The answer does matter
We may be just one of the 8 million lifeforms that have arisen on this planet, yet we are the sole one who bears 100% of the responsibility for destroying it. Faced with this grim realisation, as a biologist I have always struggled with the ethical implications: have we, humans, consciously chosen the road of evil and selfishness, or have we simply been following some kind of natural destiny to “eat” our way through Earth, much like bacteria eat through the contents of a petri dish, until they starve?
In other words, do we deserve forgiveness for simply “being human” as we destroy the world, or have we failed ourselves, failed our potential to be something more, something self-conscious, a being that is able to gaze down at the petri dish from above, just like we gazed down upon Earth from the moon, realise what is going on, and raise the alarm? This question does matter, and it needs an answer.
It seems that we have long been aware of our cognitive limitations: our mainstream religion has plenty of references, often lumped together under the term “sin”: for example, on his cross, Jesus said “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing”. Yet we seem to be in the strange position today where we know very well what we are doing to this planet, but we keep on doing it. This raises the big question: is this because deep down we are no different from bacteria in the way that we respond to the world around us?
There are potent arguments in support of this. Biologically speaking, all species on the planet are “selfish” – that is, they care about their own survival first and foremost. Humans are surely no different. We are simply following the natural instinct that species on Earth have inscribed in their DNA, and which is also the biggest driver in our evolution: to appropriate as much resource as possible from our environment, for ourselves, at the expense of other species. All life forms are made this way, not just humans. We were never supposed to be “guardians of the Earth”, benevolent parents to all of the other species on the planet.
So while we can advocate in ethical terms that climate change is a moral issue and a “heinous crime”, one of selfishness and greed, in our defence, we are naturally born to behave in the way that we are currently behaving. In strictly biological terms, “morality” and ethics do not exist on Earth anyway. Any differences, injustices and “crimes” are not settled by a court, but by the High Court of Nature: its ecosystem rules and balances which have taken millennia to assemble.
And here is where the issue lies. Because the minute humans succesfully overcame most of their predators, and began to exploit the planet on an industrial scale, they were unknowingly thrust into a new role: that of God and Creator, something no lifeform was ever prepared for, made for. They now had the responsibility to care for all the species on Earth, exactly because they had the power to destroy them. And unsurprisingly, guess what they chose to do: to destroy, because this is our natural role. Without Nature’s High Court ruling over us, we lack the maturity to rule over this planet. We do what is inscribed in our DNA, in the DNA of every lifeform on the planet: to eat as much as we can, multiply as much as we can.
Until COVID-19 arrived, humans were pretty confident that they had beaten all of the other species, all of Nature in this game. By advancing our “intelligence” and civilisation, we managed to disable almost all of the human 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 became the first, and the only species on the planet, that managed to rise above Nature’s high court, above the law. The first one to defy gravity itself, propelling ourselves to the moon. While we see all of these as achievements, they were in fact milestones of the creation of an aberrant species and which marked the beginning of the end of the planet. By disturbing ecosystem laws and circular systems such as species competition, the food cycle, carbon cycle and water cycle to name a few, we had now put ourselves in a direct collision course with the entire philosophy that this planet operates on: being a closed system of finite, mutually-balanced resources. Our new way of life came in conflict with everything on the planet, including the very machinery which sustains it all: the climate system. We had become a dangerous mutant.
So the verdict is out: we are not necessarily evil, but simply cognitively limitted. We have not realised and will probably not realise the role we have been thrusted into, as guardians of the planet. Although one can argue this is an issue of intelligence, it may be much more fundamental: one of biology. Because so far we are demonstrating that we simply were never gifted with the cognitive capacity to understand our new roles and responsibilities, and the consequences of continuing down the current path of destruction.
So far, the suggested solutions to climate change are missing the point, vastly underestimating our impact on the planet and promising change through more destruction, more economic growth. Unless we become conscious of our new role as guardians, we will continue to be imature “brats” instead. No technological know-how, no renewable energy technology or Green New Deal can fix the black heart of a brat: a heart that wants to exploit, to consume, to turn people and beings into products and profit. Our “computational intelligence” may have reached new heights, but we have not changed fundamentally: our instinct to appropriate everything around us is more potent and dangerous than ever, as we continue on a terrifying and rampant exponential trajectory of “growth and destruction”.
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 the book Age of Separateness)