I’m in Port Douglas, Australia. Like just about everyone else who visits here, I went today to see the Great Barrier Reef. It’s not unusual for people to finish sentences like that with the quip “while it’s still there.” Indeed, the Australian government has said that chances for coral reefs are very poor. Two hundred years ago, Westerners had no idea the Reef was even there. Now we’re exploring Mars, which is astonishing, but destroying our own habitat, which is worse. Have we dared to know too much?
Old Enlightenment hands will recognize Kant’s challenge in What is Enlightenment?:
sapere aude/dare to know
Who should do such daring? Kant was, among other accomplishments, the first to teach a course on anthropology, although he never traveled. In his various writings on the subject, he established what I take to be a fundamental distinction of Enlightenment between the modern North and the “islands of the South,” which were not only not modern, they could not be modern by definition. For Kant, the South was impossible, out of time, and out of place.
When his contemporary Captain Cook was here at about the same time, he sailed right into the Barrier Reef. Despite his permanent accolade as the “greatest seaman of all time,” his navigation had no concept of such obstacles. The Endeavour had to be repaired and it took over three months. Let’s note that such bricolage would be far beyond any present-day vessel but also realize how much support Cook must have had from the indigenous population to survive, even if that support was compeled, or limited to not killing them. Now the Reef is widely known, a “trip of a lifetime” destination. Judging by the array of facilities here, many people take that trip.
Without lapsing into Romantic sublime, the Reef really is amazing. If you’ve seen Northern hemisphere corals in Florida or the Caribbean, the first thing you learn is how utterly devastated they are by comparison. I’m aware there’s no science in this statement but what I’ve seen is the best local people think they can find to sell to tourists. Although you do see Crown of Thorns starfish, which were the great threat to the Reef before global warming, what remains is nonetheless dazzling. It’s not just the color and the patterns but the interactive adaptation. A fish saw me coming and descended into an anemone, which then wrapped its stinging tentacles around it. It’s that kind of balance that carbon emissions have knocked permanently out of homeostasis by increasing water temperature and acidity. Everyone knows this. No person in a position to do anything asks how they would dare to explain to their grandchildren that, yes, there were such ecosystems but we stood by and let them die.
If you’ve seen bleached coral, it looks not unlike Mars.
Curiosity is the Endeavour of our time: sent for science but with hopes of gain, conquest and colonization not far behind. The sad thing is that, if we want a lifeless desert to explore, we’re making lots of them all over our own planet. What would it take for us to dare to know that? How can we learn, finally, that the South is fully and integrally part of Enlightenment, the modern, knowledge, or whatever you feel inclined to call it?