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. (more…)