In his very second outing, the newest Doctor Who (a white guy… ever wonder why the last remaining Time Lord in the universe keeps choosing to be reincarnated as a parade of white guys?) and his newest (and whitest; again, where’s the kick-ass black beauty Martha Jones who accompanied him for a season?) companion land on a strange sort of ship which is really home to all of Britain transported into outer space somehow.
A 3-minute journey through the last 250 years of our history, from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the Rio+20 Summit. The film charts the growth of humanity into a global force on an equivalent scale to major geological processes.
The film was commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, London 26-29 March, a major international conference focusing on solutions.
The film is part of the world’s first educational webportal on the Anthropocene, commissioned by the Planet Under Pressure conference, and developed and sponsored by anthropocene.info
I particularly like what he says at the end about the problem of unemployment, and the sheer waste of human potential when we allow people to be unemployed.
Anirban Mahapatra (aka Bhalomanush, a good man I have come to know on Twitter) recently (well, a month ago) shared with me a thought-provoking essay he had written contemplating some of the deepest questions in conservation: where do humans fit into the rest of life on our planet? Is it hubris on our part to think we can save the planet or that we are even superior to other species when we have all evolved from a common ancestor? What does it matter if species go extinct, when we know that most species that have ever evolved are already extinct, and everything must die eventually? Questions that certainly haunt me as I try to find meaning in my own research and educational efforts aimed at conserving biological diversity on this little blue dot we inhabit. The essay, written in the form of an inner dialogue in the author’s mind, resonated with me immediately. Yet Bhalomanush said it was among the least read of his blog posts! Surely, this contemplation deserves more attention, so I offered to share it here to try to reach a broader audience interested in reconciliation ecology. He was kind enough to send it to me as a guest post! The essay is titled after a well-known “raga” from Indian classical music, the name of which literally translates as “Swansong” – an appropriate title, I think. I hope you like it – and if you do, please pay the author’s own blog a visit and let him know.
An almost apocalyptic image of the fiery sky at dusk earlier this week at Morro Bay beach in California. via flickr.com
by Anirban Mahapatra
I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.
The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?
No. The earth needs no saving.
But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans.
For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?
The earth does need saving.
Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.
Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.
Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.
I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.
On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.
I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells. There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.
And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that someday some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.
That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.
But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.
If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.
In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.
Miss you, George! You made your exit just as the show was getting even freakier. Three years… and how we’ve sailed along in humanity’s long swan dive!
Tyson is brilliant and entertaining as usual, of course, but how successful is he at persuading people to accept the science and find comfort in our ignorance instead of inventing explanations? Perhaps not a whole lot, given how prone we are to what Tyson here calls “brain failure”. Chris Mooney, in an excellent piece in Mother Jones, explores how these brain failures mean that even the best science may not be enough to persuade people away from their long-held irrational beliefs – even when those beliefs fail spectacularly! What a flawed species we are, and how precious is this candle in the dark we’ve invented called science…
So the census takers tell us that both the human (no surprise) and tiger (hmm…?) populations are up in India. Good news for both, eh? Who says humans cannot coexist with wildlife, of even the large carnivorous kind? We Indians have done it for a long time, no? Four times the human population of the US squeezed into a third of the landmass, and we still have most of our megafauna with us. So far. With much of it still outside protected areas too.
Well… before you celebrate the census figures on behalf of both species, let me point out that its an increasingly uneasy coexistence at best:
Elsewhere, on another continent, the CEO of GoDaddy.com got himself and his company in some hot water for sharing this video (warning: video requires a relatively strong stomach) of a hunt he participated in, apparently to help farmers in Zimbabwe in danger of losing their subsistence crops to elephants whose own numbers force them to range far outside the protected areas within which we would like to confine them. The rather boastful tone of the video and pictures of him posing with the poor dead elephant don’t do him or his company any favors, and have resulted in quite the predictable backlash. But if you do watch the video all the way through, you see in the aftermath a rather desperate looking mob of African villagers stripping the carcass bare, harvesting all the meat in a manner that brings to mind scenes of other scavenger species attending to dead animals. It is easy for us, from the comforts of our suburban homes, to advocate for the rights of the elephant and criticize the rich American tourist who paid a hefty fee to be able to hunt the elephant and gloat about it afterwards. What, though, of the poor farmers whose crops are being raided by the elephants? Doesn’t Zimbabwe have an official policy of culling elephant as a way to manage their populations, especially when they start overflowing the habitat’s carrying capacity (bearing in mind, of course, that it is our actions which have shrunk the habitat, and diminished its carrying capacity)? Therefore (provocative as I may seem in suggesting this), it would seem that this hunt was legal, perhaps legitimate even from the wildlife management perspective, and brought some measure of relief/benefits to the locals, however distasteful the retelling of the tale afterwards. Why do we (those of us in the conservation movement) find it easier to sympathize with the elephant than the farmer in its path, when both are being screwed out of their basic means of subsistence by larger socioeconomic forces beyond either of their control? The chest-beating sounds particularly hollow coming from Americans, who have exterminated most of the larger native species, especially carnivores, from most of their country, and continue to slaughter thousands of wild animals of all kinds every year, ostensibly because they may cause damage to farms and crops.
Meanwhile, back in India, the land where most animals are tolerated (even worshipped, especially elephants) far more than perhaps anywhere else on this planet, even that long-held tolerance is wearing thin as our numbers grow and wildlife populations find themselves crowded into narrower bits of habitat. You can’t keep them confined even in the most protected areas though – that has never been nature’s way. Most organisms will always find ways to disperse and if most of the places they disperse into, we now claim as our own, conflicts are inevitable – especially when it is big and dangerous wildlife appearing in our midst. And, sadly, there is a point, it seems, beyond which even the most tolerant cultures can be pushed into savagery (warning: this video may require an even stronger stomach):
As the report indicates, there is a veritable rash of such incidents in India lately, with leopards in particular being cornered, beaten, even burned to death, with forest officials and even police apparently helpless to do anything to stop the mobs. What is driving people to such extreme frenzy? Are we past a tipping point in our civilization, with simply too many people crammed into too little space, which many of us still want to share with other animals too? Perhaps so, when you consider the numbers in India. Yet… how is this killing of leopards straying into India’s teeming towns different from the massacre of wolves in the mostly empty northern Rocky mountains of Wyoming and Montana at the behest of ranchers who want to maximize their profits and not risk losing a single sheep? The latter is government sanctioned and done in an organized, clean, professional manner, unlike the frenzied savage mobs in India. Of course. OK, then.
How do we reconcile ourselves with the rest of wild nature? Can we? Will the rest of biodiversity (if given the choice) even want to reconcile with us, at this point?