and that continents drift on this seething mass like a fierce hell in constant movement. The pertinent science recognizes this state of affairs but cannot offer either reliable prognoses or effective counter-measures. No one knows when and where the next catastrophe can be expected.
The water masses of the Rhine broke with such force over a highly developed landscape that it was overrun despite all precaution. People often saw themselves powerlessly delivered up to them. Humanity always perceived the struggle with this element as a powerful challenge. Humanity has wrested wide areas of land from the water (especially in the Netherlands). It has regulated and tamed its course and utilized its powers as energy-and life sources, entirely aside from the great opportunities as a means of commerce. Despite all the successes, grievous defeats must be taken in the bargain again and again.
In these and many other areas, countless achievements are doubtlessly owed to the triumphant advance of human progress that we accept as self-evident and no longer want to renounce. The commission to dominate and exhaust the earth and seize nature has been understood so that it is subjected more and more to human purposes.
For a long time, this haughty claim of rule - as the most recent catastrophes verify - reaches its limits and often far exceeds them. Perhaps afflicted nature is now resisting and striking back with all its strength. While in earlier centuries, such catastrophes were accepted more as dispensations of fate, modern self-confidence feels so stricken that it begins to doubt in itself or become confused.
What the ancient story of the tower of Babel had shown now seems reflected in the fate of modern times to a fatal extent. Belief in human omnipotence celebrated astonishing triumphs. However since it attempts to force heaven on earth and promises the ultimate fulfillment of all hopes in this world, it experiences its powerlessness increasingly and painfully while stumbling or coming to grief in the futility of its gigantic future dreams and claims of happiness. The tinge of Tristesse lying over the post-modern also suggests the end of that ideology that everything is possible and must be feasible.
Such setbacks, disappointments and disillusionments could meaningfully reveal the limitation of human claims of power and give way to that humanity which the modern hubris denied in its feasibility delusion. A renewed powerful impulse of thought could be expected from these experiences that radically corrects the wanton and irresponsible relation to nature and makes responsibility for the household of creation more convincing. The extent to which this tedious learning process prevails may depend on the credibility of Christian engagement in this area.
The exemplary experiences among the afflicted should not be forgotten. Plunderers were resisted and frolicsome onlookers were fined. The matter-of-factness with which assistance spontaneously occurred everywhere was most impressive. This experience was so surprising because it was presupposed in analyses of contemporary society that such "virtues" were largely lost.
That such shocking experiences are needed to cause a momentous change in human consciousness is thoroughly conceivable. In these challenging situations, it was proven that readiness for responsibility for fellow persons and the obligation to solidarity action can determine thought and conduct even in a society trimmed to egoism. Can the overwhelming pictures of catastrophes ultimately produce a rethinking in associating with nature?