I read this piece in the New York Times about the steadily increasing rate of loss of animal biodiversity on our planet, and finally decided to write a response that has been percolating for quite some time.
I am an environmentalist any way you cut it — I’ve even been called that irksome name “granola” (why pay $12.99/lb. when you can make it yourself in 30 minutes for $1.99/lb? But, I digress…). I wash and reuse plastic bags, commute by bike, go to extra lengths to precariously juggle grocery store purchases without taking a bag, and so on. It’s probably borderline obnoxious. (I think I’ve actually been blacklisted from one of my local coffee shops for causing the single owner-operator undue stress trying to accommodate my requests that he refrain from using extra plastic cups to assemble my coffee).
And yet, when I think about this common angle on arguing for greater attention to reversing climate change, it seems remarkably short-sighted. I am constantly astounded by our human inability to move beyond simple, flat-out narcissism.
Let’s be honest — the only ones who will be harmed by climate change are us. Nature is always many steps ahead. She is vastly more powerful and complex than we will ever comprehend, and she’s pretty fantastic at self-care. Especially financial self-care. She always has her balance sheet in order.
The study by Ceballos, Ehrlich, and Dirzo referenced in the New York Times article was one of the few scientific publications that has presented objective data along with a subjective interpretation — that of alarm. The alarm raised is about habitat destruction, deforestation, and rising carbon pollution, results the authors attribute to two main patterns: population growth and over-consumption by “the rich.” (I will argue, perhaps in a future article, that lower- and middle-class humans consume as much, if not more, than the rich, but let’s leave that for another day).
What makes this sense of alarm short-sighted and narcissistic (and, frankly, amateur) is that it only takes into account one side of nature’s balance sheet — the side where humans affect the earth. If you were to also examine where the earth in turn affects humans, the picture starts to look very different. Consider global human population growth, estimated at roughly 1.3 billion every 20 years since the early 2000's, compared to global natural disaster growth which causes 76,000 deaths and another 200 million victims each year.
What would this look like on a balance sheet? (Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake, that these 200 million people a year who don’t die immediately from the natural disaster either die a short-time later from disease, disability, or poverty, or at the very least become extremely limited in their ability to significantly impact nature via over-consumption). I took the liberty of throwing something quick together, below:
Balance Sheet: Nature, 2000–2060
Assets — Human Deaths: 12,004,560,000
Liabilities — Human Lives: 3,900,000,000
Equity — 8,104,560,000
(Again for simplicity’s sake, this assumes humans are a 100% liability to nature which is, of course, relatively complex and certainly debatable).
So what does this mean? Well, it means nature is still winning. Like, majorly. She’s killing us off three times faster than we can procreate. Which is what the sense of alarm is about. Which brings me back to the narcissism. It’s only alarm for us because we don’t want to die. It’s not alarm for nature. She is humming along, keeping her balance sheet in order. (Did I mention she’s a great financial planner? She always has strong equity).
Are we really, selflessly, worried about nature’s future? Her health? Her well-being? No — we’re worried about ours.
In fact, we have such trouble remembering, or maybe accepting, nature’s cycles, that we easily forget the earth has been drastically altered at least five previous times. 444 million years ago we lost 86% of species on earth. 375 million years ago we lost 75% of species on earth. 251 million years ago we lost 96% of species on earth. 200 million years ago we lost 80% of species on earth. 66 million years ago we lost 76% of species on earth. In each of these cases mother nature was just doing what she does best — remaining balanced and orderly. She was not harmed in the process. She was merely shape-shifting, one of her many talents in addition to financial planning: from lava to sponges to glaciers to dinosaurs to sandstone, and so on.
I’m not saying it’s a bad thing to be worried about our own death. It’s scary, for sure. But let’s acknowledge that this sense of alarm is not really about a saintly mission to save a force that a) needs no saving from us; b) is probably laughing at everyone who believes in a); and c) couldn’t care less whether we live or die.
Even though we still won’t be protected from dying, by acknowledging this truth we might at least become more aware of how easy it is to conflate our own fears with concern for another’s well-being. And that might make our journey to apocalypse or the ice age or Mars just a bit more enjoyable.