OK, this is becoming one of my pet peeves.
I’ve been in conversations about the ecological situation, and the fate of the planet, at least since I started college 20 years ago. And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say something like this:
"You know, the Earth will be fine; It’s humans who will be extinct."
Or "The planet will survive just fine, it’s just that humans won’t be around." Or something like this.
I’m sure I must have heard this 45 times or more. In fact, I think I’ve even said it myself. Year after year, it keeps getting repeated as if it’s a clever, insightful, or accurate rejoinder.
But it’s not.
Just last Saturday night I heard it said by a noted environmental thinker, Stewart Brand. Brand is the visionary who created The Whole Earth Catalog and called for a photograph of Earth from space. Brand is also a bit of a contrarian. He’s not afraid to advocate a controversial idea, such as nuclear power or GMOs. But even knowing the contrarian side of Brand, I was stunned to hear him repeat the old canard about how ‘the Earth will be fine…"
Here’s the context:
This was a panel of ecological folks that followed a screening of an excellent new documentary, "Climate Refugees." Brand and others were discussing the immense threat that climate change poses to humanity and civilization. This is, of course, a clear and compelling point that we all need to understand. But to my mind, Brand stretched the point too far when he implied that the only threat or primary threat was to civilization. Specifically he said "Life will be fine." And later, "The planet’s OK."
This was more than enough to send my pet peeve sensors into high alert.
But it doesn’t matter who’s recycling this golden oldie, because whether it’s an environmental legend, your earnest college roommate, or an annoying co-worker, here’s why it’s totally wrong.
When people say things like this, they are thinking about the Earth in a very reductionist way.
Here’s another recent example: a few months ago I gave a piece of my writing to a friend for comments. In the piece I had mentioned that the ecological crisis threatens "the survival of humanity and the planet." At this point my friend wrote in the margins, "No. planet will persist–life systems may not."
I get the point. But this is a pretty dualistic and reductionist way of thinking about the planet. The life systems are the planet, as much as the lava, the clouds, the elephants, the seas, the consciousness. The "Earth" is all of it.
The Earth is not just a rock we walk around on.
The Earth must also be defined, and understood, as the interconnected web of living species and ecosystems. And the web of living species is, believe me, far from fine.
Better yet, don’t believe me; just go to the website created by David Ulansey, www.massextinction.net. But be prepared to weep on your keyboard, because the "Earth" is really not OK.
The esteemed biologist, E.O. Wilson, has said that half of the planet’s species could be gone before the end of this century. In a very real sense, that’s like losing half the planet. Fifty percent of the biosphere is about to vanish forever, right before our eyes, in the span of a human lifetime.
This is perhaps the biggest thing that’s ever happened.
So I’m really not sure what Stewart Brand could have meant when he said, "Life will be fine." We are staring at the nightmare scenario as life unravels all around us and our beloved and necessary companions disappear. The African Lion: nearly gone. The Asian Elephant: nearly gone. Tigers, egrets, salmon endangered. The seas have been emptied of fish and marine mammals. It’s happening right now, and we haven’t seen anything like this in 65 million years. To lose a species is to irrevocably lose a modality of Earth, an irreplacable expression of the planet and the wild intelligence of the universe.
When Brand says, "Life will be fine," he might mean that a number of species will survive a few more degrees of global warming. And certainly this is correct. Undoubtedly some forms of life will perservere no matter what. But talk about diminished expectations. A planet of roaches and weeds is a far cry from Earth as she has blossomed through the past 65 million years of the Cenozoic Period. A planet of barnacles is not the Earth we all fell in love with when NASA finally delivered on Brand’s request and graced us with the ultimate group photo.
In the mid-60s Stewart Brand printed buttons that asked the brilliant question, "Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?"
When the revelatory photographs of Earth from space were published, our human eyes saw something new: our planet as a unified totality.
Seeing Earth as a unity gives us a chance to understand a vital lesson that Thomas Berry taught to me:
Every part of the Earth is a mode of the Earth.
Every being on the Earth, is the Earth.
A tiger is the Earth. A thunderstorm is the Earth. A poem is the Earth.
The Earth expresses herself through the myriad beings. The planet is embodied in every one of its phenomena.
To lose half the living species is to lose a major part of the planet.
When people say, "The Earth will be fine," they are ignoring the mass extinction crisis and the tens of thousands of species we are sending into oblivion every year. They are also falling into a dreadfully reductionist way of thinking about the planet.
Again, the Earth is not just a big rock that we walk around on top of.
In other words, the Earth is not just the lithosphere.
I’m no scientist, but even I can tell you that the planet is made up of the lithosphere, the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. The rock-sphere, the air-sphere, the ocean-sphere, and the life-sphere.
When people say, "The Earth will survive, no matter what," I think there are really two things that are meant. The first is an acknowledgement that life is amazingly resilient, and despite disruption and assault, the planet’s capacities for healing and renewal are immense. Some species will survive any calamity, and over tens of millions of years new life forms can emerge.
This, I think, is the point Stewart Brand was making.
The second point is far more ridiculous. The second implication of the ‘Earth-is-fine’ statement is that, in the long run, the Earth will be fine because humans are unlikely to fully decimate the big, dumb rock that is the Earth.
To which I say, duh.
I don’t think anyone is suggesting that a few more degrees of climate change, or a few more species going extinct, is going to cause the lithosphere to suddenly start crumbling.
No, we probably won’t split the planet in half.
But the next time somebody starts crowing about how the Earth will be fine, remind them that "Earth" is the biosphere, too.
And then call them a dumbass.