Rumination: Stephen Jay Gould on the Environmental Movement
These words penned by Mr. Gould in a preface to a book of essays I think sums up what we can know and feel about environmentalism as succinctly as I have ever heard done:
“The beauty of nature is her amplitude; she exists neither for nor because of us, and possesses a staying power that all our nuclear arsenals cannot threaten (much as we can easily destroy our puny selves).
The hubris that got us into trouble in the first place, and that environmentalists seek to avoid as the very definition of their (I should say our) movement, often creeps back in an unsuspected (and therefore potentially dangerous) form in two tenets frequently advanced by “green” movements: (1) that we live on a fragile planet subject to permanent ruin by human malfeasance; (2) that humans must act as stewards of this fragility in order to save our planet.
We should be so powerful! (Read this sentence with my New York accent as a derisive statement about our false sense of might, not as a literal statement of desire). For all our mental and technological wizardry, I doubt that we can do much to derail the earth’s history in any permanent sense by the proper planetary time scale of millions of years. Nothing within our power can come close to conditions and catastrophes that earth has often passed through and beyond. The worst scenario of global warming under greenhouse models yields an earth substantially cooler than many happy and prosperous times of a prehuman past. The megatonnage of extraterrestrial impact that probably triggered the late Cretaceous mass extinction has been estimated at 10,000 times greater than all the nuclear bombs now stockpiled on earth. And this extinction, wiping out some 50 percent of marine species, was paltry comapred to the granddaddy of all– the Permian event some 255 million years ago that might have dispatched up to 95 percent of species. Yet the earth recovered from these superhuman shocks, and produced some interesting evolutionary novelties as a redult (consider the potential for mammalian domination, including human emergence, following the removal of dinosaurs).
But recovery and restabilization occur at plantary, not human, time scales– that is, millions of years after the disturbing event. At this scale, we are powerless to harm; the planet will take care of iteself, our puny foolishness notwithstanding. But this time scale, though natural for planetary history, is not appropriate in our legitimately parochial concern for our own species, and the current planetary configurations that now support us. For these planetary instants– our millennia- we do hold power to impose immense suffering (I suspect that the Permian catastrophe was decidedly unpleasant for the ninteteen of twenty species that didn’t survive).
We certainly cannot wipe out bacteria (they have been the modal organisms on earth right from the start, and probably shall be until the sun explodes); I doubt that we can wreak much permanent havoc upon insects as a whole (whatever our power to destroy local populations and species). But we can surely eliminate our fragile selves– and our well-buffered earth might then breathe a metaphorical sigh of relief at the ultimate failure of an interesting but dangerous experiment in consciousness. Global warming is worrisome because it will flood our cities (built so often at sea level as ports and harbors), and alter our agricultural patters to the severe detriment of millions. Nuclear war is an ultimate calamity for the pain and death of billions, and the genetic maiming of millions in future generations.
Our planet is not fragile at its own time scale, and we, pitiful latecomers in the last microsecond of our planetary year, are stewards of nothing in the long run. Yet no political movement is more vital and timely than modern environmentalism– because we must save ourselves (and our neighbor species) from our own immediate folly. We hear so much talk about an environmental ethic. Many proposals embody the abstract majesty of a Kantian categorical imperative. Yet I think that we need something far more grubby and practical. We need a version of the most useful and ancient moral principal of all– the precept developed in one form or another by nearly every culture because it acts, in its legitimate appeal to self-interest, as a doctrine of stability based upon mutual respect. No one has ever improved upon the golden rule. If we execute such a compact with our planet, pledging to cherish the earth as we would wishto be treated ourselves, she may relent and allow us to muddle through. Such a limited goal may strike some readers as cynical or blinkered. But remember that, to an evolutionary biologist, persistence is the ultimate reward. And human brainpower, for reasons quite unrelated to its evolutionary origin, has the damndest capacity to discover the most fascinating things, and think the most peculiar thoughts. So why not keep this interesting experiment around, at least for another planetary second or two?”
Now what is this ‘stability based upon mutual respect’? Is it a stasis? Is it what some call sustainability? How do we actually implement such a ‘compact with out planet’? I would propose, as I did in the final chapter of my book ‘Ecocide’, that in more precise terms, the quality that Mr. Gould refers to may be described as ‘preventropy’. It consists of guiding our thoughts, actions, technologies, economies, and recreations around the guiding principal of the prevention of entropy, or the tendency for matter, information, and energy to dissipate into less organized and useful states. As a golden rule, we could say that just as we would not like to be prematurely chopped up into tiny pieces, so that the whole no longer functions as a whole and is no longer recognizable as a whole, we should also avoid doing this with our natural world. As so aptly stated by Mr. Gould, it is all about timescales and it is inevitable that any of us, and the earth, will disintegrate, but folly comes in actions taken that accelerate, intentionally or not, this eventual entropy. And yes, the ultimate reason is our self-interest in prolonging our species time on the planet for as long as non-human influenced forces allow.