Back in the age of reason, by which of course I mean the Middle Ages, where the great thinkers were too busy using their minds to waste time crowing over how reasonable they were, it was recognized that people are the only earthly creatures created for their own sake. The rest of the material universe was created, at least as far as we could tell, for the sake of something else. That something else was us.
This bit of philosophizing would, I suppose, strike the desiccated post-post-modern mind as rank hubris. It is in fact common sense, both in the abstract sense of what a sensible person would believe and in the more concrete sense of how we all commonly sense things.
We know, somehow, that we are in charge, sort of, at least on a day to day basis. Caretakers. Sure, stuff happens, and its not like we’re in control of the weather or can boss the whales around – but it’s our job to sort of see to things, keep tabs, and maybe step in, once in a great while, to nudge things back on course. In this sense, we are different from the other animals – if we behaved like any other animal, we’d throw the last panda on the barbeque without a second (or first) thought.
Even crazy people get this. When they complain about how people are destroying the planet* they tacitly admit that we have a duty not to destroy it – a duty shared by no other creature. And we should save it (whatever that means) for what or whom? Is death by red giant in a billion years really better than death by – what, exactly? – right now? Why? Who cares?
Lurking necessarily here is the belief that people are different – better, even – than animals. We are different in that we can in fact be held responsible for what we do to the world. We are different, ultimately, because the world was created for us. We are to live in it, learn from it, love it, care for it, and use it.
The real hubris is believing that we have the power to destroy the planet. Ratcheting down the hyperbole a notch or 10, what people seem to mean by ‘destroy the planet’ is something like ‘disrupt some of the ecosystems so much that life becomes difficult and unpleasant for people’. Sure, the language used includes concern for species going extinct slightly before their time, but that just betrays a lack of understanding of Darwin – species go extinct, get used to it – and an assumed point of view where it is natural and good to care about other species – why would that be, exactly? I suppose if we really put our minds to it, we could even kill off all people and other large land animals with a huge nuclear war. However, even in that unlikely event, earth would keep on keeping on. In a few million years, a visitor from another planet wouldn’t even know anything in particular had happened without a Geiger counter. If the recovery from whatever wiped out the dinosaurs is any indication, in a few million years all the niches will be filled and fascinating new animals and plants and fungi and such will be all over the place, and just as inhuman as Darwin can make them.
Which, one would presume, would be fine with that particular brand of anti-human nature lovers. So, like, why don’t they just shut up already? If what they want is a world free from the pollutant of human beings, and what we are now doing is destroying the planet in the sense of making it unlivable for humans, all that’s required for their particular Nirvana is patience. And if you lack patience, you could always kill yourself, which both helps the process along and improves the mental environment for those of us left behind.
Further, to even want to save the planet from us betrays a certain lack of perspective. Mammalian species typically only last a few million years, tops, so the earth stands a really good chance to be rid of us in short order, naturalistically speaking, no matter what we do. Unless, of course, we’re not just animals.
But, alas! We are not in fact destroying the planet, even in the limited sense a less unhinged view demands. Baring a space princess event, if anything it could be argued that we rather seem to be making it better – a fact certain to infuriate a number of people.
How are we making it better? If, in fact, the world has been created for us (how or by whom doesn’t really matter for the argument), then the more people able to live well on the planet, the better. Right now, there are about 6 billion people living pretty good lives on this planet. They’re not starving, they have a place to sleep at night and clothes on their backs. All they need are family and friends to be pretty happy, as far a human happiness goes. And – here’s the kicker – we’re pretty much aware that, on the whole, life is better and more interesting the more interesting creatures live in the world. We like forests and rivers and lakes and mountains, and so, for the most part, we have begun to take care of them – for our sake. Who else’s sake could we possibly be doing it for?
Recently, Google published an amazing map showing the world’s forests. It shows places where the forests have, on net, been cut down, increased and stayed the same. While most of the essays I saw used this map for the usual panic mongering (one notable exception was an essay that pointed out that, if trends continue, pretty soon deforestation in Brazil will stop entirely) what I saw was more mixed and interesting. For example, zooming in on Vermont shows a state almost completely forested. Yet, a couple hundred years ago, Vermont was heavily farmed. What happened was simple: once land in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest – much better land and climate for farming – became available, Vermont farms started shutting down. Today, Vermont is one of the world’s major producers of quaint, and the land has gone back to forest (except for a few quaint farms).
So, sometimes forests come back. Darwin** wrote about the primeval mixed chestnut forests of the American southeast, how they had been largely cut down by the native American mound builder cultures, yet, by the time curious English naturalists got a look at them 400 years later, it was all but impossible to tell they were not old growth. America shows vast areas that are now forests that had been cut down at some point. Even here in California, where we stopped cutting down redwoods (more or less) once we were down to 5% or so of the original forests, there are vast areas once clear cut that, in a few hundred years, are going to look very much like primordial forests.
What the map showed me was that it’s not a one way street. In Europe and America, it appears forests are on the whole spreading. When I see the areas in Canada and Siberia where heavy logging is now taking place, I wonder about how those areas looked 100 years ago and how they will look 100 years hence. In 100 years, there very well might be more Brazilian rain forests than there are today – that would certainly fit the pattern.***
And this pattern – people wanting to restore nature for their own pleasure – is everywhere. Out here in California, a number of efforts are underway to restore the Bay and Delta wetlands. Turns out we like wildlife and natural beauty. Chesapeake Bay is being quickly, in environmental time-frames, being restored. Sure, the argument says we care about nature – but we can only care about it means something to *us*.
Of course, there are many environmentally bad things going on. Getting the rare earth metals and other materials for wind farms and electric car batteries, for example, have created this. (The irony, not to mention hypocrisy, involved in creating huge toxic sites and poisoning third world peasants so that rich westerners can feel better about our extravagant use of energy is bracing.) But it is simply wrong to think that, in general, people are careless of the environment. We all like to live someplace pretty, tidy and safe – that desire, barring other considerations, extends to the world around us.
So, no, “we” are not “destroying the planet”. We couldn’t, even if we wanted to. Instead, people all over the world are working out how to make the earth a more pleasant place to live – for people. Which includes, happily, making it a more hospitable place for life in general.
* The people destroying the planet are not them, personally, of course – they chose paper, drive a Prius and recycle, activities which in some mysterious way save the planet. The problems of logging to make the bags, safely creating and disposing of the batteries in the Prius, or the rapidly diminishing returns on recycling are just better or more easily ignored problems than the problems of, say, frakking, which merely helps supply the cheap energy needed to keep the internet up and running and all their gadgets and gizmos (including that Prius) humming at prices hundreds of millions of people can afford to pay. But let’s not over think this – that would require some initial thinking.
** I think it was Darwin in Origin of Species. One of those early guys. I haven’t even finished my coffee.
*** Isn’t anybody working on regrowing the north shore Mediterranean pine forests? The ones cut down to make triremes? That would be cool.