Getting used to being in charge of the planet
Last week’s news about the tipping-point study in Nature ought to prompt some serious thinking. It is becoming increasingly clear that the decisions made by people alive today will determine the fate of life on Earth for centuries to come.
When stated plainly, that sounds almost absurd, like a science fiction premise: “They held the power to control the wooorld!” But it’s true nonetheless. After a multi-century explosion in number, power, and impact, homo sapiens is now the dominant force on the planet, reshaping its biophysical systems through land-use changes, resource depletion, and climate change. We live in the Anthropocene, a geologic era shaped by humans.
We have not yet begun to grapple with that realization. In time, I believe it will rank alongside evolution by natural selection among ideas that have fundamentally transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world. Like Darwin’s dangerous idea, it will ripple its way through the physical and social sciences. Hell, some day even economists might get it! (I kid. Kind of.)
Stewart Brand was famously blase about the dawning revelation at the beginning of the legendary 1968 Whole Earth Catalog: “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Nonetheless, like evolution, the dominance of human beings on Spaceship Earth is a profound and terrifying threat to all sorts of traditional worldviews. If Darwin showed us that God is not our author, the Anthropocene shows that He is not our caretaker. There’s no parent to supply us with endless resources and endless room to dispose of our waste. There’s no one to protect us or prevent us from screwing it all up.
It’s no surprise that a great many people recoil at the notion. “The arrogance of people to think that we, human beings, would be able to change what He is doing in the climate,” Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) scoffed, “is to me outrageous.” As I said before:
It hardly needs pointing out that He, in this instance, is God. It’s not unusual to see this sentiment expressed in religious terms. After all, if human beings are reshaping the basic biophysical systems of the planet, they are like unto gods. What terrifies people about that idea is not so much the power itself, but the responsibility that comes with it. If the entire biosphere is the product of our decisions and actions, then we hold the fate of the only known life-bearing planet and all the life on it in our hands. That is an almost unthinkably heavy burden to bear. It seems only God could bear it.
Nonetheless, bear it we must. It’s time to start thinking about the unthinkable. Speaking of which, Christopher Mims does some good and interesting thinking in this post.
He frames things this way: The Earth has a certain amount of biological productivity, based on the energy it receives from the sun. Insofar as we degrade or destroy bits of that natural life-support system, we have to reconstitute its “ecosystem services” some other way, mainly through technology. Unfortunately, the Earth is better than us at creating a system in which humans can thrive; biology, after all, is just extremely advanced technology, in comparison to which our machines are clumsy and wasteful. Replacing ecosystem services with technological services — replacing freshwater with desalinized water, say — will exhaust an increasingly large portion of our inventive capacity, time, and work.
Here’s how Mims puts it:
In a hundred years, the biggest industries will all be devoted to the cybernetic enhancement of the planet itself. Whatever limbs we sever now, whatever critical systems we wreck, are going to have to be replaced. Imagining that they might even be upgraded underestimates the unfathomable parallel processing power of 4 billion years of evolution on this planet, which is essentially a vast computer for determining the optimal solution to the problem of resource allocation. So no, I don’t think we’re going to do better.
We might survive in a such a world, might even materially prosper (there are always underground colonies!), but it’s worth asking whether a fully cybernetic world is one we ought to choose. Is our own survival and material prosperity all we care about? Or is biodiversity worth something in its own right?
I guess if I differ with Mims anywhere it’s that I’m not quite so fatalistic, at least on even-numbered days. Like him, I think we’re clever enough to avoid a complete collapse of human population and wealth. But I also think we’re clever enough to at least envision a world in which we slow our degradation of ecosystem services, avoid global tipping points, and develop technology that is regenerative, working with nature, like nature, rather than clumsily trying to replace it.
What stands in the way of that vision is not lack of ingenuity or technology. It is myopia and tribalism. For most of our evolutionary history, it was small bands, maybe dozens, to whom we extended our trust and concern. In the Anthropocene, we’ve seen examples of tribal loyalty to city-states and nation-states, to races and religions, but only very rarely to humanity as such, much less to the entire biosphere. We are not accustomed or well-suited to thinking of “life on Earth” as the appropriate scope for fellow-feeling.
There’s no way we can rewire the human brain in the short time we have left to act. But we can cybernetically enhance our collective cognition and decisionmaking with information technology; we can reform our laws and governments; we can teach our children better.
The first step is simply to take responsibility, to recognize that there is no longer any Other. There’s no them — no foreigners, no outsiders, no exogenous threats, no enemies. There’s only us, the crew of Spaceship Earth, hurtling through space, alone. [Cue Star Trek music …]