This essay is adapted from Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future, by David Grinspoon, published by Grand Central Publishing.
Earth is a stunningly lovely planet for so many reasons. Among these is the wondrous presence of curious, artful, inventive humanity. Whenever I see a nighttime picture of Earth from space, with its glowing lights, I am stirred by its beauty. It’s a different sort of awe than we get from the opposite view, looking up at the numberless stars—the mysterium tremendum we feel facing all that infinity.
Often, when I post such a picture online, someone will comment about how ugly it is because of light pollution, showing what a hopeless cancerous influence we humans are.
A persistent current of misanthropy has crept into many present‐day environmental narratives. There is an awful lot of this human bashing, a repeated message about how terrible the human race is, how the world would be better off without us. In a perverse way, this trash talking of humanity seems to make people feel good. It’s as if we can become exempt from judgment if only we repeat loudly and insistently that we know how truly horrible we are.
Look at the metaphors we use most often to describe our global role. Humanity is a cancer, a virus, a rapist, a mass murderer, a killer asteroid. Now, clearly there are some dark truths here about our nature and collective behavior. Yes, we have committed horrific crimes. And yes, we have been a cancer. But what shall we be now? Once we experience the shock of waking up and finding ourselves in the midst of committing these acts, well, then what? Cancers do not wake up and decide to stop being cancerous.
In March 2014, a young journalist named Clive Martin wrote a piece in Vice titled “What the Fuck Are We Supposed to Do With Our Lives Now That the World Is Ending?” It was pegged to a study in which, Martin wrote, “NASA suggests we’re merely decades from total social collapse” due to climate change. In reality, NASA has made no such conclusion. The study in question (which, as Martin acknowledges elsewhere in the piece, was actually just “partially funded by NASA”) is full of guesswork, assumptions, and simplifications. It is more of an interesting cartoon than an accurate simulation of the world. Still, the message “Scientists say there is nothing we can do” is spread. And we have this poor young writer stating:
The problem is that ignorance is bliss when the truth means knowing that you and all of your friends are staring down the barrel of fate. If nothing can be done, then it seems better to just live our lives as we always have … until the sun goes black and the birds start to fall out of the sky.
Such apocalyptic imagery may be more likely to become a self‐fulfilling prophecy than to rouse people to action. Currently I feel that spewing misanthropy is just as dangerous as emitting carbon dioxide. It is the opposite of activism. There is a real danger of unintended consequences, of encouraging people to give up. Pessimism, if it becomes a habit, can reinforce a narrative of unstoppable decline. If there is nothing we can do, that releases us from our obligations.
There’s no future in despising humanity. Self‐flagellation may feel good to some, but how does it help move us toward solutions? Surely we can find a way to love Earth without hating ourselves.
There’s more to my argument than just “put on a happy face.” This negativity is suspect, tactically (it doesn’t work) and philosophically (it reinforces Earth alienation rather than identity). It also feeds a false narrative about climate change. Many people see the fight to halt global warming as an impending either/or situation. We’re going to stop it by a certain date or we’re not—and it looks like we’re not.
Some have likened it to an asteroid that is clearly heading for Earth. In some important respects, this is a bad analogy. Unlike the path of an asteroid, whose motion is determined by the relatively simple laws of gravitational mechanics, climate is horribly complex. The asteroid either will hit us or it won’t. With climate, it’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a constantly shifting trajectory that will require sustained attention and concern over years, decades, and centuries. Clearly we are not going to shut down all the coal plants in the next 10 years. Just as clearly, they will all be shut down by this century’s end. Between those two boundary conditions lies a huge range of possibilities. Yes, we are putting ourselves at risk, and yes, we must do whatever we can to move ourselves as quickly as we can toward new energy systems.
However, there is no critical moment at which the disaster hits or will be averted. There are, rather, accelerating and decelerating trends, and an infinite number of possible paths. It’s a slowly unfolding emergency that requires not a quick pulse of activity, not a fight‐or‐flight response, but long‐term engagement, enduring changes in the way we live through a long series of thoughtful readjustments. We don’t need to panic. We are in this for the long haul.
Can we at least envision a behavioral mode, a way of working with the rest of the world, a version of ourselves, that we could celebrate? If not, then what path is there but nihilism, fatalism, and resignation? If we really believed we could not change course, then concern about our future would be as useless as agonizing over an approaching comet in a world where we had no space program, no way to stop it. Yet we are the species with a unique ability to envision futures and sometimes work together to manifest them. As long as we can imagine a better path, of course we are obligated to seek it. This is why unwarranted pessimism about our future is actually irresponsible. The naysayers, prophesiers of certain doom, are giving us a way to avoid responsibility. Don’t listen to them. If we don’t know enough to know that we’re doomed, then the drumbeat of gloom is not helping, it’s hurting. Let’s replace it.
We’re at least partway through a transition from being the species that bumbles through its world‐changing ways with no awareness whatsoever. We’ve figured out how to deal with the worst of acid rain and ozone destruction. (That was a close one.) Our population is widely projected to level out and begin to decline later this century. We’re starting, slowly, painfully, to come to grips with the biodiversity and climate crises. Whatever happens to climate now, it would have been a lot worse without these recent waves of awareness and concern reverberating around the globe. If we get our act together, we still have the potential to consciously save many more species than we have inadvertently destroyed.
If you look from an evolutionary perspective, you might see us a little more sympathetically. You might realize that we’re not inherently evil, destructive, or malevolent, but that we’re unprepared and ill‐equipped for the task we have stumbled into. We are uniquely outfitted with the power of imagination, and it seems clear that any robust solution to our Anthropocene dilemma will involve reimagining ourselves and our interactions with the world.
We’re not a cancer or a disease. We are organisms doing what all organisms do, surviving and reproducing as best we can. We are, however, a kind of organism that has never existed before, and we’ve gotten ourselves in a situation. Fortunately, we may be equipped to get ourselves out of it. A plague does not think. A cancer does not decide to change course. A weed does not weed itself. We could. So these images may describe our past, but they needn’t proscribe our future.
Adapted from Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future by David Grinspoon. Copyright © 2016 by David Grinspoon. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.