The other day I became involved in a conversation which concerned the unlikely, and unpredictable, rise of human intelligence. Given the fact of this capacity, my interlocutor and I considered whether this quirky gift came with strings attached? Does intelligence have concomitant obligations? In particular, we asked about obligations which relate to the environment.
It turns out that opinions on this question fall on two sides of a natural divide; one of these arguments is that because human intelligence is unique, we, as the preeminently thoughtful organisms on Earth, are the only ones capable of managing the Earth and its resources, and that is the sole justification needed for doing so. We should make selfish use of the Earth in support of our better ends. Those on the other side of the divide argue that because human intelligence is unique, we, as the preeminently thoughtful organisms on Earth, are the only ones capable of managing the Earth and its resources, and that is the sole justification needed for doing so. We should exercise these powers for acts of stewardship – we should use our quirky, unpredicted, intelligence to care for the Earth.
This lofty conversation then turned to a consideration of the term sustainability. I argued that the term was misused in the vernacular and had often been conflated to represent positive acts on behalf of the Earth, acts which would make the Earth a better place than it had been before. We have come to believe that eating lower on the food chain, wearing hemp sandals, and driving a hybrid vehicle are somehow ways in which we go about healing the Earth of the environmental damages we have wrought. Think of the definition of the word; sustainable practices utilize natural resources such that they are not depleted or damaged. And that’s just it. Sustainable practice, by definition, maintains the status quo, it doesn’t make the Earth any better. Sure, you could argue, that sustainable practice makes the Earth better by not making it any worse (that is, it does so in a relative sense) … but the realization that we’re not making the Earth any better in an absolute sense is a sobering point – and an important one. It should provide strong motivation to do all that we can to maintain this delicate status quo.
And why is there no talk of reversing environmental damage? Why are we resigned to only acting sustainably? Because we cannot reverse the damage done … not in one or in many human lifetimes. The most we can hope for is that we don’t make the situation a whole lot worse. What we can work toward and hope for is to slow the rate of environmental decline, and to do what we can to loosen the relentless grip of entropy. We need to somehow get the calculus which relates our needs and the pool of sustainable resources to break even. If we slow the rate of environmental decline to near zero we will have reached the ecological Nirvana of a truly sustainable system.
If we act intelligently, as a species, we might very well be around when Gaia finally arrives at the equilibrium state she will most assuredly regain, in time (lots and lots of time). The premise of my argument is that it will be the Earth herself which will drive the restoration. Our contribution must be to act responsibly by not making matters worse, and to simply stay out of the way. At the moment, it is my belief that the majority of us act individually, selfishly, and this strategy will guarantee that equilibrium will finally be reached only long after we are gone. Let it be our mission then, as a species, to hope fervently for and work tirelessly toward this lofty and laudable goal of sustainable, global, equilibrium. [The beautiful image above appears, along with its original content, at the website of NASA’s Visible Earth program, here is the link to that site.]