The story of human history is long and complicated. In our short amount of time, we have made a permanent impression on the planet. We have been able to change the planet so much that the evidence of our society will live long in the fossil record. We are currently living in the geological era of the Anthropocene.
As a species, humans have been a tour-de-force on the planet — in case anyone thought our impact on the planet is a recent phenomenon. We’ve been changing the face of the planet ever since our ancestors took their first steps out of Africa. In every area of the planet that we’ve gone too, there happens to follow a significant decrease and extinction of megafauna populations. The fossil record is littered with the leftovers of human invasion of the continents. From the mammoths of Siberia or the mega sloths of South America, we’ve been changing the natural world for much longer than most people realize.
This begs the question. Are human beings as a species able to take care of the environment? Every living thing on Earth has had to evolve to fit the natural environment in which they live. Only humans have been able to manipulate the natural environment in order to fit ourselves. There is nothing natural about central heating, acres and acres of farmland devoted to single crops, animal feed lots, concrete, cars, nuclear power plants. All of these are adaptations by humans to suit our needs. The needs of the natural world have gone largely unconsidered until recently. And as such, our collective actions have been extremely limited and their impact even more limited.
If humanity can reverse this trend, is it our duty to do so? Reflexively, we might all say yes. By what if we don’t? What if we decided as a species that it is not our duty to take care of nature? After all, nature has been around for about four and a half billion years — with biological life not much younger than that. It does not take much imagination to determine that the natural world may know better than us. As far as we know, life on Earth has only started once and has never been wiped out entirely. We also know that life on Earth has thrived even in global climates that are vastly different than they are today. Life on Earth was present and thriving when there were no polar ice caps. Biological life is resilient. It is almost unimaginable that it will be completely wiped out by our actions. But life can be utterly devastated. As of our current knowledge, it has happened five times — the five mass extinction events. There is credible evidence that we are currently entering the sixth and that we are to blame. Since we have to capacity to mitigate the consequences it is our duty to do so.
Our duty stems from more than just our collective guilt over the destruction of the natural world. For most of human history, we expanded the reaches of civilization with complete disregard to the impact on the natural world. We have become more powerful than any of our ancestors could have imagined. In our glory and greatness, we have taken our planet for granted. And yet we owe everything we have built with the resources provided by nature. It is in our collective best interest to limit the destruction of nature — even if it’s selfishly to ensure our own survival.
We must understand that the dynamic has changed. We can forgive our ancestors as their ignorance of their global impact was not understood. Today, we have the ability to alter the global climates, we are using resources faster than they can be replaced, we are destroying the habitats of countless animals, permanently changing their lives. We cannot continue this trend forever. If we are to use the planet’s resources as we please, we must be conscious of the stresses we put on the planet. We must understand that the resources we use to drive our way of life may not be around forever. At our current rates of consumption, they won’t be — and our rates of consumption are increasing.
Humans are an exceptionally adaptable species. If we cause an irreversible climate catastrophe, us as a species likely will survive. On our way to the other side however, we will cause untold harm to nature and our fellow humans. If we are knowingly causing harm to the environment and decide to do nothing to prevent or slow it, then we are responsible for the outcome. It can be argued that it is too late to stop the inevitable. If that is the case, then those responsible for instability of the climate must provide for those who fall victim to the instability.
The astronomer and writer Carl Sagan once asked us to reflect on how we have been treating the planet. “How would we explain this to a dispassionate observer,” he wrote. He asked how we would judge our stewardship of the planet. He concluded that our global civilization is on the edge of failure. Looking at the evidence I am inclined to agree. We have known that our actions are destabilizing the climate, and yet we continue. We are the most powerful species in the history of the planet. As such, we have obligation to ensure the well-being of the lives that are on it — all of the different types of lives. Our impact on the planet will remain in the fossil record. What we do in this moment will determine whether or not we can change our ways and to stop the coming climate catastrophe.
It is easy to argue that we ought to take care of the natural world, but more difficult to put what we preach into practice. The world is coming to the position that significant changes need to take place. The Paris Climate Accord of a few years ago demonstrates that the world can at least come together as one to agree to do something. Now will come the difficult part of following through with what was promised. The challenges that we face are new and complex. In order to preserve the biodiversity and general welfare of the planet, we must come together to fight our common enemy — ourselves. We must do what has never been done before — create a society that has a positive impact on the natural world. Since the dawn of humanity, our nomadic species has clashed with the natural world. We have reached the point where that can no longer continue. We have the power to alter the global climate. How we choose to use that power will determine how our civilization will be remembered in the fossil record. For me, I want our species to be remembered for having the wisdom to prevent our own downfall. It is within our power to continue to destroy the planet on which we rely, but it’s also within our power to prevent that destruction. I hope we choose the latter.