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Does the Earth need saving?

Hardly a day goes by without someone writing or saying that we need to save the Earth. My geologist friends scoff at such language for semantic reasons. The coolish, rocky planet that we call Earth will be fine when humans are long gone, they say.

Yes, climate change and human depredations of the biosphere have already brought many species to extinction and will likely extinguish many more. And, the radioactive wastes we leave behind might very well get spread about the Earth in ways that are destructive to life. But give the Earth a few hundred million years, and all of this will be essentially forgotten, gone without a trace.

As for life, it is doubtful that the consequences of human actions, however extensive, could wipe out every trace of life on the globe. Some form of life is likely to survive anything we as a species ultimately throw at it and then begin the cycle of evolution all over again.

So, if the planet doesn't need saving, what does? Well, two things depending on your goals. Many people believe that humans are moving quickly toward premature extinction, and, as I mentioned above, that we are taking many species with us. So, if your goal is to maintain the continuity of the human species, you presumably have your work cut out for you--or maybe not depending on the result you'd like to see.

We humans are almost certainly in overshoot, a term from population biology that means we've exceeded the long-term carrying capacity of the Earth for humans given our current technology and consumption habits. So, here's the solution. Bring the per-capita consumption of humans down drastically or drastically reduce the number of humans consuming at our current rate. The first seems nearly impossible given our system of governance and technology and the fact that there are so many poor people who aspire to higher levels of consumption. The second seems impossible even though we have highly effective and cheap contraceptive technology that would over the course of the next century enable us to reduce our numbers down to one billion. (This assumes that average fertility is no more than one child per couple.)

There is a third solution. And, that is simply to let nature take its course and thin human numbers through plagues, food and resource shortages, climate-related catastrophes and the collapse of our complex global economic network that might ensue. Even with all of this, humans are extremely resilient, and enough of us would likely survive to create a new system of living based on the available resources under the new climate conditions on Earth.

It seems that human continuity is relatively assured no matter what. So, what we are really talking about saving is not the species, but the way of life we currently enjoy and the number of humans who currently enjoy it (using the term in its broadest sense since the world's vast sea of poor people must enjoy it without the material benefits of citizens in wealthy countries).

There is certainly an interest in protecting one's children and grandchildren who may face an increasingly perilous climate and shrinking resources including food. And, there is a broader concern that the world's poor will bear the brunt of these problems resulting in skyrocketing death rates.

But, some people have an even more wide-ranging concern for all the other creatures and plants which inhabit the Earth. In general, they form a web of life that provides us with services not accounted for by our money-driven economy, so-called ecoservices which according to the Encyclopedia of Earth do the following:

 

  • Moderate weather extremes and their impacts
  • Disperse seeds
  • Mitigate drought and floods
  • Protect people from harmful ultraviolet rays in sunlight
  • Cycle and move nutrients
  • Protect stream and river channels and coastal shores from erosion
  • Detoxify and decompose wastes
  • Control agricultural pests
  • Maintain biodiversity
  • Generate and preserve soils and renew their fertility
  • Contribute to climate stability
  • Purify the air and water
  • Regulate disease carrying organisms
  • Pollinate crops and natural vegetation

We could not survive without these ecoservices and would be bankrupted if we had to provide them completely artificially. Their scope and complexity are something on which our entire global society depends and gets essentially free of charge.

So, a concern for the well-being of all the other creatures and plants which inhabit the Earth is partly an act of self-interest in survival. Beyond this, there are aesthetic, cultural and moral reasons for preserving these other living things. For instance, it is sad to imagine a world without the beauty of the tiger. But we may someday inhabit such a world.

We inherited a rich diversity of edible plants, but have been narrowing the ones we continue to raise based on our ability to grow vast quantities with modern farm machinery and methods--and our ability to store, ship and market crops across long distances. A part of our cultural as well as our genetic heritage is being lost.

Then, there is the moral argument. Deep ecologists suggest that all life has intrinsic worth and that therefore to exploit and destroy other life except to satisfy basic needs is a moral failing. For deep ecologists, then, preserving life on Earth means much more than simply preserving human life.

So, next time someone tells you he or she wants to save the Earth, you might inquire, "Which part? And for what or whom?" It's a vital clarification. If you only wish to save the human species consuming at its current level, then humans will surely continue to impoverish the plant and animal kingdoms. And, we humans might ultimately see our numbers diminished considerably by forces beyond our control if we insist that consumption go up or stay the same, rather than go down.

However, if your goals are broader, those goals may require far-reaching changes in human society as it is currently configured. So, yes, go out and save the Earth. But, you would do well to understand which part you want to save and for what or whom you want to save it.

Earth from space image via Nasa/wikimedia.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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