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The Earth Will Be Just Fine, Thank You

The grand myth of environmentalism is that it's all about saving the Earth.

It's not. The Earth will be just fine. Environmentalism is all about saving ourselves.

That may seem a bit counter-intuitive; after all, the Earth is certainly central to the rhetoric, the memetics of environmentalism. Most environmental discussions focus on ecological dynamics, with references to human beings typically limited to enumerations of the various insults we've visited upon the planet. Given the degree of culpability we bear for the current state of the planet, this is entirely appropriate.

But the rhetorical focus of environmentalism on the planet obscures the fact that what human beings have done to the Earth pales in comparison to past disasters hitting our world, from massive asteroid strikes to super-volcano eruptions killing off 90+% of the Earth's species. In fact, over the course of our planet's lifespan it's experienced every form of (non-human-engineered) apocalypse on the Eschatological Taxonomy up to Class IV -- in comparison, humans have yet to unleash even a Class 0 Apocalypse. And in every case, the Earth has recovered, and life has once again flourished.

We sometimes make the conceptual mistake of thinking that the way the Earth's ecosystem is today is the way it will forever be, that we've somehow reached an ecological end-state. But even in an eco-conscious world, or one devoid of humans entirely, natural processes from evolution to geophysical and solar cycles would continue. The Earth's been at this for a long time, literally billions of years; from a planetary perspective, a quadrupling of atmospheric carbon lasting 10,000 years (for example) is little more than a passing blip. The fact of the matter is that, no matter how much greenhouse gas we pump into the atmosphere or how many toxins we dump into the soil and oceans, given enough time the Earth will recover.

But human civilization is far more fragile.

Human civilization could not withstand and recover from the same kinds of assaults the planet itself has shrugged off in eons past. We remain entirely dependent upon myriad Earth services and systems, from topsoil and clean water to carbon cycles and biodiversity. Activities that undermine those critical services and systems quite literally threaten the survival of human civilization. The fundamental resilience of the Earth's geophysical systems simply means that, when we ignore our effects on the planet, we're simply making ourselves disposable, just another passing blip in the planet's long history.

In trying to minimize the harmful impacts of human activities upon the global ecosystem, environmentalism supports the continued healthy existence of humankind.

To me, this too is entirely appropriate. Despite its many flaws, I'm a big fan of human civilization. I marvel at our capacity to organize matter and information, at our ability to learn from mistakes and pass that learning down to subsequent generations. Civilization -- writing, cities, trade, the whole lot of it -- makes us unique on this planet and, as far as we can tell so far, in our part of the universe. Destroying that through malice or negligence is the worst form of crime, and the height of tragedy.

Part of a focus upon civilization, however, is the recognition that we do not exist in isolation, that we are dependent upon an enormous variety of complex systems. As a result, our continued existence requires the continued success of those systems. In order to save ourselves, we have to minimize actions which damage and disrupt the environment.

Like any social movement, environmentalists argue over tactics and goals, and some eco-activists will disagree with my characterization of the purpose of environmentalism. But the reality is that -- at least with current technologies -- there's nothing that we can do to truly put the planetary biosphere at existential risk. It will recover from what we now do, albeit in a different form than today. But what we can do is so violate the integrity of the planet's ecosystem that the Earth can no longer support us.

Critics of environmentalism often claim that eco-activists hate humans, that we value the Earth more than we value ourselves. With very few exceptions, nothing could be further from the truth. Environmentalism is fundamentally about making sure that human beings, and human civilization, can continue to thrive on our home planet for centuries, millennia to come. Environmentalism, in its demands for respect for nature, ultimately demands that we respect ourselves.

Happy Earth Day -- and Happy Civilization Day.


Thank you. Well said.

I've been saying the same thing as you for years. Thanx for putting it in written words.

Really well put.

The "kill all humans" variety of environmentalists drive me crazy. I know they're a small and not terribly influential subset, but they do exist. And of course the stereotypical or strawman environmentalist tends to have those views attributed to them so you have to argue against them anyway.

I used to worry about us killing the planet; now I worry about the planet killing us. The planet will be fine and though dumping pollutants in the ocean and cutting down all the trees and turning every continent to desert might seem bad, as you note that's the kind of event that happens on a very regular basis around here, on the scales that matter, and it's all buried without trace within a few kiloyears.

And in fact I don't worry about humans being "wiped out". Short of a lunatic worldwide pogrom followed by a mass suicide, there simply isn't any way to kill everyone (and even then I'm sure that many groups would be able to hide). Diseases won't do it. Nukes won't do it. Global warming won't do it. War won't do it. People are like rats, you can't get rid of them, and this planet is really, really big, with lots of places to hide.

The question is whether we can live comfortably and sustainably so that our children (or our friend's children) and their children and so on can live comfortably too. That's really the shared project of humankind, to increase welfare for everyone in a sustainable way.

At a milder level than the "kill all humans" types and the overpopulation-cranks-slash-cryptoracists (those things go hand-in-hand in my experience), there are the handwringers, the ones who sadly explain to the developing world that expecting, say, food security, decent housing, healthcare, sanitation, education, transportation, and some consumer goods is just not possible. Regrettably, the handwringer explains, my greedy fellows in the developed world have already used up all the resources, so you just have to suck it up. Oh, and the fact that the handwringer himself is still using resources at developed-world levels? Well... what choice does he have, poor guy?

Of course I don't welcome a world buried in trash, but some trash (for a few decades until we're cheaply recycling virtually all of it, which is nearly certain to happen; "waste material" is mostly highly-processed material and great feedstock for new production) is an acceptable tradeoff for the increase in human welfare we're seeing, as long as we remember that the bigger project is to find ways to consume sustainably. But to do that, it'll certainly be faster if the children of peasants in China go to college and become scientists (consuming all the way, of course). Which, in fact, they are.

None of that is to dismiss the environmental damage we do. But we should understand that our concern about it is always a concern for how it will affect people, taking an expansive view that includes aesthetic and moral concerns as well as utilitarian ones.

You just said far more eloquently than I ever could what I've been thinking and trying to explain since I learned how to think. Thank you.

I saw Lynn Margulis make this same point to an audience of New Age people a number of years ago. She caused quite a stir in the crowd. "What!!? You mean it's not all about us?!!" I even videotaped the event for public access TV and have the tape in my archive, somewhere.

Dr Margulis made me smile then and, recently, when I spent most of a day with her, she confirmed my previous opinion by a couple of orders of magnitude. Wotta woman!!!

Most of the life on this planet is microscopic and maybe even unicellular. The higher order species can come and go but the basic building blocks of life go on and on. We will not destroy the Earth, the biosphere unless we do something extremely stupid - like use all of our nuclear weapons at once or pollute all of the DNA on the planet. Life, living things will continue in most any extreme circumstances our stupidity can create on this blue/green ball. Ain't no guarantee that homo sap will survive though, especially when faced with our own stupidity.


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