On Airs, Waters, and Places

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On Airs, Waters, and Places

400 BCE

Ancient ideas.


information | Gnomon | words | Homework

Andrea Merkel, German Chancellor, called it too late to stop global climate chaos because of the rate at which the industrialized nations are increasing their heat trapping gas emissions. As Bill Mckibben commented nearly two decades ago that humans have developed the capacity to alter the atmosphere thereby affecting all natural weathering and reproductive processes on earth. More significantly the past climate variations are no longer reliable predictive patterns for our future because our human pollution has been so prolonged, so pervasive and so decisive in altering the oceans.

In the sense of Hippocrates, the ancient Greek writer, we have significantly altered the airs, waters and places that were once the province of forces beyond human influence and technical control, Any physician, according to Hippocrates had to know about these natural conditions to better understand situations in which diseases due to climate, pests, or water sources spread among people whose health they seek to restore.

Today the conceptual triad from the Hippocratic Corpus provides an opportunity for us to understand the threat from natural carbon in airs and waters to places on earth. The triad may reveal how --by treating this waste gas as a commodity-- the inherent natural assets of wildlife, forests, even water bodies take on an economic importance that are not apparent. Airs and waters are inherently tied into a functional bundle that manifests widespread influence on human health in the corpus.

For example DDT sprayed in the air, persists chemically resisting degradation as it accumulates in water bodies, the tissues of fish and birds, while it also has been shown to increase the risk of testicular cancer. By using the coherent view exhibited in the corpus the connections among water, air, energy and human livelihoods may become more obvious to a wider audience. In the case of seeing water bodies with this ancient perspective consider the Severn estuary in Britain which has an estimated capacity to generate five percent of the U. K. electricity demands from the river mouth's tidal power. Similarly a forest under the European Union's cap and trade system has value --not as timber or as wildlife sanctuaries-- but a new valuation based on its storage capacity for removing carbon dioxide from the air when it is not cut down. No one invests in tidal power because of the costs with respect to oil and gas and the the fragmentation of nature into disconnected pieces.

ike he old story of Osiris, modern automated and energy intensive industry has dismembered the body of nature and severed the air from the water that regulates the atmosphere and sliced the nourishing soil microbes from the air they replenish. The Hippocratic corpus linking the parts as one body serves a rhetorical service in placing the current need for pollution control and sensible energy use into a less complicated context from which new insights may arise.

This old ethic when tied to a new financial instrument has tremendous importance for water supplies, wildlife habitat and recreational values, not to mention tillage practices, building design and human health. This importance lies in a new valuation --an opportunity under carbon cap and trade system that does not exist otherwise. The peril in making a commodity of our natural resources is a real and present danger to our ethos. Commodities bring with them responsibilities that can easily be overlooked in a materialistic and narrowed product based frame of reference. There is an equal problem in the ancient Hippocratic corpus and its dictum to "do no harm." for one might easily suggest that had the writings of Hippocrates been influential there would be no need to revive them, indeed their superstitions may have hampered not engendered a more profound understanding of natural places.

In this respect it is important to understand the limits and opportunities in the Hippocratic corpus, the way we have changed the air, waters, and places and why we need, in the words of the German MP ____ a new means of dealing with people, their environment and wildlife in an age consumption driven energy scarcity and rising incomes among greater numbers of people.

Solutions to urgent problems, in Freeman Dyson's analysis .

The imagery & rhetoric
The footprint
The bottleneck
            Coming chaos

The long term
Pop, persistent organic pollutants
Endocrine disruption

The short term
            Water pollution


David Brower,  interpreting the works of J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Stephen J. Gould, understood that the genetic river flowing through us is the molecular history of life on earth.

tree line

Hippocrates writes (page one) :


In the same manner, when one comes into a city to which he is a stranger, he ought to consider its situation, how it lies as to the winds and the rising of the sun; for its influence is not the same whether it lies to the north or the south, to the rising or to the setting sun. These things one ought to consider most attentively, and concerning the waters which the inhabitants use, whether they be marshy and soft, or hard, and running from elevated and rocky situations, and then if saltish and unfit for cooking; and the ground, whether it be naked and deficient in water, or wooded and well watered, and whether it lies in a hollow, confined situation, or is elevated and cold; and the mode in which the inhabitants live, and what are their pursuits, whether they are fond of drinking and eating to excess, and given to indolence, or are fond of exercise and labor, and not given to excess in eating and drinking.

2. From these things he must proceed to investigate everything else. For if one knows all these things well, or at least the greater part of them, he cannot miss knowing, when he comes into a strange city, either the diseases peculiar to the place, or the particular nature of common diseases, so that he will not be in doubt as to the treatment of the diseases, or commit mistakes, as is likely to be the case provided one had not previously considered these matters.



Original Sources on nature

water & air in the concept of Weal

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Last Updated on July 14, 2008