Summer 2010 was marked by one of the worst environmental disasters ever experienced on a global scale. Following the explosion of the oil rig Deepwater Horizon on April 20—the drilling platform for British Petroleum—thousands of tons of crude oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. As a result, water and energy came together in ways that had the potential to do tremendous damage to the land and the air, which were invaded by an oil slick and toxic gases. This was clearly a man-made crisis, which the world watched with shock and dismay.
In the aftermath of this event and the chaos caused by greed and incompetence, it is important to remind humanity of what it might have forgotten. Ancient philosophy following Empedocles, Plato, and Aristotle freed from mythology the theory of the four world elements—earth, water, air, and fire; each had its own natural place. The Stoic philosopher Seneca (ca. 3 BC–65 AD) offered insight into ancient theories of cosmology. He maintained that nature, the principle of vital energy “governing the world,” organized the world like a human body in which water, air, earth, and fire circulated as if through veins, without ever mixing, always retaining their original properties. Water is the most powerful element. If fire means the end of the world, then water is the beginning of the world (Natural Questions 3.13–15). All things exist and survive only if we take care to protect them, the philosopher adds, and the world is a symphony in which dissonances are resolved (Natural Question 3.27, 7.27). We need to be certain not to disturb the beautiful and fragile balance of the elements. Indeed, “cosmos,” in ancient Greek, means both beauty and harmony as well as world.
Thus the poet and philosopher Ovid (43 BC–17/18 AD), who inspired Seneca, describes the emergence of the world from the chaos in which everything is indistinct:
Before there was earth or sea or the sky that covers everything, Nature appeared the same throughout the whole world, what [End Page 72] we call chaos: a raw confused mass, nothing but inert matter, badly combined discordant atoms of things, confused together. … Though there was land and sea and air, it was unstable land, unswimmable water, Air needing light. Nothing retained its shape, one thing obstructed another, because together cold fought with heat, moist with dry, soft with hard, and weight with weightless things.
This conflict was ended by a god, or a greater order of nature, since he split off the earth from the sky, the sea from the land, and divided the transparent heavens from the dense air. When he had disentangled the elements, and freed them from the obscure mass, he fixed them in separate spaces in harmonious peace. . . .
. . . And so that no region might lack its own animate beings, the stars and the forms of gods occupied the floor of heaven, the sea gave a home to the shining fish, Earth took the wild animals, and the light air flying things.
As yet there was no animal capable of higher thought that could be ruler of all the rest. Then humankind was born. Either the creator god, source of better world, seeded it from the divine, or the newborn earth just drawn from the highest heavens still contained fragments related to the skies, his parent.(2004, 3–4)
This is how chaos is pacified and organized rationally. This conception of a world as a work of differentiation can be found in the Bible as well as in certain important Egyptian and Indian myths. Thus any technology has to take into account the wise and vital distinction of the four elements if it does not want to destroy nature and the human race. Universal explosions such as that described by Ovid and by the grand narratives of human history always feature the mixing fire and water, on the one hand, and air and earth, on the other. Any violation of the boundaries separating the elements, any excessive mixing of discrete elements, will take its toll on humankind. To mix the elements is to risk producing...