It is becoming increasingly hard to overstate human impacts on the Earth. The Industrial Revolution kicked off a trend of unprecedented population growth and development that has yet to end, and our effects on other life forms, on earth, air, and water, and on the planetary climate itself have been just as dramatic. Geological authorities are giving serious consideration to declaring the planet to be entering a new epoch defined primarily by human influence over it: the Anthropocene. A National Geographic article on the subject reports that “38 percent of the planet’s ice-free land is now devoted to agriculture.” At the rate that biodiversity is now dropping, researchers have projected that we could reach the level of mass extinction — a loss of at least 75 percent of plant and animal species, what would be only the sixth such event in the past half-billion years — in as little as a few centuries.
We can, and we may well, remake the whole planet, a fact humanity never had to face before the twentieth century. It must now sink in that we could nuke the Earth into a wasteland, render it a ball of grey goo, carpet it in cities and farmland, or bring about any other of a multitude of configurations — and the universe would not intervene to stop us. Barring some cataclysmic change, we seem to be on a path of ever-increasing human domination.
In these circumstances, a novel question arises: what should we make out of the Earth? I acknowledge that it may be akin to asking “If you could take this road trip anywhere at all, where would you most like to go?” as your car careens over a cliff edge. But if we wouldn’t know where to drive even if we could take the wheel ourselves — that bears noticing. There are certainly practical limitations on what we will end up doing, but what we ought to try to do is another question altogether.
We are projected to reach nine billion people by 2050. Few are so fanatically pro-human that they think we should keep heedlessly expanding until we consume everything else on Earth. And while “the planet would be better off without us” is a popular, flippant way of scolding humanity, few are so fanatically pro-nature as to suggest we actually take steps to achieve that outcome. So the question for everyone who falls between those two extremes is: how should we strike the human/nature balance? In the words of New York Times environmental blogger Andrew Revkin: how much nature is enough? Not just enough for humans to get by, that is, but enough to meet our obligations to the world (something I’ve argued we believe ourselves to have).
The project of conservation is not as straightforward as it might seem. Life on Earth, and the Earth itself, have always been in flux; species rise and fall on the hundreds of thousands of years, geological eras come and go over tens of millions. Human civilization has existed for a puny handful of millennia; all we have seen firsthand makes up only the slimmest slice of the world’s whole history. We have wrought astonishing and alarming changes on the planet in that short slice of time; we’ve accelerated the timescale on which ecosystems change to a breakneck pace. Conservation is a direly needed attempt to put a hold on these runaway changes before they irreparably damage the things we value.
But if we succeed at that pressing task, where do we go from there? If we consider the extinction of a species bad, we can manipulate the environment to prevent it. If the climate strays from its normal variation, we may soon be able to geoengineer it back to normalcy. We’re all the more likely to perform these tweaks because our economies and lives require the continuation of business as usual in the ecosystems we depend on. A perfectly custodial humanity could reduce the rate of extinctions and other changes to the barest level — but, on the long term, we’d be maintaining a false equilibrium. If conservation’s ideal is to preserve ecosystems in perpetuity as they are, where they are, with the same makeup of species within them, then its ultimate goal is to make the planet into a museum, a carefully manicured garden, the What Earth Was Like at the Outset of the Anthropocene Park.
The problem is that there is no longer any clear way of separating the “unnatural” from the “natural,” nor any good rule for deciding which we should prefer; the planet is an ever-shifting physical system, not a purpose-built machine with some desired state, and we are only one of its most influential products. Once we have the power to remake nature, nothing is “natural” any longer by virtue of that very fact. It becomes a product of our choice — even if our choice is to carefully tend it, or to leave it alone.
Our moral instincts evolved to help us make decisions on a local scale, among a small group of relations: who gets what, what to do with rule-breakers, how to react to outsiders. For all that the knowledge available to us has expanded and the contexts in which we live have changed, our psychological machinery is more or less the same as that which helped us survive in those small groups. It has been pointed out that these parochial instincts alone come up short when we are faced with decisions on a much larger scale or longer term or in a different context. A point made compellingly by the late astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan is that a bit of perspective can put our sometimes crude and tribalistic moral instincts in a very different light. If modern-day, science-loving secular humanists had saints, he would be one of the foremost — in large part because of words like the following, an excerpt from his reflections on the “Pale Blue Dot” photo the Voyager spacecraft took of Earth as it headed out of our solar system.
From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbour life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
I haven’t yet encountered a lovelier expression of what a rare and precious gem the world is. But there is a retort to Sagan that is perhaps not brought up often enough: aren’t the “rivers of blood” every bit as infinitesimal as the rest? Won’t our kindest dealings with one another vanish into the void just as readily? Sagan uses the relative puniness of the planet to show how insignificant our reasons for conflict are, but at the same time wants to encourage us to behave peacefully and carefully based on its irreplaceable importance to us. He is trying to use the leverage of two very different, maybe inconsistent, perspectives on the world: the insignificant dot, and the all-encompassing stage of the entire human drama.
In my last two posts, I’ve attempted to show that our responses to the tricky ethical questions surrounding the environment have a lot to do with the context within which we approach them. When my pet dog hurts his foot, it’s a crisis; when billions of comparably intelligent pigs are farmed for food, it’s normal (or it’s unconscionable, depending on who you ask); when countless prey animals are hunted in the wild it’s “just natural.” Our sphere of concern expands or contracts depending on what’s salient to us — we take the side of our family at one moment, then our city, our class, our country, our ethnicity, our species, the animal kingdom, the planet. When these sets of values come into conflict, it is never easy to resolve. And, indeed, I doubt there is ever going to be a principled way of resolving such dilemmas. There is no set of super-values that will compel us at all times and in every context, no sphere of concern recommending itself as objectively better than the others, no ultimate moral perspective that can encompass the relative tininess of the Earth and its relative enormity all at once.
Maybe having unprecedented determining power over our world is one of those “good problems to have.” Never before have so many people lived, nor lived so long nor been so well-provided-for. It’s a show of the amazing potential of the human species that we can look at a picture of this planet taken from beyond Pluto in the first place. But I can’t get away from seeing the tragic side of possessing this kind of power. We were never prepared to make decisions on this scale; as I’ve tried to suggest, they beggar our normal decision-making capabilities, they can throw us into a kind of moral vertigo. But it is unquestionably better that we should puzzle over what is to become of the world now than that we should blunder forward, pursuing narrow, local interests, and only later discover that we have made of it something we might not want.