The Earth And Us

I recently posted this tweet to accompany an article from The New York Times:

It is worth remembering that nature is not always friendly. We bend the planet in countless ways both big and small every day in order to provide the security and sustenance we need. In this case, the wildness of the ocean is colliding with tourism….

What was this article about?  The return of Great White Sharks to Cape Cod due to the explosion of the seal population has been a frightening and dangerous surprise.  The inevitable collision of bathers, boaters, and this terrifying keystone predator, which has recently led to shark attacks resulting in injury and death, has led to urgent calls to reduce the shark population or somehow isolate it from humans wanting to splash in the surf.  In this case the healthy and natural growth of native species is considered highly undesirable, and many argue an intervention is needed to put scary and uncontrollable nature back into a safe place that suits the wishes of people who want to use the ocean for their pleasure.

This situation encapsulates a question that now preoccupies many: How do we balance our needs and those of the planet we inhabit?

We enjoy the many advantages offered by roofs, walls, furniture, bedding, clothing, computers, electricity, heat, air conditioning, cars, sidewalks, roads, disposable diapers, bridges, dams, paint, perfume, medical and dental care, vegetables, beef, pasta, pop tarts, microwave ovens, air travel, books, cell phones, pizza delivery, public transportation, paper, clothes hangers, bicycle helmets, lawnmowers, shoes, elevators, swimming pools, barbecues, movies, concerts, cameras, carpets, and a thousand other conveniences, services, and comforts that put us in direct opposition with the natural order of the earth and its atmosphere.

The underlying problem is that in order to be the ideal stewards of our planet we shouldtruth be toldsuffer greatly and die quickly, our destiny to be consumed where we drop by insects, animals, and birds until only our bare bones are left to rot in the merciless sun.  Not surprisingly, we refuse to stupidly scamper, naked and terrified, until we turn into somebody’s snack, and human civilization and innovation has always sought to make our lives more secure, comfortable, and fulfilling.

However, mistakes in the earth-human balance have been made in the past, are being made today, and will be made tomorrow as we continually weigh our pressing needs against our obligation to responsibly use the bounty provided by our planet.  

Why are we so prone to pollute and defile the earth?  The answer is simple: Humans are typically pursuing two fundamentally irreconcilable goals.  We want to preserveor perhaps somehow restorenature at the point when it existed before our very large carbon footprint started stomping all over it, but we also want to extract its wealth and modify its contours to both suit our needs and guarantee our personal safety.  We cannot do both at once all of the time.

Concrete and asphalt pave over huge portions of our environment, but without it we would be compelled to live in damp or structurally unsound homes, slog through deep mud or rutted ice to move goods and people, and drink unsafe water or more closely co-exist with our bodily waste.  A clear-cut forest is a sad sea of raw tree stumps, but the wood we harvest today is transformed into the very roofs over our heads tomorrowand with proper replanting and management those trees will grow back.  Hydrocarbon fuels sucked from beneath the earths crustoil and its many byproducts and derivativesare what make modernity possible, but we foul the land, air, and water every moment we live with the comforts and conveniences that they provide.

Moreover, our human cleverness has often been a hindrance regarding our useand abuseof earth and its abundance.  For example, have made mind boggling strides in the treatment of disease, injury, and infection, so there are far more of us crowding the planet than just a couple of centuries ago, and we a living much longer besides.  We are able to support this larger population because we have shifted to techniques of agricultural and animal husbandry that have resulted in previously unimaginable amounts of food now being available, but these new techniques and the worldwide supply chain that keeps fresh fruits and vegetables on our store shelves year round comes with its own costs to the environment and the carbon-consuming manner in which we live our lives.  Although some might yearn, as some apparently do, for a mode of food production that went out of style in the 19th century, it is worth remembering that the folks who are living the locavore dreamtoday, subsistence farmers and herders in undeveloped nations, would likely love to have to worry about whether the parsnips or scallions heaped in the produce section of the local supermarket would go better with the pot roast they are making tonight to eat with their families in their comfortable homes.

We ascribe all wonders to the wild and natural parts of our planet, and it is certainly true that a mountain range, river valley, or dense forest is an awe-inspiring sight.  However, we count on a well-maintained system of airports, highways, and secondary roads to carry us to a place where we can park our RVs before we dig out our cell phones, switch on the GPS, and embark on our pioneering experience.  If our child suffers a nasty fall or is bitten by a snake, we expect that a helicopter will airlift them to the nearest trauma center, where the most advanced medical technology will be available on demand.  If all goes well, we will go online to shop for some toys to distract our beloved little one, and later in the evening we will prop them up in bed with their iPad to watch their favorite moviewhile we microwave some popcorn in the kitchen.

Like so many other important relationships in our lives, our relationship with Mother Earth is at turns caring, confusing, and contradictory.  We can probably make better decisions regarding the management of our precious planet if we accept and embrace the inherent illogic of our relationship to all that grows, swims, flies, hops, runs, slithers, trots, walks, or crawls around us.