Tomorrow is Earth Day, April 22 – a day founded in the ’70s, in the US, to draw attention to human excesses and neglect for the environment. It was a well-intentioned, generally appreciated idea, and is celebrated all over the world today. But as good as it is that we are reminded to take pause and think more broadly of the planet – why is it just one day? Does it strike anybody else as odd that we isolate ourselves from the world for 364 days a year, and have to be reminded to pay attention to it on the 365th?
We have a paradoxical relationship with our world, it seems.
We’ve changed the planet more than any other life form, and yet we despair that the world we live in is different from the one our grandparents enjoyed. At the same time, we’re willing to ignore the changes that take longer than a few blink-of-the-eye human generations to play out, and instead latch onto the “normal” we know as the absolute way of things.
Consider that much of the flora and fauna in the Americas is imported, that enormous flocks of Passenger Pigeons and bastions like the American Chestnut are no more, that Italy never knew tomatoes, or Ireland potatoes, before we started regularly crossing oceans in the 16th century. The massive change that we initiated in that period is an abstraction, a distant piece of trivia – and that’s roughly only 400 years ago. The truth that fewer and fewer of us know where our food comes from is no surprise, and the debate on the reality, or lack thereof, of climate change just covers too many years for most of us to notice on a personal level, so it’s easy to disregard.
We’ve successfully walled ourselves off from most of the world, shaped it and modified it to our will, such that – for many – shelter is not a daily struggle, our food supplies are certain and sure. We’ve achieved such a lofty perch that we’ve been able to disregard the realities of the planet that made us, and instead look at it from afar, seemingly detached, and despite greater scientific knowledge, we seem to observe with less understanding.
Since the dawn of time, humans have compartmentalized nature into those things that are “good”, and those things that are “evil”. We’ve used these definitions to justify our imposition of “right” on the world and its animals, usually to the detriment of predators and scavengers. We’ve personified the actors in daily natural dramas, and labelled demons and killers, as well as innocent victims. Even in recent history, we’ve encouraged the elimination of “less desirable” animals – even in our National Parks (e.g. Yellowstone) – to try and make nature fit our Disney-esque view of natural harmony.
It just doesn’t work like this. Morality is a human creation – the ability to think of things in terms other than mere survival is a gift of evolution that we enjoy. But we’re somewhat unique here – most inhabitants of this planet don’t have the luxury to rationalize, as they are too worried about surviving a world that is harsh, unforgiving, and often violent. We can’t make judgment calls about the world on what tugs at our emotions, or “feels right” to us, or we will (continue to) screw things up.
Aside from good/bad, right/wrong – we also have to be careful to avoid determinations of value or worth. We tend to make judgments on whether something deserves our attention based solely on its value to us – and yes, as animals ourselves, that’s only natural when applied to human survival. BUT, for example, “weeds” are not a thing except as distinguished from plants we like better. Our manicured lawns might look nice, but from a biological diversity standpoint, they’re sterile wastelands. We’re not so much afraid of change as we are hungry for control.
The paradox of course is that we are also animals, products of the environment in which we evolved. Our greatest evolutionary trick has been to discover how to shape the environment itself, and change the evolutionary rulebook, so it’s easy to forget where we came from.
All of written human history has occurred in a metaphorical fraction of a second, as compared to the lifetime of the Earth. Our planet has seen significant change in its lifetime, and the physics and chemistry of natural processes and the life that exists here – be that protozoans, dinosaurs, or us – have rebounded from catastrophe, and soldiered on. The world we know now is significantly different from the one our early ancestors knew in the Ice Ages 15,000 years ago, which was significantly different than the global hothouse the dinosaurs ruled. As humans, we’re adaptable, but the planet and life writ large are even more so.
It’s important to remember that, smart as we are, global changes are bigger than we are, time is not our ally, and that the world is patient enough to see another epoch or two, long after humans have had their run of the place. When we talk about celebrating Earth Day, it’s not about saving the planet – it’s about saving US.
Get Out There