The Planet is Not in Danger, Our Ideas Are
"Last Chance for the Planet!"
"Can the Earth Be Saved?"
"Requiem for Planet Earth."
The language with which we describe our environmental situation throbs with the drama of lurking mega-disaster.
The threat is GLOBAL! The whole PLANET is in crisis! For the FIRST TIME IN HUMAN HISTORY we have it in our power to DESTROY THE EARTH!
Or, as Woody Allen puts it, "More than at any other time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."
Of all species on earth, only ours has the colossal self-importance to mistake its own puny crises for that of a whole planet.
The planet is not in trouble. Barring an impact with a large asteroid, it will go on happily orbiting the sun no matter what we do. Even if we detonate all the Bombs and reduce life on earth to a few remnant cyanobacteria, they will calmly begin evolving new species, just as they did a few billion years ago. The planet is not afraid of us.
The creatures that currently inhabit the earth are in trouble, of course. If we want to feel important, we can glory in the fact that we are extinguishing tens or hundreds of species of life a day. There has not been a spasm of extinction like this one for 65 million years, and we are its cause. We are so busy proliferating and polluting that we are even changing the atmosphere and climate. The planet's biodiversity and its biogeochemical cycles are threatened, without doubt.
"Last Chance for Biodiversity!"
"Requiem for the Atmosphere."
"Can the Biogeochemical Cycles Be Saved?"
Those would be more accurate headlines, but not likely to stimulate much adrenalin flow. Few of us have an emotional commitment to biogeochemical cycles. Nor does the planet. As far as it's concerned one atmosphere is as good as another. The current biosphere is no big deal. Whatever happens, some form of crabgrass, cockroach, or green gunk will adapt. Life will persist.
I think we wildly overstate the case because we would rather talk about Planetary Doom than about the real threat, which is much closer to home and much more unthinkable -- unthinkable, because it is a threat to our very thoughts. What is in danger is not the planet, not life on earth, not even human life, but some ideas that are dear to us.
Our fantasy of eternal economic growth, for instance, is gravely threatened. The throwaway lifestyle is doomed. So is our illusion about solving our problems with technology alone. Definitely at risk is our assumption that other creatures are here to be exploited by us, as are all institutions that think their rules are more important than planetary rules -- institutions, for instance, like Exxon, the World Bank, and every government of every nation.
Our whole world is threatened, but only the world we have created in our minds. We are threatened, but only "we" as we currently define ourselves, consummations of a successful industrial revolution, consumers, producers, owners, controllers, people who have built their world on cleverness rather than virtue.
Of course there are plenty of other worlds and ways to define ourselves. We could see ourselves not as dominators or dominated, accumulators of overabundance or sufferers of scarcity, but as parts of a whole, content with sufficiency, stewards, beneficiaries, and celebrants of a magnificent planet we have barely begun to understand. We could choose to do not what is fast, powerful, labor-saving, and cheap (according to our flawed economic reckoning), but what actually benefits human welfare and the integrity of nature. We could base our world on the ideas of solar energy and total recycling -- every discarded material an input to another productive process (the way the planet does it.)
Ideas like those point the way out of our present troubles. We know that. We ordinary folks know it, anyway. But our leaders, governmental and corporate, cling to the seductive ideas of profit, control, growth and limitlessness, ideas that have led us directly into the present environmental mess.
Several 200-year-old economic and social experiments are up for question, not a 4-billion-year-old planet. The question is not whether we can manage the biosphere -- we can't. The question is whether we can manage ourselves, our numbers, greed, arrogance, and waste, and whether we can bring forth a new world of ideas that are compatible with the planet, so the planet will allow them to persist.
(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)