Andersen: Extinction may be the cure
August 20, 2013
On an idyllic summer evening last week, a comment overheard outside Paepcke Auditorium spelled doom for mankind.
The foreboding words were uttered by a couple walking the path to the parking lot following a talk by M. Sanjayan, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy. The talk, sponsored by the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, was titled "Saving Earth in the Age of Man."
"It's tragic about all these species going extinct," the woman said, referring to the talk.
"Yes," the man said with a shake of his head. "The only extinction that would help the planet would be man."
Sanjayan had given the audience an entertaining, informative and sometimes jocular look at the desperate plight of the natural world. Extinctions, he pointed out, are unprecedented today as the result of human disruptions to the delicate balance of nature.
Sanjayan walked the politically correct line by not pointing fingers and by sharing several easy action points. His first point is to support international companies like Coke (a can of which the speaker conspicuously sipped on stage), disarm them with consumer kindness — perhaps even product endorsements? — and then collectively leverage their commitment to a sustainable world.
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Drinking Coke is not my idea of activism, but the most gaping hole in Sanjayan's talk was population — not just in Third World countries but among the First World, where uber-consumers gulp down a disproportionate share of Cokes and the lion's share of the world's energy resources.
Addressing population is taboo within cultures and religions that encourage population growth at the expense of the natural world, and Sanjayan didn't touch it. Population rarely comes up today in polite society, and not even at environmental programs, because there is a fatalistic acceptance that 12 billion people will be swarming the planet soon, fighting and dying over critical resources like clean air, pure water, food and energy. We stand by and watch with helpless detachment.
Sanjayan's second action step is to recognize the value of the natural world as an underpinning to all of life. However, without challenging the traditions and institutions that deny this vital connection, there can be no formative shift in human consciousness and no hope for active, willful evolution. But this is old news.
Back to the idea of human extinction: Sanjayan should consider retitling his talk to "Saving Man in the Age of Earth" because ultimately it is man who is imperiled.
In his book "The World Without Us," Alan Weisman muses on what a non-human world would look like and how quickly nature would reinsert itself. Buildings would crumble, streets would decay, dams would fail, and Earth would blot out another of life's failed experiments.
Would the natural world miss us when we're gone? Not terribly. Natural systems would begin to heal the wounds of our material gluttony. The species we routinely eradicate, often unknowingly, would rebuild populations in naturally restored ecosystems. Biodiversity would flourish as the relics of humanity were erased. Our dependent hosts, like cancer and bacterial microbes, would adapt to other hosts.
Given our broken relationship with the rest of nature, maybe it's time other species have the chance to evolve into higher intelligence than ours by becoming better suited to harmonious relations as opposed to our warring, destructive ways.
Early man succeeded because our forebears evolved through adaptation to nature. Modern man has not. We have lost a critical connection to that which ultimately underpins our existence. We have failed to adapt as a team player with nature. Our future is in jeopardy as a result.
Weisman suggests that, with humans gone, baboons could evolve into the niche we hold today. It is only through human suppression that other species have been denied the chance to ascend into life's hierarchy. We kill them before they can get there, just as our ancient ancestors likely killed off competing Neanderthals and other humanoid subspecies.
"Might the current explosion of extinctions suggest that a certain dominant mammal's turn may be coming to an end?" Weisman asks rhetorically. Not to worry, he says. Considering geologic time, the blip of human existence may be "too short to contemplate."