The World and Us

by Phil Anderson

It is easy to blame someone else for environmental problems – big business, greedy people, climate deniers, etc. But we all are part of the problem. We all make choices to consume more, drive bigger cars, live in bigger houses and gad about on airplanes. As I hypocritically prepare for a plane trip, I am reminded that the biggest obstacle to a cleaner world is our attitudes. As I wrote in 2017, our own human hubris is the problem.  

Human Hubris “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” E.O. Wilson, biologist and author   “You share 25% of your genes with a banana. Get over yourself.” Bumper sticker  

Supposedly when asked what the study of nature told him about God, the biologist J. B. S. Haldane said, "The Creator must have an inordinate fondness for beetles. He made so many of them." Humans think we are the highest pinnacle of evolution (or God's creation). We are the top of the food chain (made in “his” image) and everything exists for our use and benefit. But as E.O Wilson points out, the world would get along just fine without us. We, however, can not get along without nature.   Throughout human history we have placed ourselves at the center of all things. We once believed the cosmos revolved around the Earth. Now, we know the Earth is a tiny fragment of rock revolving around an average star on the far edge of a massive universe.  

Our hubris (and medieval religious beliefs) blind us to the consequences of our actions. When we ignore climate change, or the increasing extinction of other species, or the possibility of nuclear holocaust forever altering the planet, we imperil our own species. As the book “World Without Us” by Alan Weisman suggests, if humans suddenly disappeared from the earth our grandiose human infrastructure would begin crumbling within days. Although our trash and the ruins our cities would remain for some time, the earth would quickly heal from the “wounds” of human “civilization.” The earth will survive no matter what we do to it. The question is – will we?  

We are not special. We are not the ultimate creation of evolution. Evolution has no direction and no goal. The evolutionary processes that shape all life on Earth have resulted in an extraordinary diversity of life. We are only part of that diversity. Evolution is the continual adaptation of organisms to their surroundings. When the surroundings change, those life forms poorly adapted to the new environment perish, while those who adapt well survive. If we alter the environment other species (bacteria, insects, etc) will adapt much quicker than we will. They will survive but we may not.  

We fail to appreciate these marvelous adaptations in other species. We fail to appreciate, for example, that other animals have remarkable intelligence and abilities we do not possess. In many ways we are not unique. Many animals engage in activities previously considered exclusively human. Making and using tools, the ability to communicate (that is “language”), the ability to pass on learned behavior to offspring, and the ability to solve problems are examples.  

While humans have developed an intelligence that is greater than other animals, we are still an animal. We are still subject to the laws of nature. We still share DNA with all other living species. Despite our intelligence and technology we have a lot in common with the rest of nature. The bumper sticker quoted above may not be accurate on the 25% but it makes a good point. All life is one. We should get over our hubris.  

In addition to thinking we are better than other species, and the end product of evolution, we think we know more than we do. Actually we are just scratching the surface of knowledge on many subjects. But we ACT as if we know it all. We trample forests and believe we're doing it sustainably because something eventually grows back. We have a very poor understanding of all the complex relationships involved in that forest. There is an entire ecosystem of inter-dependencies between soil chemistry, micro-organisms, fungi, plants, and animals. But we think we can “manage” it better than Mother Nature.  

We know more about the surface of Mars than we do the bottom of the ocean basins. Dreams of going to Mars may be fun but are pure science fiction. The oceans are essential to life on this planet. We see them as a resource to over fish. We ignore the pollution, garbage patches, and dying coral reefs. But the oceans produce 50% of our oxygen and the oceans create our weather.  

We think we are smart enough to alter nature with technologies like genetic engineering, nuclear fission, and man made chemicals. But our history is full of examples of our knowledge being incomplete and the resulting unintended consequences. Nothing exemplifies this more than our messing with nuclear technologies. We thought the splitting of the atom was going to be a great leap forward for human kind. We would have endless cheap energy. Of course the first thing we did with this knowledge and technology was create a bomb. This technology has put into our frail hands the ability to destroy life on this planet as it currently exists. Even the peaceful use of this technology results in huge problems. The costs of the radioactive waste that must be segregated and stored for thousands or tens of thousands of years overrides all the potential benefits. Yet we in our human hubris believe we can “manage” and continue to develop weapons and more nuclear power systems.  

Humankind is perhaps unique in that we foul our own nest. Pigs given enough space will defecate in one place away from the bedding area. Birds will clean their nests. Other animals are not so fussy but they are on the move constantly. The history of humans is to congregate in huge piles (cities) that reek of sewage, garbage, coal and wood smoke. In modern times our drinking water contains carcinogens, estrogens, lead, and many other pollutants. The air is unhealthy to breath in many cities. We are fouling our nests. We are so filthy it is a wonder Homo sapiens has survived as a species.  

The point of all this is we should walk more lightly and humbly on this earth. We should understand that we are part of nature and not its master. We need to learn from our past mistakes. We need the wisdom to understand our own limitations and lack of knowledge. We need this wisdom not because of tree hugging, liberal notions but because we may forestall our own extinction.