Forget the planet, save the humans!

Via the contest notification I posted about here, I just watched a very effective video they say was conceived, written and directed by a 10 year old boy. Watch it below, it is about a minute:

"Save It" Global Warming message by 10 yr old from 1skycampaign on Vimeo.

Not to be critical at all, especially not of a 10 year old who has not contributed to the framing of environmental debates yet, but it does bring up something that has been bugging me for a while. The whole "Save the Planet" meme is a bit misguided and I think presents a weak point for activists in the media circus that surrounds environmental issues.

The thing is, the planet will be fine. Even life on this planet will be fine when you consider the timescales the earth drifts through. No matter how horribly we screw things up, life will recover, even if it takes a million years. That is a tremendous amount of time when compared to the election cycle, but a million years is nothing set beside the 4.5 billion year age of planet Earth. No matter what toxic or radioactive crap we spew all around us, eventually it will slip back into the earth's mantle and be completely erased, sanitized by anihilation.

No, it is not the planet that needs saving, it is the humans! I think the more activists can make humanity, not the polar bear or the spotted owl, the balancing concern versus the economy, the more effective their arguments will be.


More like this

Unfortunately, humans (as a group) don't make such good charismatic mega-fauna (CMF), and Homo sapiens CMFs are normally not in a position to require much saving (at least the famous ones).

Okay, but enough of the snarkiness on my part. I think you have a good point. There are many people that don't really care about polar bears or spotted owls, nor see the connection between saving these CMFs and their well-being. Changing the argument from "save the animals" to "allow your grandchildren to live as you would like them to" or even "good Christians don't destroy the earth" might well have a greater impact. (At least in expanding the global warming framing conversation.)

I disagree on every possible level.

First of all, humans can degrade materials such that they won't be as useful - especially for tool using animals - and that is irreversible. To say people can't make irreversible changes is just wrong.

Second, screw the humans still trying to "win" by having their family, their race, their tribe simply have more bodies on the ground. If 10% fewer babies were born next year, that would deprive future generations of humans not a whit. If the polar bear and the spotted owl go extinct, THAT is a serious loss.

We don't HAVE a human shortage. We do have a biodiversity shortage, and getting worse.

And if everything but a few cockroaches goes extinct, that's actually a BAD FUCKING THING. And well worth eating into the profits of the super rich now to avoid.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 31 Jul 2008 #permalink

I call bullshit.

Why is a mass extinction, on the scale which has been caused in the past by things like supervolcanoes and honking great asteroids slamming into the planet, considered "the planet will be ok"?

"The planet" is more than just a ball of rock. It is the sum total of species organised into ecosystems, which themselves influence soil, water, and stone, too.

At every mass extinction, unique forms of life are lost which will never be seen again in the history of the universe, so far as we have any reason to believe; and we have no way of knowing what evolutionary futures were pinched off with those disappearances, so arguing that "life" reappeared afterwards is also morally meaningless. But when this happens as the result of an asteroid, for example, it might be a matter for a little bit of regret, but it cannot be considered a moral evil -- after all, there was no intelligence or intent (therefore no actual responsibility) involved in the action, and there was absolutely nothing anyone could possibly have done to avert it.

However, when it comes to a living species with intelligence enough to understand consequences doing that to the rest of the is this in any way excusable? We are not only able to understand what we are doing, we are able to make choices which influence the outcome. And whether we acknowledge it or not, that makes it an issue of responsibility.

And, think. We are prolific omnivorous generalists with a technology advanced enough to allow us to colonise just about every climate on the planet. Rats and cockroaches are only as successful as they are because they ride in on our coattails, and can take advantage of the conditions we set up. We are going to be absolutely the last species to go extinct, possibly after we have strip-mined every other ecosystem right down to the algae. We are not the species which needs "saving". Quality of life on that kind of world would suck, but anybody who thinks we are in more danger of going extinct than any of the rest of the species we are destroying is delusional.

If you want to make it about people, you can legitimately argue we are destroying our own comfort and security; but to say "the planet will be fine" is bullshit that dodges the real issue, and I get sick of hearing it from "environmentalists".

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 31 Jul 2008 #permalink

Wow. What huge leaps in logic are being portrayed here.

The planet's biodiversity is maximized when the planet is warm and minimized during ice ages. We are currently in an ice age. We will continue to be until Antarctica moves away from the south pole. If we once again fall into a period like the Dalton or, God forbid, Maunder minimum, many humans will starve. Falling back into an ice age like we had 70,000 years ago would kill most of our species. Life on this planet needs warmth. Apparently, if it is our duty to ensure lasting biodiversity by increasing both the temperature and the amount of CO2 in the air so all plants and animals can prosper.

When it comes to appealing to giving your kids the kind of life you want them to have, most people think economically. That has been the problem with this message from an environmental perspective.

John M Reynold

Meow, Luna;

I agree with everything you have to say, with the exception of the initial "bullshit" remark! And yet I stand by what I wrote. Hmmm....

Hi John,

I would like to refer you to this article in my sceptic guide.

The basic point being that it is not the final equilibrium state the climate will arrive at after we stop altering the atmospheric chemistry, the problem is the rapidity and extremity of the change.

coby: explain how you reconcile your statements to agreeing with me. I'm not seeing it.

...Oh, and it's not just the speed with which climatic changes happen, either. It's the fact that human interference with/destruction of various ecosystems has also left numerous species on "islands" with uncrossable habitat barriers between them and a climate or latitude which might suit them better, and/or many species populations are already considerably reduced because of various stressors on them (such as overhunting/overfishing, habitat destruction, or pollution) -- so far more species get pushed into extinction than might otherwise be during climatic fluctuation.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

It's frankly naive for you to treat this as either a new or effective technique.

Anyone who would be moved to protect the environment because of future generations of humanity would, in all likelihood, already have been willing to protect the environment because of endangered wildlife. Likewise, the people who are willing to write off all those species and spaces that they themselves will never benefit from, are not likely to give a crap about some hypothetical people who might or might not be a bit worse off on some other continent sixty years from now.

Neither empathy nor callousness are zero-sum; as Christopher Hitchens noted, the people who care the most about any given topic beyond their own immediate personal interests are the most likely to care about other selfless topics as well. Hence the stereotype of weepy liberals chasing every cause in the world; it's largely true, and so is its inverse. You can't just turn a selfish git into an eco-warrior by re-framing the issue, because unless it really does become a matter of their own immediate personal needs they will never care about any proxy group of sufferers you could possibly name.


It is not so much that our statements agree, but rather they are not in conflict. Maybe if I clarify a bit, also for Marion Delgado, that I do not personally believe it is morally or even practically okay to let things go to pot, to extinguish species and ecosystems, to destroy entire landscapes or to pollute the water systems. I value tremendously biodiversity and I do not want the spotted owl to go extinct. But when activists start talking about "destroying the planet" or "wiping out life forever" they are engaging in counter productive hyberboles and shifting the debate to a disadvantageous plane.

In case people did not watch or keep in mind the video that prompted my post, it depicted a vanishing globe to the sound track of a stopping heartbeat.

Make no mistake, humanity in its current behaviour is disease making the biosphere very sick. But if snowball earth didn't, and the Great Dying didn't, we will not extinguish life.

I took Luna's point to be mostly "so what, it is still terrible what we are doing" and with this I heartily agree. The earth will still be around and will be thriving again in a million years (what I said), but so what, no one I can possibly care about will be and in the meantime so many things I value will be destroyed (what Luna and Marion are saying).


A good clarification, but you probably have to say many millions of years, not "a" million. Especially if all the clathrates come out.

To the obligatory denialist troll:

There is no research linearly associating temperature with biodiversity. Venus, at one end, and a snowball Earth, at the other end, would be maximally uniform and almost lifeless. (Side note to Coby, we don't KNOW there was no open water in the Cryogenic). Apparently, the warm end is worse than the cold end. It's also crazy to think more acidic oceans are more biodiverse. Most of the life in the oceans will be near to shore, by the way. This is of a piece with your either moronic or dishonest "C02 is life" crap. Tell that to the abundant plant life on Venus.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

coby: then you missed my point, actually.

I neither said nor imeant "The planet will be fine, but what we are doing is still terrible."

What I said, and meant, is "'The planet will be fine' is a stupid and completely inaccurate way to characterise the situatiation."

Just because we don't manage to extinguish life entirely doesn't mean that you can say "the planet will be fine."

"The planet" includes its species and ecosystems, and vast numbers of those are going to be dead and gone forever, not "fine". For the love of little green apples, are dinosaurs "fine"? Are trilobites "fine"? --Are the baiji "fine"?

There is still an earth, but what composes that earth is no longer the same thing, and it is not the same earth. There is more to the planet than a ball of rock occupying the same space around the same star, is what I'm trying to convey to you here. To say "the planet will be fine" is to gloss over and blow off the fact that the living composition which in fact MAKES the planet what it is, gets destroyed.

What pisses me off the most about it, too, is that I have actually seen this "the planet will be fine" trope USED, not just once but many times, by many different individuals on both sides of the political spectrum, as a justification for complete inaction. From the "conservative" (what a misnomer) side, "the planet is bigger than all of us, it will be fine. We're not big enough to destroy it." From the hard left wing side, "We should just let humans make themselves extinct, then the planet will be fine." Both ways, it is used as an excuse and a reason not to fight destruction of local species or environments, or alter any lifestyles.

I'm sure that is not what you meant. But if you want to talk about trying to influence people to not be so environmentally destructive, try not to hand them the phrase/play into a trope which is widely used to discount and ignore environmental destruction.

Besides, it is not something with which I agree on any level (I hope you understand that now), and I would be ashamed and disgusted to stand behind anything like it.

By Luna_the_cat (not verified) on 01 Aug 2008 #permalink

I don't know if it is constructive to pursue, but I will take one more shot at it...

You mentioned the dinosaurs. They did indeed go extinct, and they are indeed less than fine. But up until, say 10,000 years ago, wouldn't you have said that the earth was fine? Even without dinosaurs? I don't disagree that the Earth is more than a ball of rock, it is an intricate web of ecosystems. This is really just a question of point of view, is one ecosystem better than any other? If all the current ones extinguish (whcih BTW is entirely likely in even the most natural progression of events) but are replaced by different but equally intricate ones, has the earth taken as a whole on a long term view really lost out? I think from the point of view of Gaia, it will be right again.

It is the human point of view that will be seeing calamity. The current ecosystems are our ecosystems and we depend on them much more than people tend to realize.

Think of it like getting a very bad first degree burn. The doctor will tell you, that yes it hurts but you will be fine. All that dead skin won't be, and you will suffer for a while but you will be fine.

I agree that "the planet will be ok" is similarily misused by right wing talking points to justify destruction, what won't be misued? But I think it is so much easier to make that line look ridiculous by revealing the timescales involved and showing what we and our immediate descendants will have to live with until the earth recovers.

Anyway, you don't have to agree with my point, but I still think our argument is like arguing over the glass being half full or half empty.

I think you're presenting a false dichotomy. I would argue that preserving the current biosphere on the plant IS saving humans. We are part of the biosphere, and depend upon it for our existence, our standard of living, and our quality of life. Save the Planet = Save Human Life As We Know It. I think as a species we've got it pretty good right now, so can we please try to keep it that way? (i.e., let's stop messing with the climate before it starts messing with us more than we can handle).

I think you can use either half of the message (Save the Planet, or Save the Humans) depending on who you're talking to and what they care about, but I argue that it's still the same message.

Hi Chad,

This is largely my point, that saving the biosphere is saving the humans. I am only saying that as a PR battle cry "save your children" is more effective than "save the biosphere".

On a tangential note: does it qualify as a false dichotomy if both positions are the same? Usually false dichotomy means there are more than two choices, here the problem is there is actually just one. If only there were some sort of giant listing of words and phrases together with their meanings...

5 years on I still have one more thing to add: it may just be anthropic luck that the Snowball Earth (which might not have been complete w/r/t open water) or any Great Dying didn't, in fact, get rid of evolving life. If it had, we wouldn't be having this discussion. What's actually unscientific and anti-scientific in the extreme is to assert, as they did in Jurassic Park, that "life finds a way." The point is .... until it doesn't. And then it's too late to un-take the risk.

By Marion Delgado (not verified) on 15 Nov 2013 #permalink