Are WE Lucky?

What if we ask a rough-skinned newt, assigning it greater importance than is customary?

To prevent the reader from wondering if they have the wrong blog, I will warn that this post starts in an unfamiliar voice. In some respects, it reflects a younger me. But mostly it channels views familiar to modernity, by no coincidence.  We start with a guy (of course) hogging the microphone.

Space is cool. Astronauts are badass. Maybe me too, someday.

What we’ve learned is amazing—we have tamed so much—our reach and control are ever-increasing.

Information and analysis are accelerating: we’re on our way to mastering everything.

We have learned to outmaneuver all limits. Nothing can stop us from having it all—even immortality may be in the cards soon.

We are so lucky to have pulled ourselves out of the muck—no longer mere animals.

We are so lucky to be as clever as we are: ingenious innovators.

We are so lucky (and brilliant) to have found the fossil fuels that powered our ascent—but that’s just the start.

What’s this you say? Growth can’t go forever on a finite planet?

Well, not to worry: did I mention that space is cool, and that it is in our nature to skirt past limits?

What’s that? Space colonization is a juvenile fantasy, you say?

No, I can’t prove that it’s destined to happen. But why would the burden of proof be on me, when it’s so obvious that’s where we’re heading? What relevance is it that we have no examples even remotely close to sustainable living in space over long durations?

What’s this? Fossil fuels are finite and likely to decline this century?

No matter. Renewable energy: solar, wind, nuclear!

Don’t be a pest. It’s beside the point that nuclear is not renewable—you know what I mean: unlimited energy awaits. Fusion, then.

Wait: too many things at once:

  1. Of course unlimited energy is a great thing—why the hell wouldn’t it be?
  2. Why should it be relevant that we’ve never built solar panels or wind turbines without fossil fuels?
  3. What does it even matter if these technologies use ten times the mined resources as fossil fuels? Earth is enormous.
  4. Surely, you jest that we don’t have ways to make concrete and steel, carry on our mining practices, support air travel and global shipping without fossil fuels. I can probably find a cute demonstration blasting each of these, or at least imagine them—which is theoretically enough.
  5. I don’t understand the relevance of your point that most of our 8 billion people are fed by the fruits of fossil fuels for fertilizer and mechanization: we’ll just do something different/better!

So don’t get hung up on fossil fuels! Yes, they are causing climate change, but that’s just another hiccup that we’ll master and tame in the usual heroic fashion: just look at the explosion of solar and wind and electric cars (now roaring up to a few percent penetration!). We’re lucky, remember! Fossil fuels are just a stepping stone to an even richer future. Failure is not an option, say I: we’re increasingly capable and increasingly in control. Our destiny is clear: just look at how far we’ve come! This trajectory must continue. To think otherwise ludicrously ignores a centuries-long trend—even if you do claim to rest your argument on biophysical reality and not on an inheritance-spending extrapolation lasting only a handful of human lifetimes. It’s only your toxic (lack of?) imagination and lack of faith that threatens our greatness: we have to believe in order to mold reality to our dreams.

Hey—how dare you! Give. Me. (grunt) Back. That. MICRoph…

Okay, folks, just breathe. Give it a minute. Let any anger and confused certitude wash away.

We’re lucky, he says. Let’s look at that. Are you convinced? Are we lucky? Is this the good life for us? Or—if not yet—are we shambling toward the good life?

I invite you to reflect on the words “we” and “us” in the above questions. Who does it include?

Are humans—and specifically members of modernity—the only ones who count? Is this “our” planet? Is it justifiable for humans to objectify, commodify, and disregard everything else?

Well, humans are only 3% of animals on the planet, by mass, and only 0.01% of all life.

So, I encourage you to spend a few moments thinking about who WE really are. Expand your horizons. Humans simply could not exist without other life on the planet, any more than a tree leaf can survive without the twigs, branches, trunk, roots—and indeed other leaves…not to mention other organisms vital to the tree’s survival. A pancreas, brain, or ear have no business on their own, without being part of a larger community of organs. Some Indigenous traditions speak of plants and animals as our older brothers and sisters who have much to teach us about living on Earth. Life is a community, not a single, powerful, self-interested species.

Despite the usual hubris, members of modernity don’t remotely know enough about the complexities of ecology to know when the damage is too great for our own long-term survival. And that day of sufficient understanding almost certainly will never come. The more you know, the more you know you don’t know—the saying goes. We’ve now amassed an enormous and growing set of things we don’t know! Meanwhile, we continue to hack away at the vitality of the planet with increasing speed. Have we already gone too far?

I suggest thinking of US as all life. Humans are just a small part of the greater community of life.

Think of US as including squirrels and frogs; parrots and iguanas; newts and bats; prairie grasses and flowers; foxes and shrews; clownfish and anemones; maple saplings and ancient bristlecone pines.

WE are lightning bugs and whip-poor-wills; tortoises and poppies; skunks and sea cucumbers; water lilies and grasshoppers.

We could go all day. Please continue without me for a bit: stretch your own imagination by building mental pictures of all forms of life on the planet. Embrace the exotic and the mundane. It would not be hard to build a giant list of plants and animals you probably didn’t even know existed. But even the impressively long list of familiar species is sufficient to make the point.

Think of how exceptional each lifeform is—doing things we as humans can’t even fathom, let alone accomplish using our own bodies: plants “eat” sunlight directly; bats and dolphins sense the world by sonar (what is that even like?); fish breath underwater; insects, birds, bats, and some fish fly; bees and dogs smell the world; lots of species hibernate for winter; cheetahs sprint at freeway speeds; many creatures can direct their ears, and can twitch their skin to shoo a fly. The list of amazing capabilities that the human animal can’t do is as enormous as the number of species. Keep going. Take your time.

This is US. We’re part of this. We are not WE without all of US. Humans are just one organ in a complex organism, unable to survive without a functioning and healthy whole.

This reality is inescapable. Modernity’s foolish attempt to distance ourselves from this bedrock foundation is relatively new and manifestly temporary—sure to fail.

So WE are everything. WE are all life.

I encourage you to take a minute (or more, please) to reflect on this new definition of WE. Try to wrap your head around using the word WE to mean all of life on this planet, in its magnificent, mind-blowing diversity.

Now. Let’s come at our purported luckiness again from a new understanding, pausing on each question to consider this wider lens of what WE really means.  Think in terms of the happiness and health of the collective ecosphere, on the whole.  Listen for the sound of your synapses cracking as you read and answer each one in the traditional antrhopocentric sense then in the more inclusive sense.

  1. Were WE lucky to have found fossil fuels?
  2. Were WE lucky to have started agriculture, civilization, and modernity?
  3. Has medical technology made US healthier than ever?
  4. Would WE celebrate a cure for cancer, or unlocking human immortality?
  5. Is modernity in OUR collective best interest?  Is it helping US?
  6. Is this OUR destiny—what WE are meant to be doing?
  7. Are WE eager to see modernity’s continuance, fully powered by panels and turbines?
  8. Are WE having fun, yet?

Once shedding the menacing mantle of human supremacy and affording consideration for all life, the answers to these questions flip from the unthinking and obvious “yes” to a more informed but very clear “no”—or at least “not so fast.” When wild land mammal mass is down to 20% the pre-industrial level and the average decline in vertebrate populations is 70% since 1970, WE are not doing very well at all. Something has gone horribly wrong, and is rapidly heading for disaster.  It’s really not okay.  We need to acknowledge that modernity has come at a tremendous—and perhaps unrecoverable—cost to the community of life and therefore ultimately to ourselves.

Bio-JEDI

Probably most professions now express varying degrees of concern over justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). While the topic can be polarizing in its own right, the controversy is never around the thing that concerns me most. The concept is horribly, painfully, ruefully anthropocentric (human-supremacist) in nature. Not a thought goes beyond the borders of Homo sapiens. While I applaud awareness and sensitivity, it is usually confined to a narrow, tunnel-vision beam.

I like the idea of prepending “Bio” in front of JEDI:

  • Bio-justice: how can we make it up to all those species we’ve crushed in our rush to modernity? Some are extinct and can never be recompensed.
  • Bio-equity: Humans are the 0.01% (by biomass) claiming the vast majority of the spoils, enacting a massive inequity that dwarfs inequity among humans.
  • Biodiversity: we already know this term (note the absence of a hyphen), which is great; valuing the diversity of the community of life is fundamental to long-term success.
  • Bio-inclusion: the main thrust of this post is to think about other forms of life in our decisions: WE, not we.

Think about this when you encounter discussions of JEDI issues. How narrow is the scope? How might you broach the subject with people who are unaware of how steeped they are in an anthropocentric culture? Easy does it, but maybe start slipping in a comment now and again to broaden the dialog—one gentle nudge at a time.

Wait: Curing Cancer is Bad?

Did the cancer question in the list above cause a stumble? I pick a “cure” for cancer because it has been a primary goal of research for at least half-a-century. I acknowledge that cancer is a class of disease, and no universal cure is likely to emerge. But feel free to substitute any longstanding cause of death. Note that I have had close, dear family members die of cancer, and mourn their loss. It’s hard. In a sense, it is death that makes life special and worthy of celebration. So my apologies if this hits close to home and seems insensitive. I choose to see it as extending sensitivity beyond the usual human-only boundary.

What would a successful cure look like? Human lifespans would increase. All other things being equal, a reduced death rate means more humans on the planet, putting additional pressures on the entire community of life and further threatening the vitality of the planet—including humans, to be clear. Moreover, access to the cure would almost certainly be more available to the affluent half, who are already heavy users of resources and thus cause outsized harm to the planet. So a cure to cancer would serve to boost ecological destruction, in practice.

What would the porcupine think? What would WE think? Accelerating the ecological nosedive does not seem like anything to cheer. How would the porcupine benefit? Do we make the cure (diagnostics, administration) freely available to every porcupine (and others)? Our culture would surely not hesitate to use as many porcupines as necessary in research and development if we thought they possessed a chemical secret to a cure (making this up: please don’t start harvesting and dispatching porcupines!). I suspect that porcupine extinction in the wild would even be on the table. What would we give back? Or is it only to take, for the short term benefit of humans alone, in yet another quixotic quest to defeat death? Maybe cancer isn’t the principal disease of modernity. Just sayin’…

The goal of curing cancer is not bio-inclusive. It threatens biodiversity. It is in no way bio-equitable, and only further amplifies the enormous deficit in bio-justice. It’s exceedingly narrow in scope, to our own ultimate detriment, ironically.

To be clear, I don’t hate humans or place zero value on human life.  It’s a matter of priorities.  I’d love to see cures for our diseases if they didn’t accompany and facilitate a rotten, self-destructive system that may ultimately cause unimaginable suffering.  You wouldn’t go in for an all-day corrective procedure that would ultimately extend your life while leaving your kids outside in a snowstorm with inadequate clothing and no food—almost sure to perish.  But it’s actually a little worse than the analogy, because we aren’t treating the “kids” well at any time, even through our long term survival depends on theirs.

I would say that perhaps we should quit while we’re ahead, but WE are not ahead at all. We should quit before WE get further behind.

How to Succeed

Until humans—capable as we are of inflicting planetary harm—put the community of life (US) first, we can expect failure. Don’t let the transient orgy of inheritance-spending excess fool you into thinking that modernity can work. Good decisions are considerate of the whole: the wasps and the moss. It is not impossible to live this way: many others have done so, only to be trampled by modernity. Try it on. We won’t be good at it right away, but it is rewarding to begin thinking more broadly and feeling like a valued member of a more inclusive community.  It may help to think of animals—and plants, even—as people: quirky people with a lot of verve.

When contemplating an action, think to yourself: “Would this likely be a net benefit to US (the community of life), or a net harm?” Sometimes it won’t be clear, but for most of our modernity-influenced actions it’s easier to connect the dots to ecological harm than to ecological benefit or restoration. It’s sobering. But don’t let lack of perfection paralyze you. We’re still stuck in modernity and the system makes it hard to do right. Awareness is a huge accomplishment on its own. You might shift some behaviors, and help others see that WE are all in this together.

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