Humans vs. The Planet

A Story That Was Never Meant To End Well

We may be just one of the millions of lifeforms that have arisen on this planet, yet we are the single one who bears 100% of the responsibility for destroying it. Faced with this bizarre statistic, and the grim realisation of the legacy that humans will leave on this planet, as a biologist I have always struggled with the ethical ramifications: are we, humans, inherently evil and selfish, or have we simply been following our natural destiny to “eat” our way through Earth much like bacteria eat through the contents of a petri dish until they starve?  Do we deserve forgiveness for simply “being human” as we destroy the world, or do we have the capacity to be something more, to owe it to ourselves and to the planet to see the petri dish from the outside, and raise the alarm?

On his cross, Jesus said “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. We are in the strange position where we know very well what we are doing, yet we are behaving like we just don’t care. Is this because deep down we are no different from bacteria?

All species on the planet are “selfish” i.e. they care about their own survival first and foremost. One can argue that humans are no different in that respect.  So while we can advocate in ethical terms that climate change is a moral issue and a crime, one of selfishness and greed, at the same time one can argue that in biological terms “morality” and ethics do not exist on Earth. Selfishness is the right of every organism’s struggle to survive.  You can even argue that we have not done anything “wrong” fundamentally to the planet. We are simply following the evolution of our species, the natural instinct each species has inscribed in its DNA: to appropriate as much resource as possible from its environment, for itself, at the expense of other species. 

Ofcourse this is suicide, and this is where we in fact “don’t know what we are doing”. Because there is one twist in the game of natural competition, of survival of the fittest, which humans introduced, and which became a “game changer”: Until recently, our role in the ecosystem was moderated and limited by Nature, who held all the cards and held all species’ populations “in check” by finding a predator for everyone.  The balance between the species was decided by Nature’s High Court, the Ecosystem.  It is a wise system, ensuring everyone’s ultimate survival, but equally also ensuring that no species dominates the planet.

Until COVID-19 arrived, humans were pretty confident that they had beaten Nature in this game. By advancing their “intelligence” and civilisation, they managed to disable almost all of the population controls that Nature’s High Court had in place.  We were now above the law, able to propagate uncontrollably.  The industrial revolution and mass production of food brought about a population explosion. The bacteria broke out of the petri dish, filled the whole building, and started spilling out on the street. What has happened to our species in the past few hundred years is literally a scene out of the cult musical Little Shop of Horrors, where a small benign carnivorous plant mutates, grows, and eventually eats the florist.

We in fact became the first, and the only, species on the planet that managed to rise above Nature’s high court, above the law. From that point on, our very existence on the planet defied all the equilibrium laws of ecosystems, and we soon even defied gravity itself, propelling ourselves to the moon. While we see this as an achievement, it was in fact the beginning of the end of the planet. By disturbing ecosystem laws and circular systems such as species competition, the food cycle, CO2 cycle and even the water cycle, we put ourselves in a direct collision course with the entire philosophy that this planet is based on: being a closed system of finite resources. This collision included not only the planet’s ecosystem, but the very machinery which sustains it all: the climate system. What we have done to the climate systems is the equivalent of turning down the TV volume by smashing it and throwing it out the window. It’s irreversible.

In ecological and biological terms, we became an aberration within Earth’s ecosystems, and we are still playing this role.

At the same time, our new role as an aberrant species changed the moral argument.  By definition, if we have now replaced Nature’s High Court it means we are also responsible for doing the job nature used to do: ensure everything on the planet is balanced, including monitoring and controlling our own population. This is not a debate but a logical progression of our new role on the planet. Being above the law, being the Lawmakers, comes with a hefty long list of responsibilities and accountabilities. And this is where we are still conflicted, because we want to keep the benefits of the power we have acquired on the planet, without also accepting and assuming the responsibility that comes with these. And this is highly immoral.

For an intelligent species that has managed to rise above Nature’s Law, to even be able to manipulate its own DNA, you would think that the answer and solution to our predicament would be easy.  You would hope that we can use the same intelligence that got our civilisation where it is today, towards putting limits on ourselves.

But so far, our identity conflict is intensifying instead of reaching a clarity and a conclusion. We are not acting as the adult, but more like the brat who has landed a managerial position straight after college and prefers to be a bully and slavedriver than lead from the front, lead by example. No technological know-how, no renewable energy technology or Green New Deal can fix a black heart: a heart that wants to exploit, to consume, to turn people and beings into products and profit. Our intelligence may have reached new heights, but our need to appropriate everything around us is on a terrifying and rampant exponential trajectory of “growth”.

Back to the petri dish analogy, the carnivorous plant in Little Shop of Horrors and the bullying, fat brat that needs a life lesson. What do they need to experience in order to learn this lesson? Or do they have inner dormant capacities for empathy, compassion and insight?

If humans do, it would be something extraordinary. Because it would be the first and only species on the planet that has achieved this level of introspection, awareness and connection with the planet. So far this is lacking from our mainstream social, economic and political structures. It is only alive in isolated, radical pockets of wisdom who have all but surrendered to the onslaught of the murderous capitalism that runs our planet from dusk to dawn.

to be continued…(or not)

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5 thoughts on “Humans vs. The Planet

  1. Evolution is a process, living organisms are its products. To accept the story of evolution, is to accept the process > product paradigm. As wondrous and diverse as the biosphere is, it wasn’t planned. It serves many functions yet has no agency. It is a product in the way that precipitation is the product of the water cycle.

    The human locust has no agency. Its continued existence is a function of reproductive success. For a species to fail to make copies of itself, is a guarantee of extinction. For individuals of a species, who have agency, to choose not to procreate, is a guarantee of their own (phenotype) extinction.

    Sentience, intelligence, agency are wondrous products. They allow us to tell stories about ourselves and the world we are a part of. These stories can be hopeful, tragic, sober or delusional. The story I’m telling pits intelligence against behavior; wisdom versus instinct; the few against the many. The side that prevails is unlikely to be the side we’re on.

  2. I keep struggling with issues of my power and responsibility. I can’t stop the greed and violence of the hardened heart. So I can’t accept the accusations that I have failed. I know there is a great shift to be achieved and I have a part in that. But the first point of healing must begin in how I identify and feel my power even if no-one else notices it. I keep trying for a story that would help us find a way, a faith that my struggle would also be part of the healing.

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