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Life has been growing on Earth for about 4 billion years, and during that time there have been a handful of mass extinctions that have wiped out a large percentage of complex lifeforms.  Asteroid impact, volcanic eruption, climate change, anoxia, and poison have dispatched untold numbers of once-successful species to total oblivion or a few lucky fossils.  Species also die off regularly for much less spectacular reasons, and altogether about 98% of documented species no longer exist.

Cry me a river, you say, without all that death there would have been no gap for vertebrates, for mammals, for primates, for humanity.  The tyrannosaurus-less world we awoke to find ourselves on had regained an incredible array of plant, animal, fungal, and microbial diversity, exploiting and even seeming to celebrate every ecological niche on the planet.  Our ancestors, a small population of soft, slow-moving meatbags, lifted their hands from the ground and set about smashing, shaping, shooting, burning, cutting and eating their way to the top.  Although human tribes spread to inhabit every continent except Antarctica, the limits of the world remained unknown, no less to tribal cultures than to pre-Columbian Europe.  There was always the promise of more land, more meat, and more resources for the taking—perhaps not within easy reach, but somewhere near the horizon.

Even after Europe discovered the “new” world, attitudes of conquest and dominion were rarely given second thought.  Manifest destiny drove United States citizens from sea to shining sea, eradicating all kinds of biodiversity along the way.  We not only disregarded the finity of plants and animals, but of a remarkably diverse race of peoples who lived in equilibrium with a world they recognized as precious. But after the West was won, the global balance of power shifted very quickly.  Industry, technology, and medicine led to unprecedented health and fecundity.  Global population exploded exponentially.  There was nowhere left to go.

Now it is humanity that strives toward limitlessness while the world seems to dwindle, inexorably, under our feet.  Like a dark cloud of volcanic ash circling the globe, we stifle and kill species on a massive scale in not much less sudden a fashion.  Even when we keep our hands clean, we contribute to global warming, pollution, and deforestation just by maintaining a modern lifestyle.  We are a mass extinction event, and we are still unfolding.

But as we know, mass extinctions are not the end of the world, and on the contrary, they offer new beginnings for life on Earth.  Whether humanity remains a part of that life remains to be seen.  Complex, intelligent life has evolved from rudimentary beginnings before and can do so again.  And as one of the largest biomasses on the planet, humanity could speciate in the wake of ecological collapse and fragmentation.  How we evolve could surpass our wildest dreams.

But I like being human, and I consider our world a beautiful place, one worth savoring and not throwing away.  Unlike any natural disaster we have the gift of agency and choice, of intelligence, foresight, and decision.  We are coming to terms with a small world that is getting smaller, and we will surely react and adapt to this knowledge as best we can.  But no outcome is inevitable.  All action and inaction will have an impact.  If we want to remain who we believe ourselves to be, we must choose to respect life, to value and foster diversity, to just take it easy once in a while, to control our primal appetites, and to change our very nature.  Only by choosing to change, rather than having to change, can we truly stay human.

Comments

  1. #1 Steven Earl Salmony
    Chapel Hill, NC
    August 17, 2013

    Somehow we have got to do many things differently, do them much more ably, and do all of them simultaneously, collaboratively and fast. Ready or not, like it or not, we are presented with a planetary emergency.This is the time for making necessary behavioral changes by thinking globally and acting locally. Science and common sense will give us direction. What we cannot do is sit on the sidelines. No, we cannot afford to sit this one out. All hand are needed on the deck at this critical moment in the history of our planetary home. Our generation is simply not stepping up to the challenges before us. The consequences of our failures appear colossal and profound with regard to the prospects for future human well being and environmental health. The very last thing a responsible person is to do in such circumstances is consciously and deliberately choose to remain silent, I believe. Are we not participants in and witnesses to yet another preposterous failure of nerve? When are the leaders going to speak out in an intellectually honest way and act with a sense of moral courage? How terrible are things going to have to become on Earth before the-powers-that-be begin to talk about and do the right things, according to the lights and best available knowledge they possess? Whatsoever is real and true must be acknowledged if we are to respond ably to climate destabilization, pollution, biodiversity loss, resource dissipation, environmental degradation and overpopulation,but the manufactured ‘nothing is wrong’ reality is well-established and those who speak truth to power are consistently marginalized and ignored. It is difficult even to imagine how much can be done in such unfavorable circumstances. Still our efforts are vital because the-powers-that-be are living in a fool’s paradise, and the stakes are such that the things that are not being acknowledged will likely destroy life as we know it on Earth. We know how to stop overpopulation humanely.The gravity of this and other looming human-driven global threats are understood and could be confronted with a long overdue determination to do what is necessary. All of the world’s human resources, including overrated intelligence and technology, need to be deployed in order to overcome the emerging and converging wicked problems looming ominously on the horizon.The-powers-that-be could save the world if they acted with the intellectual honesty, moral courage and power they possess to sound alarm bells, forcefully warn the world, and call out loudly and clearly for changes toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized corporate enterprises. But most of the necessary changes are unlikely to happen, The-powers-that-be want to maintain the status quo, come what may. They lack the moral courage and the imagination to save the world we are blessed to inhabit as a fit place for habitation by children everywhere and coming generations.

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