In the time of the ancient Greek philosophers around the third century B.C., Aristotle developed a system to understand the complexity of the world. He postulated that all things were made up of four basic elements: earth, air, fire, and water.
Differing proportions of each of these four ingredients accounted for the differences between all materials, living or inanimate. It fascinates me that we are still focused on these basic elements no matter the knowledge we have amassed over the millennia. Our knowledge of these fundamental ingredients of planet Earth has changed but they are still powerfully important to its survival.
Beginning in the 18th century and continuing through the present, we have discovered much more about the material basis of our world. The basic four elements named by the ancient Greeks are now known to be made up of more than a hundred defined and described chemical elements whose detailed atomic structures and physical and chemical behaviors have been studied and documented over the last 300 years.
Each of the four elements defined by the Greek philosophers has many aspects we humans have learned to use over the millennia for our survival and benefit. Water, a basic component and necessity of all life and a natural solvent, has been used for cooking, and for controlling disease through washing our bodies, clothing, and food. It is a rich source of many foods. It is a basic need for growing crops and raising domestic animals. Water, free-flowing or frozen, is a vital support for many forms of transportation. Fast flowing water powers machines from simple to complex, some producing secondary power, such as electricity.
Air is fundamental to our survival and that of all life on earth. It can be used for powering transportation on water, and various forms of flight have been developed using the power and lift. Air in the form of wind has powered mills for grinding grain into flour and generating electricity.
Earth has supported crops and animals, provided shelter and housing of many kinds, and provided the first primitive tools, weapons, and reusable domestic pots for cooking and storing food. Roads, simple and complex, are all built basically on earth or using earthen-based materials and have enabled travel and settlement. Earth is a source of ores and other raw materials. It is used to build dams to collect or control water flow.
Fire has protected our species from predators and allowed us to survive harsh, cold climates and preserve precious food supplies. Fire has also allowed us to use ingredients from the earth itself to forge metals, the basis of the development of complex tools. Fire has also allowed humans to clear land for crops and communities.
Climate change brings into focus the fundamental importance of the four basic elements through which Aristotle attempted to make sense of his world. Floods and the desecration of oceanic and riverine waters; forest fires; degraded air quality and soil (earth) pollution. If there is one thing that unites us with the ancient Greeks and those who lived millennia before them, and with all our ancestors, we use our natural resources and leave a trail of rubbish behind! Humans have done this for as long as they have known how to hunt and fish for food and inhabit permanent shelters. All we need is the moral, mental and spiritual power to use the knowledge that we have amassed over several thousand years, to clean up our mess and protect this planet.
Through our ingenuity, we have used and abused these four fundamental aspects of our planet to the extreme and now we find that it is important to the survival of life as we know it, to change our ways. In a recent New York Times article, “Let the Water go Where it Wants to go,” Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City uses the example of the recent September storm floods from Hurricane Ida, to explain a problem typical of many coastal cities all over the world. These cities were built, over the centuries, close to, and often spreading illegally over, streams, poorly drained wetlands, and small rivers. When hurricane-force winds and rain arrive the ancient streams back up through the former wetlands and ancient, partially blocked streambeds, and flood the city from the bottom up. Many people were trapped by recent storms in older, illegally rented, basement apartments in New York City. The water came from below the buildings filling the apartments while people slept. In the same way, the subways flooded from below, not by water flowing down from the streets above. As the climate changes unexpected events like this will become more common.
Fire, as we know from several summers of forest fires out West, is the cause of multiple disasters and negatively impacts the three other elements especially air quality. Lack of snow and rain has left the forests dry, but poor forest management and lax regulation, allowing the building of homes and communities in ecologically sensitive areas, have been major causes of disaster. Large fires anywhere on Earth affect air quality in places far from the fire’s origin. We cannot control volcanic eruptions but we can do better at controlling fire on the surface of the Earth.
Earth/soil is a living material and so needs the same attention that all life needs: water, air, food, and careful treatment. Contamination, over-use, and burning of forests are some of the causes of soil destruction. For people to survive they must be able to grow food which makes Earth a fundamental necessity for all life. So many of our basic societal needs also come from Earth: metals, stone, energy resources at present, and raw materials for many industries and scientific research. Careless access to raw materials and trash disposal can also destroy neighboring soil.
We know more about these four elements of our world than the ancient philosophers did but their actual recognition and definition was a great achievement setting forth a way to understand our planet. Our modern view is less philosophical and more practical, as scientific study has shown more details of what each Element encompasses and how they interact to provide the core for the survival of life on this planet. We know what we need to do to preserve them, we just need to do it!