THE EARTH IS ALIVE
By Roland Watson
In this short series - just two articles - I am going to cover the next fundamental dimension of the life experience: the planet earth. This article is focused on the idea that, in some way, the earth is alive.
The earth is our home, the place where we live and die. It is the environment that has shaped our circumstances, including our evolution into humans, our long history as humans, and our current nature. It is another one of our core conditions. We are humans in the universe, on this planet.
The earth is large: 24,000 miles, or 40,000 kilometers, around at the equator, and 200 million square miles, or 500 million square kilometers, in area.
It has diverse habitats, including oceans, seas and lakes; and tropic, temperate and arctic landmasses, with mountains, valleys, plains, forests, wetlands, deserts and glaciers.
The earth also has an amazing diversity of life, including single-celled, multi-celled, invertebrate, vertebrate, sentient and self-conscious species. Indeed, there are a huge number of species, millions of different types of life, each of incredible physical and behavioral complexity.
The planet is further an ecology. Everything works together to make it what it is.
Said another way, all the life on earth is interdependent. We support each other. And, everything in turn is dependent on the earth itself.
Also, like human society, the planet's ecology has a feedback mechanism. The earth originates and shapes the evolution of life, and the behavior of life in turn shapes its development.
Our planet, as a whole, can even be considered to be an organic form of life. It is a living organism, with its own respiration, circulation and rhythms: its own life cycle.
The usual definition of life is that it must be able to reproduce. Replication, as occurs with crystals, or even movement, as of a gamete - a sperm, is not enough.
However, this definition is too narrow. It should be expanded to include the ability to create new life, life which itself reproduces, and the earth certainly does that. Under this expanded definition the earth itself is alive - as is the universe.
Another way to think of this is: How can something that is dead give birth to something that is alive? The answer is: it can't. Therefore, the earth, and the universe, must in some way be alive.
Kill or be killed
Within our planetary ecology the different forms of life support each other, but, this is not an attractive sight. In the last article, I mentioned that life inevitably leads to death. I didn't, though, discuss the specific process.
We call the means by which life struggles to live natural selection, or survival of the fittest. A more apt description, though, would be kill or be killed. Life on earth is brutal.
In earlier times, in the face of life's ubiquitous death struggle, some people speculated that creation was the act of a malevolent god. This is also the foundation, the starting point, for the idea that many people have that life is unfair.
Most life - excluding plants - survives by killing and eating other living things. Such species are either predators, or scavengers. Humans are both. And many living things die by being eaten, often while they are still alive.
Even plants, seemingly peaceful plants, are engaged in a fight for space and sunlight.
The reality of kill or be killed is in fact the fuel of evolution. Death, or more accurately, the desire to live and to avoid death, drives competition between and among species, which in turn drives diversity.
This is also ironic, since what we view as a beautiful and diverse natural world is actually the product of this never-ending struggle.
There is an astonishing orgy of death on the planet, which is the same as saying that there is an astonishing variety and amount of life.
The earth is dying
The earth is large - it is a massive ecology - but it is not infinite. It has limits, including limited resources.
One of the defining forms of the modern world is the degree to which people fail to recognize this, or instead choose to ignore it; and, the degree to which these limits are being reached: the tremendous destruction we are causing planet-wide.
We have acted without regard to the consequences, and caused an ecological catastrophe. And, as bad as it already is, in the future it may well get much, much worse. The earth is dying, and we are the ones who are killing it.
The catalyst for this catastrophe was the development of technology, because it gave us, as a species, a huge advantage. It has enabled us to increase our numbers exponentially, to overpopulate the planet with humans, to the detriment of all other species.
A few species, a very few, and which we call "weed species," such as cockroaches and rats, have benefited from our domination, by scavenging in our wake.
Human beings are certainly not threatened with extinction. We have proved incredibly adept at colonizing every type of habitat, even the most extreme.
There are some 7.2 billion of us, as opposed to, say, three to four thousand tigers, in five subspecies, and down from hundreds of thousands and nine subspecies less than one hundred years ago.
However, it is not only overpopulation. We also have voracious appetites, consuming everything in our path, and as quickly as we can.
Anyone with a shred of compassion must pity the earth and the poor creatures, the fauna and flora, which inhabit it with us. You need only think of the trillions of mammals, birds and fish that have been killed to satisfy man.
All of this has been brought about through the astronomical destruction of habitat, millions and millions of acres of natural environment, of forests, wetlands, mangroves, reefs, of any area that is inhabited by, or the source of, anything that we can use.
And, there is also the inadvertent destruction that we cause, including all of the life that is killed because it gets in the way of our hunt; the plagues of species that we have introduced from one habitat to another, that decimate the occupants of previously protected environments; and the larger inadvertent effects, such as ozone holes and global warming.
The end of evolution
In summary, human beings have interfered with - we have effectively stopped - the natural process of evolution on the planet earth. We are the force that has altered the equilibrium.
We are the new asteroid that is causing the wholesale slaughter of life, and the extinction of an untold number of species, the species that have managed to evolve since the last asteroid hit, sixty-five million years ago.
Future generations of people will look back on us and condemn us for what we are doing now.
Indeed, one need only imagine - metaphorically - the celebration, the ecstatic happiness, which would erupt among all the other life on the planet, all of the plants, insects, reptiles, mammals, birds and fish, if we simply went away, if something caused us all to die. It would be the biggest party ever.
The real problem is not technology. The real problem is us. We are like a person who has borrowed too much money at the bank, yet who can't stop borrowing. The bank is the planet earth, and through our actions we are quite possibly going to bankrupt it, and ourselves.
Most people, when they take on a lot of debt, understand that they need to stop borrowing for a while. They need to save their money, and pay back the debt.
This is what we have done to the earth, but we refuse to save and pay back. We refuse to stop the destruction, to stop our overpopulation and overconsumption, and instead work to preserve and regenerate what it is still possible to save.
In the next article, I will present what our approach to the planet, our home, should be.
© Roland Watson 2014