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‘One paradise’

Paul Andersen

“We are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering the Earth’s climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of the Reptiles sixty-five million years ago.”In apocalyptic terms, Edward O. Wilson proclaims the notorious achievements of man in his book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.” Without equivocation or soothing rationale, he lays the responsibility for our planetary impact clearly on man.His is not a conclusion with political or nationalistic boundaries, but an all-inclusive description of human interference with the natural patterns of life. This is science, as told through observation, and its implications are vast.”We are confined,” writes Wilson, “to a razor-thin biosphere within which a thousand imaginable hells are possible but only one paradise. What we idealize in nature … is the peculiar physical and biotic environment that cradled the human species.”That cradle rocked mankind through more than a million of years of evolution, delivering us from nature-based infancy to postpubescent technological maturity. Man has gone from the cradle to the driver’s seat, and is now plotting the course of life, not only for himself, but for thousands of other species.A headline last week impugned man’s stewardship as an egregious form of biblical dominion. Reuters News Service reported that “Humans are responsible for the worst spate of extinctions since the dinosaurs disappeared.”The Secretariat of the U.N. reported this to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which met last week in Curitiba, Brazil: “We are currently responsible for the sixth major extinction event in the history of earth,” concluded the report.A U.N. study from 2002 warned that a rising human population of 6.5 billion was undermining the environment for animals and plants via pollution, expanding cities, deforestation, introduction of ‘alien species’ and global warming. It estimated the current pace of extinctions was 1,000 times faster than historical rates.According to writer Paul Shepard, mankind suffers a psychological disconnect with nature that allows this rampant destruction. Shepard refers to “ontogenetic regression,” or unaltered immaturity, when he describes how humans have been torn from their true mother, the Earth.Societal ills are writ large on the pathological behavior of children who are torn away from their mothers before the onset of maturity. “Society’s attitude toward nature is perpetually immature, underdeveloped, and undernourished, with all the destructiveness and disrespect that results from such a dysfunctional childhood,” writes Shepard.Humans recklessly destroy species and habitat without knowing the implications, and without moral or ethical judgment, even though the rational mind of science warns against it for the purely utilitarian reason of survival. “Species are like rivets on the wing of an airplane,” biologist and author Paul Ehrlich once explained to me. “You can remove some rivets and the plane will still fly, but when you remove too many, the plane will crash.”Wilson describes “habitat selection” as the attraction we and other species have for the source of our own creation. “All species prefer and gravitate to the environment in which their genes were assembled.”Our genes were assembled on a preindustrial planet that, despite the taint of industrialization today, many of us still honor as our source. This accounts for our affection for wild places and pristine environments. “There lies survival for humanity, and there lies mental peace, as prescribed by our genes,” Wilson writes. “We are consequently unlikely ever to find any other place or conceive of any other home as beautiful as this blue planet before we began to change it.”Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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