Function of the Apocalypse Trope in Marsh’s “The Earth as Modified by Human Action”

This work is rather interesting for both the outdated scientific theories it presents and the mostly still-valid conclusions drawn from them. The basic structure is that of detailing the problems that the expansion of man is causing–which go widely ignored–and analyzing the socio-economic machinations of the societies generating the worldwide acceleration of unsustainable consumption, followed by an emphasis on the need to document (to prove) such changes and necessary steps towards meaningful change and restraint. The mode employed is comic as Marsh, although dire in some of his predictions, is proposing what needs to be done to ameliorate the situation as opposed to resigning the world to deterministic total exhaustion. He is guardedly hopeful in flawed human agency as evidenced by the passage “…changes like these must await…a command of pecuniary and of mechanical means not at present enjoyed…and a more advanced and generally diffused knowledge of the processes by which the amelioration of soil and climate is possible…until such circumstances…the countries I have mentioned…will continue to sink into yet deeper desolation” (Marsh, 47). Marsh is often hinting at the optimistic side of things–that the observable depletion of the Earth can possibly be arrested–although such optimism is often overshadowed by his insistence that the Earth will, should humanity maintain its present course, eventually be depleted. This is demonstrated in the passage “The earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence…would reduce it to such a condition…as to threaten…perhaps even extinction of the species [humans]” (Marsh, 43-44) In Garrard’s Ecocriticism, a passage by O’Leary best establishes the mode employed by Marsh as comic. The passage reads “Comedy conceives of evil not as guilt, but as error; its mechanism of redemption is recognition rather than victimage, and its plot moves not toward sacrifice but to the exposure of fallibility” (Garrard, 87). This perfectly describes the mode employed by Marsh. Marsh is emphasizing the need for progress and broader understanding in the previously referenced passage which fits with the statement that “its mechanism of redemption is recognition” and broader knowledge will lead to “the exposure of fallibility” (87).

In employing the comic mode of apocalypticism and through no small measure of scienticism, Marsh is attempting to make an appeal to reason through dire prediction and description. He elaborately analyzes the problem, providing no small number of examples of degradation, and then proposes (although somewhat vaguely) that in the future these problems will need to be worked out or eventually humanity will descend into desperation and possibly extinction.  I believe his purpose was to rationally inform readers about the specifics that they should be aware of and use of the tragic mode would not adequately fulfill his purposes as there seems to be an underpinning empiricism diffuse throughout the work and dire predictions that humanity is eventually going to deplete the entire globe to emphasize the seriousness and immediacy of the problem would poorly suit his purposes.

One response to this post.

  1. Posted by lpeake on November 3, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I agree that Marsh lends some hope that mankind will fix the problems that but he is not sure we will ever reach that point. He states that “these achievements are more glorious than the proudest triumphs of war, but, thus far, they give but faint hope that we shall yet make full atonement for our spend-thrift waste of the bounties of nature” (Marsh 44). So it seems that he thinks that while we could go in the right direction, it may be better, but it may never be good enough to right all of the destruction mankind has done.

    Marsh, George P. The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Ch./Art: Destructiveness of Man; Instability of American Life p. 33-55, 396-397. Pub. Arno Press 1970

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