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Lunch Hour Lectures: Why glaciers don’t like the smell of frying bacon

By Thomas Hughes, on 1 February 2016

This Lunch Hour Lecture by Professor Henrietta Moore (UCL Institute for Global Prosperity) looked at humans’ ability to give things in nature; plants, animals, even mountains and rivers, a consciousness and assign intentions to them. Can this help us to build a better relationship with nature and build a prosperous future?

English Wikipedia, original upload 14 January 2005 by Ben W Bell

The Athabasca Glacier on the Columbia Icefield

Professor Moore opened by talking about a modern art project that was just a neon sign of a telephone number. When the number was called and it connected, the caller could hear the live sounds from a glacier.

So we can hear the glacier, but can it hear us? Many people in the past have certainly believed so. Tribes living on glaciers in Canada believed that the glaciers were social spaces and would react to being disrespected, and that the glaciers particularly disliked the smell of frying bacon. People interpreted the will of the glacier though its “surges” where the glacier would expand or shrink.

During the Little Ice Age, from the 16th to the 19th centuries, the glaciers moved so far into France that the local people assumed that they had angered it. They ran to it with swords to drive it away and brought a bishop to bless it.

Many societies around the world continue to venerate forests, rivers and mountains and believe that nature must be compensated if angered or damaged. Ecuador and Bolivia have enshrined these rights in their constitutions. Can this help us form a moral framework to protect nature?

This kind of belief in sensate nature has often been ignored in academic discussion. However, we accept that a number of animals, such as dogs, display intelligence, so does sentience require language? If so, can we attribute sentience to other things? And would doing so change the way that we perceive the Earth and its complex interconnected systems?

There are some interesting examples of this sensate nature. The plant mimosa pudica is famous for curling its leaves when it is threatened. Scientists found that if you dropped it a short height it would curl its leaves, but on subsequent tries it would stop.

They waited a week, a month and still it would not curl its leaves when dropped, but would do so for new stimuli. Somehow, it had learnt that being dropped was not a threat.

The human body is another interesting example. We are full of a complex mix of microbes that drives the body’s desire for certain foods and chemicals and can even affect our mood. “We’re only one tenth human!” as Professor Moore put it.

The complex relationship with the microbes in our bodies enables them to communicate their desires and intentions to us.

We are also changing the boundaries between the animate and the inanimate with scientific research into areas such as synthetic biology and robotics.

If we can give intelligence to inanimate objects, can this help us improve our relationship with nature and help us build a prosperous world? The danger is that we continue to believe that technology simply gives us more ways to be masters of nature.

With economic growth slowing all around the world, what is holding back our continued prosperity is inequality and the abuse of the earth and its resources.

As science accepts that some of this sensate nature, such as gut microbes, is to some extent intelligent, perhaps we can learn to rethink our relationship to nature and re-establish the respect we used to have. In doing so, we can build a new style of prosperity.

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