It is staggering to imagine that Earth, according to best scientific estimates, is 4.6 billion years old, and the entire history of bipedal hominids spans less than one thousandth of the life history of the planet. More amazing is the fact that Australopithecus afarensis left its footprints in the volcanic ash at Laetoli, Kenya almost 4 million years before Homo sapiens’ rise as a dominant species about 40 thousand years ago – another three orders of magnitude.
More humbling still is the general historical consensus that the first words of Western literature – the opening lines of Homer’s Iliad – were set down only 2,500 years ago.
The whole of Western civilization as we know it is 1.8 millionths of Earth’s age.
As upsetting to me as my fellow Homo sapiens’ near-complete disregard for our planet is, I am still painfully more aware that the notion of environmentalism is an extremely recent event in the history of humankind. If, as environmentalist Lynn White Jr. notes, the concept of ecology dates back no further than the late 1870s, the “history” of environmentalism is but a mote of dust when compared to the history of Earth.
It’s the height of human arrogance and hubris for any of us to conceive that anything we do could possibly cause any significant or lasting damage to this ancient orb of rock, metal and fire that we are spinning through the cosmos upon. From the earliest environmental writings of Walter C. Lowdermilk during the 1940s to the present, the authors, though well-intentioned, make the same kind of mistakes that the worst gross polluters make in their rhetoric, which is the confusion of fundamental terminology: Although they have historically been used as such, the words “Earth” and “world” are not synonymous.
“Earth” is, of course, the planet. But the “world” is that ephemeral and most delicate construct, which humans have precariously built upon Earth’s shoulders. We are not in the process of destroying the planet; we are presently destroying our world and the ability to sustain ourselves. The superb irony of our blindness to this concept is elegantly demonstrated in such foolish phrases as “Save the Planet,” environmental benefits such as Earth Day and movements such as the ludicrous Earth Liberation Front.
Even Joseph Sittler, the pioneering Christian environmentalist, pathetically described Earth as man’s sister, who “unquenchably sings out her violated wholeness and in groaning and travailing awaits with man the restoration of all things.” How maudlin. In no way does the planet need us to save it – we need to save ourselves.
And that’s a rather puzzling thing, isn’t it? We humans are nothing if not self-serving. How then are we so disinterested in saving our own pathetic skins? The answer lies in yet more irony and paradox, which, in addition to ignorance, apathy and self-destructiveness, we excel at. We are so materialistic and short-sighted that we would rather satisfy our need for instant gratification in the short-term than preserve the human race. Much of the world doesn’t even care enough about their own children to ensure their futures in the fragile world we are so proud of. What hope can there possibly be for a third or fourth generation and beyond, especially as we are teaching apathy and destruction to our offspring? Very little indeed.
“Unfaithful stewards of the land,” Lowdermilk once labeled us. “Witless parasites” seems more appropriate to me. Or better yet, we are like a plate of bacteria, growing exponentially, over-consuming our limited resources and despoiling our tiny environment with prodigious volumes of waste, which we wantonly excrete on ourselves and our neighbors.
One can look at Earth and view it as a macro-scale petri dish. As we continue to degrade our world and exploit resources, we are creating monumental and insurmountable calamity for ourselves and our children. We are slowly poisoning ourselves, and our race – and the consequences will be severe.
Ben Tambaschi is a student at San Diego State University.