“More than at any time in history mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly.” —Woody Allen
“We are a tiny little twig of the mammalian tree, an afterthought. Nature was not made for us.” —Steven Jay Gould
To begin let me make it clear that I love my species, some members more than others, of course. But I think the time has come to assess our twig on the tree of life and consider whether or not it should be pruned back. Humans and our so-called “civilizations” are creating tremendous havoc on planet Earth, and it doesn’t seem prudent to let the human experiment continue without questioning its ultimate value.
Maybe this assessment is premature. Paleobiologists estimate that the average mammal species lives five to ten million years, and humans have only been around for about two hundred thousand years. So we should have a bit more time to redeem ourselves. However, the damage that humans are causing to the biosphere has become so widespread that life itself is threatened and we must consider all possible solutions.
Recently I read an article in the back pages of the San Francisco Chronicle under the headline “Humans’ Basic Needs Destroying Planet Rapidly.” (The front page was devoted to stories of crime and a political scandal.) The article cites the results of a four-year United Nations study, “The Millennium Ecosytem Assessment,” which declares that humans have “ruined approximately 60% of earth’s ecological systems to meet our demands for food, fresh water, timber and fuel.” What? Over half of the biosphere has been ruined by human activity?! We have discovered a very serious problem, and it is us.
By far the strongest case to end the human experiment comes from other species of life, but the witnesses are quickly disappearing. “The magnitude of the damage [to ecosystems] is much bigger than previously thought,” said Ahmed Djoghlaf, a United Nations expert on biodiversity. “The rate of species extinction is currently running at one thousand times the natural historical background rate.” The world’s leading biologists claim that we are living through the fifth or sixth largest species die-off in biological history.
Clearly, the main reason for what the scientists call an “extinction spasm” are the human herds (we won’t mention any names) trampling across the planet and consuming everything in their path. Perhaps some future species of human—perhaps homo sapiens sapiens sapiens (the thrice wise)—will bring us to trial in absentia for the holocaust of species that went on in our time. We will all be indicted for crimes against non-humanity.
The numbers of the condemned are staggering. A recent study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 17,291 of the 47,677 species assessed are threatened with extinction. They include 21% of all known mammals, 30% of amphibians, 35% of invertebrates and 70% of plants. Many biologists predict that almost all of the corals of the Great Barrier Reef will be gone by 2050. An assessment by the World Wildlife Fund says that this is the last century that anyone will see large animals in the wild. All of those beings can be seen as canaries in the coal mine, an adage that should be taken quite literally in our time of greenhouse gases.
The statistics become more alive when we hear the names of those disappearing, such as the Sierra Nevada red fox and the San Joaquin kit fox. The last supper for these foxes might be a Pacific pocket mouse, a riparian brush rabbit or a Fresno kangaroo rat, all endangered as well. And then there are the big ones—the California bighorn sheep, the Steller sea lion, the sperm whale, the right whale, the humpback and blue whales—all on the endangered lists. And let us now praise famous birds: the California condor, the greater sandhill crane, the bald eagle, the great gray owl, the marbled murrelet, the common bank swallow. All disappearing.
And what about the plant kingdom, filled with beings whose very names evoke tastes, smells, beautiful sights—Mount Gleason paint brush, succulent owl’s clover, mariposa lily, Crystal Springs fountain thistle, Owens Valley checkerbloom, slender Orcutt grass. All are listed as endangered.
How could this be happening? Is this what nature wants? And why have we been chosen as the agents of this holocaust? Is it retribution for our species’ arrogance?
The blind and destructive behavior of humans seems to have been sanctioned by one of our most popular deities, who “created mankind in his own image . . . and said unto them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’”
We carried out that instruction with fervor, filling up the earth with our kind and along the way subduing this and subduing that, until at this point it’s almost sub-done. According to esteemed molecular biologist Lynn Margulis, “The fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.”
So maybe we should exit the scene, and see what nature comes up with once we are out of the way. Will the earth’s ecosystems repair themselves; come to a new equilibrium; create new forms and feelings in beings that have never been seen before?
Of course, we would never choose our own extinction: nature would simply not allow it. We live by the laws of nature, and the first commandment is: “Stay alive!” Life needed to be deeply programmed with the determination to continue or it might have died out at the first sign of hardship. Without the survival imperative the anaerobic bacteria that began to choke on their own waste might have given up rather than morphing into beings who lived on oxygen. Life had to be pumped up with the desire to live, down to the most basic molecules, or else living beings might never have gone to the trouble to become multicelled, let alone to have figured out higher mathematics.
Besides, no matter how good a case can be made for our extinction, we can also point to all of our improbable and magnificent human creations, saying, “We wrote music and poetry, and we built great bridges and figured out how to fly. And if we are gone, who will give out names to things?”
So let’s consider what must be done if we are going to live out our remaining time on earth with dignity, and in harmony with other living beings. Let’s take our bodhisattva vows seriously and consider how to proceed.
If humans are to avoid extinction and start to repair the earth’s biosphere, a few important measures must be taken. One thing has become perfectly clear—there are way too many of us. We know that everyone has their own problems, so the more people there are, the more problems there will be. Someone should have figured that out a long time ago. (The Dalai Lama had a suggestion for how to deal with the population problem: chuckling, he said, “More monks and nuns.”)
One approach to all our environmental problems would be to somehow make a major change in the consumption habits and lifestyles of the world’s richest people. The Millennial Ecosystem Assessment declares, “If the nine billion people predicted to be with us by 2050 were to have the same lifestyle as Americans, we would need five planets.” And how much planet do you use?
If humans are going to live out our expected life span on the earth, we all will need to question our devotion to private ownership of land and resources. Capitalism and the worship of the individual—the core tenets of our society—must be challenged. Buddhists are on the right track with the deconstruction of “self.” And what if we don’t call it “socialism,” and instead just say “sharing.”
As individuals we will need to relinquish the desire to be “special,” accept a certain level of insecurity and even a little boredom, and seek satisfaction in something other than material wealth. The new “American dream” will not be to get rich but to realize that we are already rich.
I can also imagine instituting a nationwide—or even worldwide—moratorium on progress, to last at least a couple of centuries. We had a whole lot of progress in the last few hundred years and although it brought us painkilling drugs, space telescopes and Velcro, it appears that we can no longer keep up with our own ingenuity. We have spent the better part of our genius figuring out new ways to blow each other up or learning how to go faster, and in our fear and haste we forgot to inquire about who we are and where we are going. We need to relax, deeply, and let our hearts and minds catch up with our tool-making ability, which has gotten way “out of hand,” so to speak. What we need is a century of less doing and more “being.” The next revolution is a big slowdown.
Speaking of a slowdown, I have an idea that would aid in healing the biosphere and simultaneously spread a little of the wealth around. Why don’t the caffeine-producing peoples of the world get together and form a cartel, similar to the oil cartel OPEC. The tea and coffee workers of the world could demand much higher prices for their products, and in the process help break humanity’s addiction to speed. Coffee and tea are those other dark liquids which, like oil, fuel the manic engines of the world economy.
Underlying all our problems is the story we tell about ourselves. We need to revise our understanding of the human place in the scheme of things, let go of our species chauvinism and make common cause with all living beings. We all know how attached we are to our individual selves, to our very being. Perhaps we now have to confront how bonded we are to our identity as humans, to our “species self.”
Over the course of history, humans became so infatuated with our own abilities and creations that we came to believe that the entire universe was made just for us. As irrefutable evidence we’ve almost always touted our ability to think. Darwin was well aware of that conceit and wrote in his secret notebooks, “Why is thought—which is a secretion of the brain—deemed to be so much more wonderful than, say, gravity, which is a property of matter? It is only our arrogance, our admiration of ourselves.”
(I wonder, if we hadn’t learned how to think, would we have already become extinct? Maybe just ex-thinked.)
The Buddha said that our human incarnation is special because we have just enough of both suffering and awareness to fuel our liberation. However, the Buddha certainly did not romanticize the human condition, or any incarnation for that matter. As it was said of him, the Tathagata, “The intoxication of being has been destroyed and eliminated.”
There have always been some doubters among us. Many have wondered why, if we are the crown of creation, we are so poorly constructed. As H. L. Mencken wrote: “Alone of all the animals, terrestrial, celestial or marine, man is unfit by nature to go about in the world he inhabits. He must clothe himself, protect himself, swathe himself, armor himself. He is eternally in the position of a turtle born without a shell, a dog without hair, a fish without fins. Lacking his heavy and cumbersome trappings, he is defenseless even against flies. He hasn’t even a tail to switch them off.”
Looking at biological history, a case can readily be made that the world was created for unicellular beings, bacteria and their ilk. These microorganisms are the most successful of all life forms, having lasted for three and a half billion years, surviving all the great species extinctions and still thriving, uncountable trillions of them, teeming everywhere, covering everything. In fact, billions of bacterium are living their individual lives inside of your mouth, right now. It is even possible that they have houses and roads and churches in there—a whole civilization between your cheeks! There is some speculation that bacteria invented humans as moving feedlots—inside of us they get room and board along with a tour of the neighborhood.
It is starting to sound absurd to claim that the universe was made for humans. Based on a new analysis of data from the Kepler spacecraft, astronomers report that there could be as many as forty billion habitable Earth-size planets in our galaxy alone. Did some creator make all those planets just for the eventual puzzlement and contemplation of the humans who live on Earth? Or are “earthlings” just one among many experiments with life and consciousness in the universe?
The story we tell about ourselves is beginning to change, in large part due to our genius, and the discoveries of modern science.
And what we are learning from the story of evolution is that we are related to all that lives, and to all that has ever lived. Once we begin to include ourselves in that story, we will no longer see humankind as being the crown of creation, the very reason for the universe. Instead we will have joined the grand procession of what Darwin called “endless forms most beautiful and wonderful.” Rather than being the focus of all creation we will get to become one with all creation. It’s an excellent trade-off. Maybe then we will start to take as much care with other species of life as we do with our own. Then there will no longer be any case for extinction.