Growing Beyond Our Limits

Chen_caerulescens_32923Humanity builds its monuments at the expense of the natural world. Our cities suck resources from the countryside. Our pleasures come strip-mined from the earth, or pumped out with aid of poisons injected underground.  We engineer plants that generate their own insecticides, so our crops grow pre-poisoned. Species that thrived for eons prior to civilization are daily lost to extinction. This depressing tableau comes up a lot in conversation.

The ongoing destruction of earth’s innate beauty used to demoralize me. It still saddens, but I don’t feel crushed any longer. Why not? Because of the long view.

More and more my answer to difficulties is to see them in context. Everything we fret about unfolds within our tiny human sphere of time and space. We tend to ignore the fact that we are newcomers on this planet. My paleontology classes in college used to point out that if the history of life on earth were compressed to a year, humanity would have emerged in something like the last 30 minutes, and civilization would have arisen only in the last two. We are but a recent ripple on a vast sea of time.

Time will flow extend far into the future. Can we imagine the world a hundred years from now? We make predictions about energy supplies, sea level changes, and so on, but these estimates are fraught with uncertainty. Can we imagine a thousand years hence? Our powers of prediction fail. A million years? Even imagination folds at such prospect. A billion does not begin to compute, and yet such spans of time will pass.

Humanity will not destroy life on earth. What we wreck is what matters most to us as sensitive, observant animals, which is perhaps a poetic justice. We will lose (or have lost) the virgin forests, the miles of wetlands, the great herds of grazing animals, the teeming, plunging schools of tuna, the flocks of shore birds rising with their collective wingbeats loud as thunder, and much more. Many of the large, stately creatures we display on calendars are disappearing, confined to zoos and aquaria, or entirely extinct. Unexplored, unsullied wilderness is mere memory, with each square meter photographed from on high and every life form tainted by our chemical concoctions.

It’s sad, I grant. Tragic. But it’s also limited and temporary. The insect world thrives as ever. If some species of flies or bees have been lost, we hardly care, and millions of others continue to do just fine. Bacteria barely notice us. Perhaps we’ve even done them a favor by hastening their attainment of immunity to fungal antimicrobials. And while fungi might be damaged a bit by resistant germs,  they aren’t going to disappear.

Life in the small proceeds apace, and that is the life upon which the biosphere rests. Humanity and all other large organisms are optional adornments. Life begins and ends with microbes.

We could ruin practically everything we adore: wetlands, forests, herds, schools, and flocks, but life would continue. Absent civilization-sustaining elements, humanity would certainly dwindle and possibly disappear. And what would happen then? The same thing that has happened after all the other catastrophic events in the history of life. Sixty-five million years ago an asteroid impact left the earth in darkness so long that the largest animals of the era (aka dinosaurs), went extinct due to the chill climate and cessation of photosynthesis, which meant an absence of food. Afterward, mammals grew ascendent on the earth, and eventually so did we. But apes can be replaced as easily as sauropods. Perhaps not with another species of equal ingenuity, but with something beautiful we can be sure.

The entire human adventure is temporary. If there were a God watching us wreak havoc, it would likely consider the flames of our creativity worth the ashes of our destructiveness. After all, there are probably other planets in this near-infinite cosmos carrying on experiments in life, and not all will  evolve technologically competent species bent on ruin. And even here on earth, our impact will not last. So why wouldn’t that God watch with amusement rather than horror?

OK. That paints a rather dismal, uncaring picture of this putative God, but since I don’t believe in anthropomorphic deities anyway, that doesn’t strike me as a major concern. The point is that despite our strident insistence that we are vitally important, as individuals and as a species, we are not. Humankind is merely another facet of the evolving jewel that is life on earth. We have risen and someday we will fall. Life will continue to adapt as it always has.

Our defacement of natural beauty is a tragedy that stands at our own door, and so it should. It is the inevitable harvest of gluttony. Just as obesity follows overeating, a barren planet follows over-consumption.

My suspicion is that our species will continue. We are just clever enough that some small number will survive the coming crises. And just as humanity began to deal more seriously with the problem of conflict between major powers following World War II, we will awaken to the problem of unchecked resource exploitation after ecological collapse.

Ideally, of course, we would like to see civilization learn its lessons before erasing so much of Earth’s splendor, before consigning billions to climate change and all the other looming hardships. We should work toward that goal. But whether we achieve it or not, the laws of action and reaction will restore balance, sooner or later.

It’s a small comfort, I admit, to imagine the world recovering long after civilization as we know it has fallen. But one of the lessons on the path of maturity is that life isn’t personal, it’s collective. We aren’t especially important as individuals, as societies, or even as a species. Life itself is all that matters and all that truly endures.

I’ll close with the ending lines from the poem Credo, by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962):

The beauty of things was born before eyes and sufficient to itself, the heart-breaking beauty
Will remain when there is no heart to break for it.



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