Submitted by Peter Denison
Many people warn that the earth is in danger. Yet we know that our planet is now more than four billion years old and will probably last several billion more until our sun ultimately blows up. What people really mean is that human life may be in danger. Through the forces of evolution, many species have come into being, lived a number of years, and then died out. Over 99% of all species have run their course and become extinct.
We like to say that the dinosaurs “ruled” the earth for more than a hundred million years. Yes, they were obviously the largest animals on Earth for that period, but to say that they dominated the pests, insects, microbes, and parasites that fed on them and sickened or killed them is a stretch. Also, no single species survived throughout that period. Finally, due to environmental changes which included a gigantic meteorite crash, all dinosaurs became extinct.
As far as Earth was concerned, life went on, developing new species of all shapes and sizes. Finally, one species of hominid evolved into homo sapiens. We have been a separate species perhaps for a million years or more, but as far as “dominating” the earth, that has been partially true only for the last few thousand years. We proved to be quite adaptable. Most large animals have been domesticated on the path to extinction.
We employed our competitive abilities first to devise strong class systems which would at least ensure that members of our ruling classes could live in relative ease and luxury, even though there was not enough wealth to go around to everyone. Then in just the last few centuries through the invention of relatively free market capitalism and our competitive skills, we have created a world in which living standards improved for many people who were not in the aristocracy or oligarchy. Indeed there are scientists who believe we humans can eliminate all poverty in a few more decades. What a few years ago could have been called a socialist paradise really seemed in reach.
But every good thing has its deleterious side effects. The profit motive meant that any expense that could be postponed or ignored by the companies that produced food, clothing, housing, and luxury items would be ignored. Wealth also created environmental damage: pollution of our air, water, and even our soil. Members of the ruling classes have fiercely resisted efforts to control and even eliminate these side effects. They deny the damage as long as they can do so. Yet even they are eventually forced to pay a grudging attention to these side effects.
Then has come climate change. The very size of our global economy has caused not only serious environmental problems but now leads to the probability catastrophic global warming. Sea level rises will make many coastal areas unlivable. Fertile areas will become deserts. Clean water will become scarce. Then it is possible that climate change will reach a point of no return, described by some as a tipping point. The climate might make human life impossible.
Humanity has progressed as far as it has because of its intelligence and its successful competition with other species in dominating our planet. We have been able to eliminate many diseases, improved production of food and other resources, and very likely we have the knowledge and resources to keep our climate livable. The question is, will we?
The darkest side of human competition has been warfare. We have fought monstrous wars in the past. Our destructive ability is such that a new world war could easily, especially if nuclear weapons are used, destroy our environment and with it all humankind. Competition has been very useful in the past. But conditions have changed. When a species is confronted by serious environmental change, it will either adapt or become extinct. We will have to learn to downplay competition and cooperate with each other.
Will we? Many countries, including apparently our own, have enabled backward looking demagogues to achieve power. We can learn to cooperate, or we can continue defending our individual wealth and privileges up to and including warfare. There is no rule that says humans can’t become extinct. The earth will go on. Life of some sort will continue. Planet earth really doesn’t care. But we do.