can’t see the forest


Earth viewed from space

Who speaks for the species? Who speaks for the planet Earth?

{revised 12-2-07}

Politics divides. Economic incentive divides. Religious creed divides. The greatest common factor and the sole natural unifier among all human beings is that we need food, water, and air to survive. We are organisms first, economic entities second. The issue of sustainability has remained fundamentally unaddressed by the sophisticated sociological creations of civilization thusfar: the escalating remonstrances of modern science that we put aside divisive, competitive, evolutionarily grounded behaviors and ideologies for the benefit of the future, if not necessarily for our own convenience, are falling upon ears not necessarily tuned to hear them.

Since life began in Earth’s oceans about three billion years ago, the energy output of the Sun has increased by as much as 30%. Biology and geology show that surface conditions on Earth have remained relatively stable for great stretches of time despite these changes, allowing for the progressive evolution of lifeforms along a tightrope of near-miraculous circumstances. Ecologists have demonstrated that large-scale interactive behavior between the flora and fauna of our planet has been responsible for maintaining a delicate balance.

It is an equilibrium that human civilization is haphazardly, actively destroying with the byproducts of our enlightened progress. We are but unruly children in this place, and hardly masters of our world. Humanity did not create the balance that enables its own livelihood, but it would appear to have little issue with breaking it. It hurts merely to say it. It is happening every day.

There are no lifeboats moored to Earth. Our economies are not working sustainably. Our governments are not operating responsibly. Our systems of metaphysical belief are not constructive in this context except in the offering of actions of temporary charity and fleeting comforts that ignore the critical issues. People have a right to believe and to behave as they choose, but not regardless of and in denial of the consequences. This is certainly nothing new.

What is new: the magnitude of our capability have increased exponentially. Our footprints are larger than they have ever been—where once we carried machetes, now we carry atomic weapons. Campfires have become super-factories. We reap the benefits; the price is silently exacted from the unborn. If things continue into the near future as they have progressed over the past few hundred years, the children of our children could inherit a physical wasteland and a socioeconomic void for a habitat, and we would be largely to blame. Just how much there is to be lost is staggering. This is what is meant by “can’t see the forest”—that the modes of belief and behavior which have shaped our societies in the past, for all their notable accomplishments and creature comforts, have in common a fatal flaw: a narrowness of purpose and an absence of context, from which follow failures to consider and act upon the growing immediacy of the future. There is something about human nature, specifically the interaction of individual and society, which promotes this aberration of perspective almost as a first principle. A unity that transcends all cultural and national boundaries—which are invisible from space, as you see in this picture—is required to surmount the problem.

The quote in the title is from planetary astronomer Carl Sagan. “We have heard the rationales offered by the nuclear superpowers,” he wrote. “We know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the human species? Who speaks for Earth?”

Changing circumstances require adaptation. Adaptation is not always profitable. This runs contrary to the capitalist, theist, nationalist ideals of the pursuit of individual happiness and fulfillment as the highest calling of mankind. Sagan also wrote: “Nothing else that you’re interested in is going to happen if you can’t breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out. Do something.”

The struggle concerns more than the environment in and of itself; the student of history learns quickly that social unrest, systematic oppression, economic collapse, the cannibalistic carnage of war, and the bitter living contrasts of glittering opulence and famished desperation all flow ultimately from the same murky fount. But the teachings of ecology and humanist philosophy contain filters with which these dank waters can be slowly purified.

Making responsible choices in one’s own life is perpetually challenging, and, regrettably, is not always enough. A degree of evangelism is required—the evangelism of education, of free thought, of freedom from indoctrination. If ideology must prevail, let it be the commitment to question everything always.

There is no need for hysteria. There is a need for discussion and action. The impetus will not spark from the major media, which feeds from troughs filled by many of the very institutions that spearhead enterprises which sideline minds and wreck continents for profit. It will not come from the governments, which subsidize wholesale many of the worst atrocities. It will not come from the churches, which teach that the material world simply does not matter. It will not come from ephemeral fair-weather activist groups, which show up, create hubbub through dramatic demonstrations, and then disappear.

The buzz will come from you and me. We must be the humble prophets of our age. We must each personally spread the word wherever and however we can that, if enough people are made aware, it is not yet too late to set a new paradigm. We come to share and to learn, not to preach and preen.

George Orwell famously opined that “Liberty is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.” On the one hand, it would be convenient to ignore the most fundamental sicknesses of our destructive ways of life. No one would have to give up anything—yet. But, as the problem becomes recognized, internalized, and engaged by the masses, one has to consider the following question: who doesn’t want a chance to save the world? Whose life isn’t made hollow by the unrequited need?

The chance is ours. Silence is molten.

With my past and my future precisely divided—
Am I at that moment?
I haven’t decided.
– Tom Marshall, “Julius” by Phish


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  1. Forever Under Construction said, on 10/25/06 at 4:30 pm

    […] Complete text in: Who Speaks for human species? For earth?  […]

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