Few people would disagree with the proposition that mankind has had a large and growing impact on Planet Earth. View Earth from space and it’s easy to see. The patchwork of agricultural fields, the green circles of center-pivot irrigation in the deserts, the ribbons of high-speed highways, dammed up rivers, and of course the concentrated blotches of night-time light with its concrete, asphalt, and shingle-covered surfaces that make up our cities.
But what to make of it all? Is this impact the sign of the success of our species or of its wanton destruction? From the broad perspective of the few thousand years it has taken us to do this to the planet, has it been a good thing or bad?
Consider this a thought experiment. An exercise in the philosophy of ethics and empathy. A test of the bounds of compassion, or of the limits of our moral responsibility to treat others justly. Or simply an exercise in objective reasoning.
Objective reasoning takes the individual and his/her feelings out of the picture. This is a very tough question to consider objectively. It's like asking you to consider the possibility that your family or your community would be better off if you did not exist, only taken to a planet-wide scale.
I’ll ask a series of questions and try not to impose answers because I’m interested in a broad range of responses. Send your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll post some of the thought-provoking ones here. Or you can leave a comment below.
So here goes:
The first line of questioning explores how we set boundaries and limits to our compassion.
Is family and community important to you? Sacred, even? To be protected and preserved at all cost?
Do you treat those within your family or community circle differently than those outside of it? If so, can you specify the difference—the way your designated ‘insiders’ are treated differently from the rest of humanity? Do you believe that the world would be a better place without a particular human being or a community of people? Would you declare so publicly? Would you act on such ideas?
Is there an objective definition of justice or fairness that applies to all humans? To all living things? Perhaps even extending to the land?
How do you define your inner circle? Who or what is excluded, and why? Are those in your household inside that circle and those who live next-door out? Are Republicans in and Democrats out? Are Americans in and foreigners out? Are human beings in and all other living things out? Do you have a pet? Are they in? What about other non-human species?
Is there a sense in which all of us—the entire planet—are in this together, striving against the forces of Chaos and destruction?
When someone is hurting, do you feel their pain? Do you want to help? Do you try to make their lives better?
What if that someone is a fan of the University of Alabama gridiron football team, and you are a die-hard Auburn fan, and they’re hurting because your team just beat theirs?
What if that injured someone is a Hatfield and you’re a McCoy and your brother just shot a Hatfield dead?
What if that someone is Black and you’re White?
What if that someone is the Wooly Mammoth, or the Costa Rican Golden Toad, or the Passenger Pigeon? Do pigeon lives matter?
What if that someone is the cockroach spreading filth in your kitchen? … Except you’re the cockroach and Planet Earth is the kitchen.
Yep. A thought experiment.
So, now put yourself in this reality show: Survivor Earth. The TV Reality show version of Survivor is all about understanding the other players—being able to put yourself in their heads—and then nurturing a dynamic balance between being too aggressive and devious and being too wimpy and malleable. It also helps to be adaptable and vigilant—to be ready to jump on unexpected opportunities.
It’s not very different in the real world. In the real version of Survivor Earth, all living things are players. Instead of sitting in a tribal council and voting one species out at the end of an ‘episode,’ everybody is voting all the time, establishing and defending their niches in the community. The game is for blood. Losers do not walk away. Ask the dodo bird.
But what if we did hold a tribal council today? What if we brought together the world’s leading experts on each individual species to speak for them? Each species gets one vote, and can vote any one other species off the Island. It amounts to asking the question posed in the title. Which species do you think would be most likely to get booted on the first vote?
Maybe your response is that it’s ridiculous to give other species the right to vote. They don’t even understand the concept. Maybe you believe that mankind’s superior mind gives us some special dispensation.
The Judeo-Christian Bible tells us that mankind is God’s chosen species, made in His image. It tells us to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the Earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the Earth.” (Genesis 1:28).
Do you think this verse grants humanity the license to destroy whole species that God created? Species that Noah diligently sought out and herded onto his ark at God’s command, but that have since been driven to extinction? If you do not, then do you believe that ecological destruction is the sinful behavior of somebody else, something that you have no responsibility to address? After all, the Rapture is soon to come; and as a believer, you’ll be swept up to Heaven, leaving only the unrepentant behind on Earth to face the Tribulation. If they don’t open their hearts to let Jesus in, if they won’t confess that He is their personal redeemer, then they deserve what they’ve done to this planet, right?
On the other hand, Hindus and Buddhists would say that the mosquito sucking blood out of your arm, which you’re about to smack, could be your grandmother. Maybe the mouse whose back you just snapped in that mousetrap is destined to be your great grandson. These faith traditions put a much more personal spin on the ethics of how we treat other living things.
Even in Islam, animals are given a divine regard that is on a par with humankind. Consider these scriptural quotes:
“And the Earth, He has assigned it to all living creatures.” (Quran 55:10).
“There is not an animal that lives on the Earth, nor a being that flies on its wings, but they form communities like you. Nothing have we omitted from the Book, and they all shall be gathered to their Lord in the end.” (Quran 6:38).
“Seest thou not that it is Allah Whose praise all beings in the heavens and on earth do celebrate, and the birds with wings outspread? Each one knows its own prayer and praise, and Allah knows well all that they do.” (Quran 24:41)
Who’s right? Even dispassionate science talks about the interdependent web of life—the idea that there are connections, sometimes hidden, between our welfare and that of other species—animal, plant, microbe, and even the inanimate, such as the soil.
So, are we humans a rogue species? Are we being bad citizens, bullies in the community of life? Do we deserve to be voted off the Island?
Are we unwittingly voting ourselves off? Are we dooming the lives of our great grandchildren by stripping resources and soiling our own nest faster than the planet can recover? In the name of progress? On the wings of selfish greed?
How long can we sustain the current trends of deforestation, soil erosion, ground water depletion, consumption of non-renewable resources, population growth? How much longer can advances in industry and technology sustain the economic growth that we depend on?
Optimists will tell us we have always met the challenges we face as our population rushes toward the ten billion mark, and we will continue to do so. We will find a way. Perhaps we will reach to the stars and colonize other worlds. Perhaps we will manage to keep ahead of the curve right here on Earth, with improving technology and advanced efficiency, as the population grows.
Optimists have long believed that someday Earth could be an ‘Ecumenopolis’—a continuous planet-wide city such as Isaac Asimov’s Trantor from his ‘Foundation’ sci-fi novel series. I can envision a planet covered entirely in layers of urban development eight miles deep/high that intensively use and recycle every cubic foot of air and every gallon of water. In my novel series ‘Eden’s Womb’ there is an ancient universe, trillions of trillions of years old, called Kilkinney, where some Earth-sized planets support a quadrillion people (a million billion, or a hundred thousand people for every one that we have on Earth today). That is probably about the practical limit, but who knows? The people of Ecumenopolis robotically mine their solar system’s asteroids for water and minerals, draw energy straight from the sun via vast arrays of space-borne collectors. They eject their non-recyclable wastes into deep interstellar space.
Such a planet would be completely subdued and sanitized, with few remaining natural spaces and no wild ones, except perhaps the most restless volcanic zones. The population would not be limited to our current land areas. Ocean water would all be hard at work cycling through the planet’s vast plumbing system, just as all air would be circulating via the ventilation system.
Life in Ecumenopolis could be Utopian, assuming you like big cities and don’t mind living in what is essentially a vast space-ship. But other species, right down to the microbes, would be fully regulated. Extinction would not be a concern. All the genomes would have been preserved. But no species other than man would know ‘freedom.’
Pessimists, on the other hand, point to the inevitability of the unforeseen—the Chaos that forever lurks just beyond the limits of our control. COVID-19 is a perfect example. Maybe there will be another meteor like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs, or a whole shower of them from interstellar space as the sun hurtles through a debris field from some ancient super-nova. How about a mega-volcano spewing lava and poison gasses from the restless and uncontrollable core of our planet? Maybe the run-away infestation of rogue self-replicating nano-robots that reprogrammed themselves or mutated due to cosmic radiation. What about nuclear terrorism, guerrilla war, riots and anarchy spawned by self-perceived marginalized communities?
The pessimist can perceive endless possibilities for our civilization’s demise. Any one of these mega-crises, or a combination of smaller ones—the ‘death by a thousand cuts’—could result in the collapse of our civilization and a return to the Stone Age, with Earth supporting no more than a few hundred thousand humans. This, too, is explored in ‘Eden’s Womb,’ where the main protagonist lives in an enlightened stone-age culture on a post-apocalyptic Earth.
If Earth’s non-human species could choose between man’s utopian dream where biology is completely regulated, or his apocalyptic nightmare, where nature restores its savage dominance, they would surely opt for the latter.
What would you opt for? Or is there middle ground? Could we establish significant preserves where humans are forbidden, limiting our mega-cities to a small fraction of the surface? Can our natural greed be so effectively corralled? European’s treatment of America’s first peoples suggests it cannot. The criminal underground has been with us since civilization began. What could lead us to change—to respect the role of wild places in our world?
Throughout this discussion I have not once mentioned climate change. I believe the most serious existential crises we will face do not come primarily from global warming. Though that is a symptom and a serious contributing factor, I believe there are many more fast-moving risks that are likely to undo us first. Look at how quickly COVID moved. War and civil unrest do not creep in on little cat feet like Carl Sandburg’s fog. Look at the swift reaction to George Floyd’s death. It is the nature of the human psyche that negative change does not come slowly. Rome was not built in a day, but on July 19, 64AD, while Nero fiddled (actually playing the lyre and singing the ‘Iliupersis’), it burned to the ground. The stock market goes down in sudden catastrophic crashes, then takes years to cautiously recover. Straw upon straw quietly piles onto the camel’s back, imperceptibly adding pressure and tension, until the bones suddenly snap.
Please share your thoughts at email@example.com . What is mankind doing to his one and only planet? Is he being wise or foolish?
I expect I will hear many diverse voices who speak up for mankind. But will anyone speak for the wilderness?