Last year, naturalist Sir David Attenborough got into trouble when he called humans “a plague on the earth.” Apparently, some folks get a bit peeved when you slip ‘plague’ and ‘humans’ into the same sentence.
It’s all about perspective, really. When 7 billion locusts swarm across the land, consuming and destroying all in their path, we call it a plague. When 7 billion humans do the same thing, we call it civilization.
The last time humans had a negligible effect on the planet, Christopher Columbus’s grandfather was in diapers. Back then, there weren’t enough of us around to empty entire oceans of fish, fill rivers with chemicals or turn forests into deserts. But in the past fifty years alone, we’ve managed to consume more of the earth’s resources than in all previous human history combined – an extraordinary statistic.
So, given this accelerated rate of planetary degradation, the environment should be our main priority, right? Alas, it would seem not.
Slowly and inexorably, just like the last of our coral reefs, the environmental movement is dying. Yes, we still have our Wilderness Societies, our Wildlife Funds and a few silly people chaining themselves to trees and getting arrested, but it all feels a bit perfunctory these days, doesn’t it?
The modern environmental movement was born in the 1960s. Rachel Carson’s book The Silent Spring was a wake-up call about DDT use. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb addressed the drawbacks of unchecked procreation. Conservation was a serious topic, and there was a desperate sense that as a species, we were running out of time to fix a burgeoning list of global problems. I remember a number of my 1973 high school classmates expressing a desire to be conservationists – not just philosophically, but professionally. Marvin Gaye sang about ecology, and Cat Stevens asked “Where do the children play?”
Today, this sense of urgency has faded. A survey of 33 countries, conducted by the International Social Survey Program between 1993 and 2010, showed we are entering an age of increased environmental apathy. In the survey, several global issues were asked to be listed in order of perceived importance. These were: the economy, poverty, terrorism, health care, the environment, immigration, education and crime.
Averaged nationally, 25% of respondents ranked the economy as their greatest concern, followed by health care (22.2%), education (15.6%), poverty (11.6%), crime (8.6%), environment (4.7%), immigration (4.1%) and terrorism (2.6%). Norway had the highest level of environmental concern (15%), but environmental issues didn’t rank first in any surveyed nations. The more the planet suffers, the less we care.
Science informs us that sometime around 1980 we reached a significant milestone in human history: we began to consume more of the earth’s resources than the planet could possibly regenerate. The condition of the earth is the most serious problem facing our species, yet it has become an afterthought. Gross human overpopulation is a taboo issue, buried under the all-consuming climate change discussion.
Many people are still blissfully unconcerned about human population growth. They point to the decline in birth rates, not understanding that our existing population is already unsustainable. Whether we peak at 9 billion or 15 billion is irrelevant – the earth is already dying from the pressure of our current population. Another popular (but rather bizarre) assertion is this one: “There’s plenty of room. If you took every single human on earth and stood them shoulder to shoulder, they would all fit into the state of Texas.” Leaving aside the semi-hilarious issues of body odor, basic transport and sewage disposal in this ‘argument’, its main fault is that it confuses the amount of people a place can physically hold with how many it can sustainably support.
Still another segment of the population takes the ‘technology will save us’ position. Things will work out, they say. Think positive thoughts. The problem with this hopeful philosophy is that it views technology as some kind of last-ditch savior, rather than the root cause of our present environmental difficulties. Plastic was a fine invention that made human life much easier, but our oceans are now littered with tons of it. Our fishing techniques are amazingly effective – so effective that every fishery in the world is now in irretrievable decline. Our advanced agricultural practices enable us to feed a growing population, but the chemical run-off pollutes rivers, and is a major factor in the deterioration of major oceanic ecosystems such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Technology only makes us more ingeniously rapacious.
Another popular cry is “It’s not our sheer numbers, it’s our level of consumption.” The idea here is that if we all just recycled more, ate less meat, bought smaller cars, purchased less unnecessary junk, etc., all would be well. Unfortunately, this is a pipe dream. If this was ever going to happen, it would have happened already. Even though rampant growth is killing our planet, we just can’t help ourselves – our artificial lifestyles and materialistic habits demand that we consume more and more. The impact of 7 billion people on a finite earth is always going to be more drastic than the impact of 7 million, regardless of whether they ride bicycles to work, eat lentil soup or recycle their milk cartons. All this talk of carbon footprints does not negate the truth of basic mathematics.
So, let us applaud Sir David Attenborough’s comments as a refreshing burst of honesty. We can no longer deny that our legacy as a species, in the end, will not be about all the wonderful things we’ve created while on this earth; it will be about all the wonderful things we’ve destroyed.
This century, our choices – both as individuals and governments – are mainly influenced by political expedience, religious dogma, complacency, distorted ideology, short-sighted greed, selfishness and simple head-in-the-sand denial, rather than a deep reverence for the earth. That is why the world’s most intelligent species is never going to be quite smart enough to save the planet.
Photo by Bert Kaufman, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license