We often use the phrase "thinking outside the box" to describe attempts to take a different, fresh, unconventional look at some issue where a standard set of talking points has become deeply rooted in the public perception. But what does thinking outside the box really mean?

So let's examine a box. And inside the box I shall place: our biological environment, and the issue of whether or not we should preserve it.

I'm avoiding putting "environmentalism" in the box because that name is commonly applied to an ideology or doctrine that presupposes that the natural environment around us should be preserved. And like all ideologies it attracts semiotic fluff. What I want to examine is the context surrounding the whole idea that we ought to preserve our environment. (This is not the same thing at all, and commenters who try to derail this into a "save the whales"/"drill baby, drill!" fight will be unpublished and/or banned.)

Initial proposal:

We are human organisms. Our species coevolved on one particular planet with a whole bunch of other species. We predate on some of them; others predate on us. (The latter are now mostly numbered among the list of endangered species, because we're pretty bad-ass at collectively defending ourselves against, say, prides of lions. Lions don't make guns ...) We thrive in a range of climactic conditions that are to some extent modulated by the effects of life forms over geological time (for a huge, long range example of this, look no further than the great oxygen catastrophe which probably rendered 99% of the species alive on earth at the time extinct).

Anyway. The short version of the environmentalist value proposition is: don't shit in your own back yard. Ecosystems are complex and exhibit non-linear behaviour; it's a bad idea to disrupt the natural balance, lest we find ourselves suffering from crop failures due to pollinator die-offs, for example. And because this is a complex, knotty, gnarly field of interdependencies, the precautionary principle should be applied: take disruptive action only with extreme caution.

Opposed to the common environmentalist value proposition is of course self-interest: why should I wear a hair shirt, minimize my driving and energy consumption to reduce carbon emissions, spend tedious hours recycling stuff, and forgo consumer goodies? I don't personally benefit much from my small-scale personal environmentalist actions. It's like voting: your individual vote changes barely anything, so why bother?

The frame around the box:

Both of these positions make certain implicit assumptions. Starting with the idea that it is possible for us to "save" the environment.

Planet Earth To Shaved Apes: I've been here for 4.6 billion years. Biological life has been around on me for over 3.6 billion years. Oxygen-breathing vertebrates only colonized my land masses about 400MYa ago. Looking ahead, my hospitability to life has a shelf-life. As the sun ages on the Main Sequence it will brighten; the steadily increasing solar UV output will split water molecules high in the ionosphere, and the freed hydrogen radicals will escape into space increasingly fast. Some time between 200MYa and 2GYa from now, my surface will become depleted of water. Oceans will dry up. They will be buffered for a while by the hydrated rocks in my crust and outer mantle, but eventually all the water will go -- and a runaway greenhouse effect (like that on Venus) will render my surface inhospitable to life. Long before the helium-burning giant star that was Sol expands and swallows me (in 5-6 billion years), I will be a dead and lifeless rock-ball swathed in an atmosphere of red-hot carbon dioxide.

So in the long run you can't save my biosphere. Not unless you learn to move planets about.

But that's not all. You've been around for only about 50-250,000 years. You've already triggered a mass extinction event and hopelessly disrupted most of my ecosystems (for example, by importing rabbits and cane toads into Australia, grey squirrels into England, raccoons into Bavaria, and shaved apes into just about everywhere from North Pole to South). The rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere suggest you're in for some very heavy weather in the next decades to centuries. Most species have a life expectancy on the order of 1MYa. Congratulations: if you make it to 0.5MYa you will have exceeded your species' lifespan to this date by an order of magnitude. Indeed, you'll have exceeded the whole of human recorded history to this date by a factor on the order of 100.

Individually this matters to none of you: you who read this today will be dead before the true weirdness of the Anthropocene can be experienced. Even the potential extinction of the human species -- if we get it all disastrously wrong -- doesn't affect you directly, because unless you are the last human living, you will die before the extinction event. We don't like to think about species extinction -- it's like contemplating the death of your own children, and your own personal death, all rolled up into one ball of dread -- but in truth, it's an irrelevant abstraction. How does the death of n people, (where n = everyone alive) differ qualitatively, other than infinitesimally, from the death of n-1 people?

Upshot: you can't save the human species. Indeed, the concept of humanity existing for even the paltry 135MYa of the dinosaurs is more than somewhat mind-boggling -- there were thousands of species of dinosaurs, over a period a hundred times greater than the earthly duration of the hominins (who are on balance a spectacularly unsuccessful family of species -- all but one of them are extinct!). In a mere hundred megayears we, too, will certainly be one with the oil shale.

Face it, Earth doesn't give a shit about us. Earth will still be here long after we're gone. We could scrape the surface clear of every species we can get our hands on, and life will survive in the form of archaea and bacteria in the lithosphere. But more likely we'll succumb, in a few centuries or millennia or -- if we learn to become vastly more parsimonious in our use of non-renewable resources than we have been so far -- a few million years: like everything else, a combination of factors (notably shrinking ecological niches and climate change) will do for our distant descendants.

Even if we thrive in the long term, it may not be on terms that are pleasant to contemplate. One particularly plausible nightmare is the Olduvai future; that the first technological civilization to arise consumes so many non-renewable resources and depletes so many accessible ore deposits that, if and when it collapses, recovery will be impossible, so that after a brief pulse of technology the species is thereafter forever trapped in the neolithic (or, if they're lucky, the pre-steam iron age). It's possible that humanity will last for millions of years on Earth ... but that our current technosphere is a beautiful but transient aberration that will be followed by megayears of hunter-gatherer tribalism or mediaeval serfdom.

So what are we proposing to save the environment for?

Inarguably, in the short term we can't live without it. Maintaining a stable biosphere is a prerequisite for avoiding human species extinction and, more intimately, personal starvation due to famine and plague. But in the long term, does it matter whether we preserve a biosphere adapted to serve our needs, or a human-free ecosystem? And do we need to concern ourselves with the state of the environment we leave to our successor species?

Outside the box: the answer to these question is, we're basing the entire discussion on a faulty platform. Implicit in the whole thing is the idea that we are of central importance to everything, that we are the pivot on which the state of the biosphere hinges. But we're not; the only issue to which we are of central importance is the question of our own survival.

Earth abides. We need to preserve the resilience and integrity of the biosphere we live in in order to enhance our own survival prospects.

We have no sane reason to pickle it in aspic -- we are, after all, part of the natural world -- nor any right to strip-mine it and fill its wild places with cadmium, mercury, and other pollutants (thus poisoning our own descendants, to whom we arguably owe the same duty of care that our ancestors owed to us).

But saving the Earth? Even if we could do that, Earth doesn't give a fuck. Our perspective on the whole vexatious issue of environmental planning is skewed by the context we bring to it -- our shaved ape preoccupation with status and anthropocentricity, the idea that it's all about us. It isn't, and the sooner we internalize that, the sooner we can start behaving like adult members of a species not hell-bent on self-destruction.

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Published on October 27, 2012 06:20 • 43 views

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