A Grandiose Conceit

A few weeks ago, on March 24, we were treated to the spectacle of the First Annual Earth Hour, in which everyone on the planet turned off the lights for one hour, beginning 8:30 p.m. local time, as a gesture of solidarity with this beleaguered planet we call home.

OK, so not exactly everyone. Well, truthfully hardly anyone. You might could have counted the actual participants on your fingers and toes and had digits to spare. The electrical grid didn’t so much as twitch, and the event was such a miserable failure that a Second Annual Earth Hour seems unlikely.

Unless you are an irredeemably cynical type, it’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for its sponsors, who must have been crushed with disappointment at the anemic response. Intended to show  commitment to our planet and to raise awareness, Earth Hour certainly meant well. Although what portion of our awareness was to be raised, and for what specific purpose, remains a little vague.

Gaia forgives, naturally. She says maybe market a little better next time. And clarify your message. But hey, it’s the thought that counts.

You had a good excuse for missing Earth Hour, of course. We all did. You were just about to wash your hair; CSI: Schenectady was on; the dog had to be wormed; your eyebrows needed plucking. My excuse was very straightforward: I hadn’t even known about it until well after it was over.

As you might expect, in certain dark corners of the Internet, hellish places populated by assorted homunculi, schadenfreude was the order of the day. The extravagant flop was gleefully reported in embarrassing detail, to the amusement of sweaty hordes of deplorables.

Kidding aside, it’s not hard to see why Earth Hour fizzled. Ultimately, it was an overly grandiose gesture of insufficiently clear purpose. And so it met with widespread, stony indifference, as it deserved to.

Speaking of grandiose gestures, sometime after Earth Hour came and went unnoticed, an article from the New Yorker appeared in my news feed, under the rather ominous headline The Fate of the Earth, after a series of articles written in 1982 by Jonathan Schell for the same magazine. The piece is the transcription of a speech given by Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer for the New York Times, on the occasion of the second annual Jonathan Schell Memorial Lecture.

It’s more of a sermon, really, than a lecture, earnest, didactic yet sincere, elegiac in tone, a mix of angst and entreaty. The gist of which was this: We humans, as masters of the planet, have the moral responsibility to use our vast powers wisely. Please do so. The closing line captures the essence of the ethos:

“And if we are just thinking about ourselves, then we are failing as ethical agents, which is to say as human beings.”

Good point. Because we humans have the power of reason, because we transmit to each new generation the accumulated knowledge of all previous, because we have supple, capable hands that make real the fruit of our fertile imaginings, we are unique among this planet’s many life forms. As this planet’s most capable species, equipped not just with technical and creative skills but with a sense of right and wrong, we perceive an implicit responsibility to use our abundant capability wisely. To a greater degree than with any other species, the fate of “we” is in the hands of “us.”

But among our species’ many weaknesses is a propensity for egoistic thinking. And there is, unintentionally, a great deal of it in Kolbert’s essay. Beginning with the author’s solemn proclamation that “we” are the most dominant species in the history of life.

Really?

Perhaps dominance is in the eye of the beholder, because certain other life forms, were they to speak, might well beg to differ. If you measure by mass–a pretty good metric–then from the beginning of biologic time right up to the present, a span of more than three and a half billion years, the Earth’s dominant life form has been the tiny, simple, one-celled organism we call bacteria. And for the duration of this planet’s life, that dominance will almost certainly continue.

Even within our own skins these minuscule life forms loom large: Nine out of ten cells in our bodies are bacteria; they comprise about fifteen percent of our total mass. They live on us and in us. They are effectively part of us. Without them we would be unlikely to survive, as among other useful functions, bacteria reduce the complex organic materials we consume into the chemically simple nutrients our guts may absorb, taking a small cut of the action in the process. They are inextricably intertwined with us, courtesy of millions of years of co-evolution.

Bacteria, singular bacterium, are the essence of biological simplicity. Life version 1.0. They contain no nucleus, no ribosomes or mitochondria, none of the organelles you find in later-evolved unicellular organisms. They feed by absorbing nutrients from their surroundings through a structurally simple outer covering. Bacteria do one thing only, and do it very well: They replicate, by simple division, at a rate dependent on temperature and the availability of nutrients. One becomes two becomes four becomes eight becomes sixteen becomes thirty two and so on, each generation a near-exact copy of the previous, until there are many quadrillions, conditions permitting.

Bacteria cover every surface, thrive in every conceivable habitat. They are found in the stratosphere and miles beneath our feet. They exist in subzero cold and in waters so hot and caustic that a human would die in seconds and be dissolved in minutes. They survive tens of thousands of years of continuous freezing. They can survive the vacuum of space. Bacteria were our planet’s very first life forms, and they will be its last, conducting business as usual right up to the moment two point something billion years in the future when the sun, its nuclear fuel depleted, swells into a red giant and consumes the inner planets, including our own.

By any reasonable measure, bacteria, not humans, rule this planet. Indeed, at any given time their total mass is many, many times that of all the humans and their livestock combined. Add to that billions and billions of tons of blue-green algae, phytoplankton, zooplankton, protozoa, crustaceans, cephalopods, arachnids, reptiles, fishes, amphibians, insects, fungi, flowering and non-flowering plants, and you begin to see that we humans actually comprise a strikingly small proportion of this planet’s life.

Yet in our hierarchy of perceived importance, humans are at the apex, with all other mammals falling beneath, more or less in order of appeal. Beneath the mammals are all the “other” animals, the not-so-photogenic, the ones with the scales and the tentacles and the exoskeletons and the feelers and the compound eyes, while the omnipresent sub-visible organisms don’t even register.

There is a famous New Yorker cartoon called “a View of the World from 9th Avenue.” Satire with more than a hint of truth, it depicts the world from the viewpoint of a Manhattanite. Ninth and Tenth Avenue–Ground Zero to a New Yorker–are in sharp focus, but beyond that, the world rapidly recedes into insignificance. The wide Hudson River maybe a half mile away is a ditch. New Jersey, on the opposite bank a mere strip one might step over in a single bound. Immediately beyond is the entire expanse of the lower fourty-eight, nondescript but for a few familiar names here and there; Texas, Las Vegas, Chicago. Mexico is on the periphery, off to the left; Canada almost out of view to the right. Just short of the horizon lies the Pacific Ocean, a pond, with Russia, Japan and China dimly visible in the distance, defining the limit of our view.

In much the same way, our comparatively close genetic kinship with other mammals leads us to rank them higher in our perceptual universe than more distant relations. This cognitive bias creates an illusion. As photogenic as they are, mammals are actually only a tiny part of the overall biological picture, as they have been since they first came into being in the late Mesozoic. If they all disappeared tomorrow, including us, the planet would scarcely even notice. We ooh and aah over the howler monkey picturesquely flinging itself from limb to limb through the jungle canopy, yet miss entirely the great teeming mass of invertebrates, unglamorous hence unnoticed, filling every square millimeter of the forest floor.

Interestingly, the New Yorker chose to feature the famous “blue marble” photo; we’ve all seen it a thousand times. Note that at this scale no human trace whatsoever is visible. You would have to come much closer to recognize signs of our existence. And if as you did so you paid attention, you could not help but notice that humans actually occupy only a very small percentage of this planet’s surface in significant numbers. Despite our recent and rapid population increase, vast swaths of Eurasia, North and South America, Australia, and Africa are uninhabited by us, or nearly so. Antarctica, that ice-swaddled southern landmass half the size of Africa, has no permanent human presence whatsoever. The oceans, covering seventy percent of our planet’s surface, bear only a handful of transient humans at any one time. If you threw a rock at the Earth from space, your chance of actually hitting a human would be infinitesimal.

This is not to say that we don’t affect our home planet. Obviously we do. We have an unfortunate tendency to foul our own nest. We carelessly move species about, upsetting the local balance. We blithely erase the habitats of other species in order to make room for our own. Even so, our influence pales in comparison to that of the Earth’s natural processes. For all our grandiose pretensions, everything we build, everything we do turns to dust in the fullness of time.

We wring our hands at the rising proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, forgetting that our contribution is a tiny fraction of the total. We ignorantly label it “poison,” oblivious to its crucial, life-giving role. We naively, anthropomorphically imagine the planet reeling from its toxic excess; our fault, of course. Yet if the planet really could speak, it would confess a craving for the precious gas, alarmingly scarce now compared with earlier, more fecund epochs.

We fret and moan over the incursion of our species upon the rainforest. Yet the forest fights back–and wins–every single time. Clear the land and then walk away from it, and it will be reclaimed almost instantly. In a year you will be a fast-fading memory; in five, little trace of you will remain; in fifty, it will be as though you had never even existed. This supposed contest between humans and nature–note the artificial separation–isn’t even close except in our imaginations.

It appeals to our egoistic natures to imagine that the fate of the Earth rests in our hands, a breathtaking conceit. But we do not command this planet. It commands us. Humanity, which reflexively and fervently believes itself the end-all and be-all, is dwarfed in every conceivable way by the sheer immensity of its home planet. It is vast; we are minuscule. It is incomprehensibly ancient; we appeared but an instant ago. Even at our very, very worst, we are little more than a minor, fleeting annoyance. And even at our very, very best, we are, ultimately, irrelevant.

Nature–tough, resilient, wise, unsentimental, ruthless–has many ways of putting us in our place, and will undoubtedly do precisely that should we step too far out of line.

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One Comment

  1. good read, will not convince any of the egocentric emoters, really resonates with those who already thought that way including yours truly. Comforting thought: knowledge is only received when people are ready and readiness is a pendulum-briefly transiting through sanity on the way to the opposite extreme. To wit: this too will pass-alas not in our time frame-but assuredly will happen!

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