On The Saving of Planets

Planets, in the basic sense of the word, do not need saving. Their trajectories through the heavens are wholly indifferent to the squabbles and errors of microbial-scale life upon their skins. Even in a more inclusive meaning of “planet,” that of a home for life, a garden of diversity and even, perhaps, a living being, it would be hubris to talk of saving. Humans may be foolish and damaging, and may wreak an ugly blip on the timeline of planetary vitality, but life goes on.

There is a sense, though, in which the planet, or the work of the force of nature upon it, is in danger. Over the course of planetary history there has been long-term trend, if fossils are to be believed, of greater and greater diversity and complexity in the thin film of life that calls this planet home.

We are part of that film, of planetary nature’s great creative work, of life becoming itself in all its astonishing beauty and complexity.

We are part of the continuum of life, in this sense neither greater or lesser than a tree frog, or a buttercup, or even, perhaps, a raindrop. But, within this continuum, our capacities may beunique; our meta-awareness, our ability to know that we are knowing, to feel that we are feeling, to imagine, build steward; our capacity to understand, if we will, distant causal connections, to make inferences, to shape-shift our consciousness such that we can imagine being a fish, a parakeet, a lemon; we can see wholes from parts and parts in wholes; and through language and culture we can build upon these things from one generation to the next.

We can be the neurons of the planet, a meta-species through which the earth can see, and know, and care for itself.

We can be this, but only if we will. So far these awesome gifts have been used to abuse, destroy, and impoverish. Through arrogance and greed, through our failure to realize our role as stewards and observers of the biosphere, we are endangering not only the diversity and elegant functioning of the Earth’s life, but also the survival of ourselves. Perhaps most immediately, we are endangering the possibility that our civilization may, somehow, stumble forward into a new comprehension of our relation with ourselves, the Earth, and the universe, rather than backwards into chaos.

Our civilization is a mixed bag, and no mistake. Within that mix, though, there is caring and beauty, and an expression of constructive instincts that are as fundamental to our natures as language and tribal networks.

If that civilization fails, and fails without the redemptive result of a more cooperative version arising in its place, then the work of life on this planet will have taken a step backwards; the road to another civilization getting this close to a tipping point of contextual understanding could be very, very long.

We can chose to see evolution as the dumb mechanics of fate, or we can chose to see it as a sort of miracle. (Science has nothing legitimate to say on this point. Which would you choose? And which view point, overall, leads to more of what’s true, and good, and beautiful?) What a gift that the dynamics of evolution didn’t favour the Earth being permanently enveloped in a film of single-celled slime moulds. It could have happened, and the fact that the we’ve escaped such seemingly-possible equilibria may be a giant case of quantum tunneling of the most magnificent kind, but that’s a digression for another post.

Yes, life will go on, will return, will cover and erode the scars left by this most daring of its creations, eventually. Nature has worked long and hard on us, though, and if we really mess up it may be a very long time before some other part of the planet emerges that can look itself in the mirror and see the whole looking back.

Evolution occurs in fits and starts. Sometime, it is crisis that forces progress, be it biological, psychological or societal. The story of evolution is, in the larger timescale, the story of smaller, separate things forming larger things through cooperative networks. If we are to continue this story, we will — at some scale, through some means — learn cooperation beyond what we’ve yet employed, and possibly beyond what we can easily imagine.

In this time of vertiginous unraveling, there remains reason for hope. Despite human nature, despite 10,000 years of misery and conflict, despite all that has been tried and failed, we have not yet fully explored the territory of human cooperation. We may have never been closer to disaster, and we may also have never been closer to breakthrough. The more blatantly our ways of living on the Earth are not working, the more motivation exists for seeing other possibilities — possibilities that may yet save this fascinating experiment from the lab-bench sink.

This is the summer solstice. As the Earth turns again, its implacable trajectory moving for perhaps the 4.5 billionth time around the ever-radiant sun, through the black star-studded reaches of space, an extraordinary drama is slowly unfolding on its thin, teeming skin.

We are not done yet.