“Mom, do you believe in astrology?”
“Well the three Magi used a star to find Jesus, so I think it works.”
You might think my mom is really dumb, or maybe you believe she makes perfect sense. I would have agreed with her when I was in high school. As the youngest child of three, my parents sheltered me under their faith. I had read the Bible twice by sixth grade and believed every word with all my heart. More important than my physical world was an unseen spiritual realm. It wasn’t greed or prejudice that was destroying America. It was abortions, gays, and Muslims. It was the demonic forces ruling our sinful world.
“Up there in the immensity of the Cosmos, an inescapable perception awaits us. National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic, religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.” – Carl Sagan
Pale Blue Dot is the most distant photograph ever taken of the Earth, a tiny speck caught in a beam of scattered sunlight. At the request of astronomer Carl Sagan (1934−1996), it was captured by NASA’s Voyager 1 from 4 billion miles away. Sagan reflected on this image in a lecture at Cornell University:
“Look at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
In high school, my curiosity of the natural world began to shake my faith. I found a logical beauty in science that my religious beliefs failed to offer. But then I began to ask some difficult questions. Without my faith, what’s the purpose of life? Why do I exist? How should I behave? I wanted to have the correct worldview and the right way of living. I wanted to know the truth, if there was such a truth to be found. But also, I found myself concerned by everything from poverty to climate change. In leaving my religion, I had traded one apocalyptic reality for another. And if Jesus wasn’t the solution to all our problems, then what was?
“My question–that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide–was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man… a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: “What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?” It can also be expressed thus: “Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?” – Leo Tolstoy, A Confession
“Surely everyone goes around like a mere phantom; in vain they rush about, heaping up wealth without knowing whose it will finally be.” (Psalm 39:6)
How do we comfort the migrant who fears for her safety, or the father who can’t feed his family? How do we stop the moral decline of a world led by greed and dishonesty, or the intellectual regress of a post-truth society? The distrust and the despair are widespread. Across the globe, we see a species that is anxious, addicted, and depressed. We see divisions of class and culture that seem irreparable, and imbalances of wealth and education that threaten the stability of nations near and far. And with our economic growth fueled by a dying planet, the status quo is surely unsustainable. If our societal troubles don’t spell the end of civilization, then a collapsed ecosystem certainly will.
“The natural environment we treat with such unnecessary ignorance and recklessness was our cradle and nursery, and remains our one and only home. To its special conditions we are intimately adapted in every one of the bodily fibers and biochemical transactions that gives us life.” – E. O. Wilson
Scientists can be can be optimists, but they must be realists. The human species is removing the very foundations of its existence. We have become a cancer, a system without regulation, ruining the systems from which it evolved. Like a late stage malignancy, we will grow until the body is dead. I’ve always wanted to be a doctor, but fixing a human life seems useless when the entire human system is broken. Greater than my desire to see a person survive is my desire to see our species survive.
Carl Zimmer, science writer: “A lot of people ask, ‘Do you think humans are parasites?’ It’s an interesting idea and one worth thinking about. If the biosphere is our host, we do use it up for our own benefit. We do manipulate it. We alter the flows and fluxes of elements like carbon and nitrogen for ourselves, at the expense of the biosphere as a whole. If you look at how coral reefs or tropical forests are faring these days, you’ll notice that our host is not doing well right now. Humans are not very good parasites. Successful parasites do a good job of balancing—using up their hosts and keeping them alive. In our case, we have only one host, so we have to be particularly careful.”
“Man is the only creature that consumes without producing. Yet he is lord of all the animals. He sets them to work, he gives back to them the bare minimum that will prevent them from starving, and the rest he keeps for himself.” – Animal Farm, by George Orwell
At 1.5°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, an estimated 6% of insect species, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates would lose more than half of their habitat. These figures would be at least twice that at 2°C. Source: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018.
“The Earth has a skin, and this skin has diseases. One of these diseases is called, for example, ‘humanity.’” – Friedrich Nietzsche (philosopher, 1844−1900), Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“Our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces, preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet.” – Carl Sagan
Whether it be healthcare or climate change or systemic racism, we often isolate our issues as individual problems to be solved. But really they reflect a more serious condition: a lack of awareness. In the words of Leonardo da Vinci, we must “learn to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” We can no longer approach our separate problems with narrow solutions, because the issues we face are no longer just about our daily comfort. They are now about the survival of our species—the extinction of our children and grandchildren. Just consider: we have 15,000 nuclear warheads between nine countries. In our blissful ignorance, we may have begun the sixth mass extinction since life evolved on land. But most frightening of all, we are a species cultured in complacency, misled by our seeming invincibility. When in reality, our existence is as thin as the atmosphere that holds us. We’re as fragile as a bubble about to burst.
“Your generation must come to terms with the environment. You must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth. Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where mankind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery–not of nature, but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny.” – Rachel Carson
“This time it’s not a tiger at the cave mouth. You can’t see the danger at your door. But if you look, you can see it at the door of your civilization.” – Paul Gilding
While the future remains uncertain, there is one certainty. Any unsustainable process will come to an end, and the habits of man are no exception. Our world is falling apart, and our system is breaking down. And here we are, a society driven by self-interest but devoid of significance—a generation without purpose, lost in a mess created by our parents but too hopeless to clean it up. Imagine our world when its economy crumbles, and currencies turn to dust; when the climate has changed, and billions suffer from heat and hunger. Will society give way to anarchy, or democracy fall to autocracy? Will contempt and ignorance prevail, as strife and chaos reign? Before us lies the seemingly impossible task of saving humanity from self-destruction. So unfortunately, the fix won’t be as simple as reducing emissions¹ or making the rich pay more taxes. The solution will take more than a public policy or a piece of technology. It will take the shift of a global mindset, the transformation of a culture broken by apathy and despair. It will take an idea unlike any other.
“Extinction is the rule.
Survival is the exception.”
– Carl Sagan
Sooner or later, our existence will be threatened. And amid our panic, we may have to pause and ponder the nature of our reality. We might have to reconsider all that we hold true, from the hopeful claims of religion to our scientific assumptions. And we might wonder, Did we come this far just to destroy ourselves? Or is there a reason to cherish the life we deem so precious? Because in fact, it seems that we can’t save ourselves until we find ourselves worth saving. If we hope to continue our existence, then we must care about our existence. And if we claim to be an intelligent species, then it’s time we start thinking like one.
“The fact is you cannot be intelligent merely by choosing your opinions. The intelligent man is not the man who holds such-and-such views but the man who has sound reasons for what he believes and yet does not believe it dogmatically. And opinions held for sound reasons have less emotional unity than the opinions of dogmatists because reason is non-party, favoring now one side and now another. That is what people find so unpleasant about it.” – Bertrand Russell (Book: Mortals and Others: American Essays 1931-35)
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