Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: It's time Man stopped to consider Earth's health
Friday 18 February 2011
Are there any limits on what humans can do? Asked rhetorically, the question invites the smiling, triumphant answer, No!, complete with happy-clappy exclamation mark. But to ask it the other way – that is, to ask it simply, in all seriousness – seems to me something that doesn't happen any more. In fact, the absence of this question seems to be a great gap at the heart of our current creed, which we might term liberal secular humanism, as we approach one of the climaxes of human history, which is the coming clash between humans as a species, and the Earth which is our only home.
I wrote about this three weeks ago, asking how much room there will be in the 21st century world for non-human creatures, using as an example the future fate of insects, which may well have to be sacrificed wholesale, if intensive farming has to be doubly intensified to feed nine billion people by 2050. I wasn't suggesting for a second that anyone should go hungry; but I was suggesting there will be serious consequences for the planet of this intensification, and of many other aspects of the exploding scale of the human enterprise, as it threatens to overwhelm the Earth's natural systems in the decades to come. There was an animated reader response to this, so I should like to return to it.
Climate change is only the most dramatic (and controversial) of these consequences. There are many others visible already, about which there is no dispute, ranging from the worldwide collapse of fish stocks to the disappearance of wildlife abundance from the British countryside. Liberal secular humanism certainly acknowledges these disturbing trends; it is greatly concerned about them, shakes its head sadly and strives to prevent them; but what it does not do, is put the whole picture together.
It does not allow the conclusion to which the rapidly increasing degradations of the natural world are all pointing: that a fundamental conflict is looming between the Earth and Man (I use the term in the biological sense of the species Homo sapiens).
This failure to recognise the fundamental nature of the clash will, at the very least, greatly handicap our response to it. I think it arises from our current creed's greatest failing, its deficit of spirituality, by which I mean a failure to see existence as anything other than human-centred. Liberal secular humanism, which you could argue has been our belief system since the Second World War, has a single, honourable aim: to improve human welfare. It wants people everywhere to be happy, and free from want and fear and disease, and to live fulfilled lives.
What it doesn't do is allow that there might just be a problem, an intrinsic problem, with people as a species. That is absolute anathema.
You can understand why: poverty is terrible enough without suggesting that people as a whole are in some way flawed. Yet for the Greeks, the founders of our culture, this idea was central to their morality.
There was a continual problem with Man. Man was glorious, almost God-like, and continually striving upwards; yet only the Gods were actually Up There, and if Man tried to get too high, as he often did, the Gods would destroy him. The Gods represented Man's limits.
The principal fault of Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, remember, was not that he murdered his father and married his mother; those were incidentals of his fate. His real fault was that he thought he knew everything, he had answered the riddle of the Sphinx, he was Mr Clever. The Gods showed him that he wasn't (and in the greatest of all tragic ironies, he puts out his eyes to punish himself for having been blind to his true situation, which now he can see).
In the modern consensus, in liberal secular humanism, this spiritual view of Man of having limits, of not being able to do everything he chooses, and of potentially being a problem creature, is missing entirely. There is no trace of it whatsoever. Still less, of course, is there any trace of the more recent, Christian version of it, which is Original Sin. Just the opposite: in our current creed, Man is not Fallen, Man is Good; so, as they used to say of General Motors and America, what's Good for Man is necessarily Good for the Planet.
Except that it isn't. What's Good for Man may wreck the planet, and with the mushrooming expansion of humans numbers, increasingly seems likely to. Yet so forceful is our creed that it stamps on the very formation of the thought that Man may be the Earth's problem child. Suggest it and you will be met with a sigh, and a knowing chuckle; or even more likely, indignant confrontation. So the fundamental conflict which is coming between Us and the Earth, this major moment of history, which evidence everywhere increasingly points to, is not recognised in our dominant belief system; and thus is not addressed.
We humans have always thought ourselves different in kind from other creatures, principally for our use of language and our possession of consciousness. There is another reason, which is becoming clearer; we are the only species capable of destroying our own home (which you might think of as Original Sin in its ecological version).
It seems to me that moral account needs to be taken of this, in the heart of what we believe and understand about ourselves; all the indignant denial of it – as the noble struggle continues to raise so many people from misery to decent life – will not prevent it from being so.
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