THE BLOG
07/19/2013 05:16 pm ET Updated Sep 18, 2013

Our Terrible, Beautiful, Powerful Selves

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

In a few weeks, hurricane season will commence along the eastern seaboard, and this year promises a rough batch of storms -- just like last year, and the year before.

"Everything is interconnected," Camille Seaman points out at the start of her talk. And while she's talking about the perspiration that evaporates from human skin to become atmospheric water vapor, I can't watch Photos From a Stormchaser without thinking about our other contributions to the atmosphere.

It's impossible to know the extent to which human-generated greenhouse gases influence the formation and the course of any individual hurricane. But we do know that climate change increases the frequency of the biggest, baddest storms -- the monsters, like Sandy, that do the worst damage. And as it turns out, climate change might make hurricanes more common, period.

The world we've accidentally engineered -- drier in some places, wetter in others, more flood-prone along the coasts, and hotter just about everywhere -- is one that's more afflicted by, and more susceptible to, all kinds of disastrous weather. The massive storms, raging wildfires, and punishing droughts we've experienced over the last few years aren't aberrations, but a new, human-created normal.

Every cirrus cloud, every stratus, every cumulonimbus, each breath of wind that blows white fluff across the sky, has been altered by our cities, our factories, our cars. We are everywhere. -- Ben Goldfarb

We've had to expand our very vocabularies to accommodate the transformation of our planet: Welcome to the vernacular, derecho. Say hello to your new friend haboob!

But extreme events are only the most obvious manifestations of our impact on the weather. As soon as we embarked down the road of industrialism -- a road that, to be sure, has led to many fantastic developments, like modern medicine and improved nutrition and electric guitars and everything else that makes the 21st century so convenient and wondrous -- we also became complicit in everything that happens above our heads. Every cirrus cloud, every stratus, every cumulonimbus, each breath of wind that blows white fluff across the sky, has been altered by our cities, our factories, our cars. We are everywhere.

"The air around us, even where it is clean, and smells like spring, and is filled with birds, is different, significantly changed," Bill McKibben wrote in The End of Nature, his seminal book on global warming. Had McKibben been writing in the age of cat memes, he might have said, "We're in ur climate, changing ur weather."

To be clear: what ends in The End of Nature isn't nature at all, but a certain idea of nature -- the clean, crisp, humans-versus-wilderness dichotomy that we've come to associate with writers like John Muir and Thoreau. People on one side, grizzly bears and golden eagles and blue whales on the other.

Thanks to writers like McKibben and William Cronon, we recognize today that we are not separate from nature; we are nature, or at least one of its constituents. The chemicals we release into waterways drive evolution. Our cities destroy the homes of some creatures, but create habitat for others. And we depend on the natural world -- on the bats that eat our pests, on the bees that pollinate our crops, on the shellfish that filter our water -- as surely as any bird or fish or fellow mammal.

This doesn't mean, of course, that our influence on the planet, and our exploitation of it, is in any way benign -- that because we are part of nature, our behavior is inherently normal. We are nothing like any of the other 8.7 million species (give or take a few million obscure types of fungi) on earth. We call beavers ecosystem engineers because they dam rivers and create lakes, but that's peanuts -- who else can change the weather? We wield the power of deities without any of their intentionality or self-awareness.

Camille Seaman's clouds are spectacular, to be sure -- but theirs is not a harmless beauty. They're menacing, ominous, heavy with rain and charged with lightning. They are the parents of floods and fires. And we helped create them. When we look at Seaman's pictures, therefore, when we gaze into the swirling, electric depths of those supercells, we are looking into ourselves -- our terrible, beautiful, powerful selves.

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