If the Earth were alive, what would she do to us?

Let’s assume that you’ve had your eyes and ears open these last 20, 40, 60 or 80 years.  If that’s true, you’ve probably noticed that the Earth is not doing too well right now.  People not only kill other people; we’re killing the Earth.  The planet that’s our only environment is in real trouble.  And because people are the problem, what happens to people will determine whether or not the Earth, as we know it, survives.  Will we choose to save ourselves?  Will we choose to save our life support system?
That’s important for rhinos and sharks, trees and phytoplankton, and for people.  Because people need a healthy Earth to keep us alive and healthy.  Whether you’re so poor that you just want a full belly or so rich that you get to make a lot of your own decisions, you need a healthy Earth.  It’s that simple.

And since the things that make the Earth habitable are living—animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, archaea—maintaining those living things is a very smart move.  We scientists don’t yet know all that they do for us, but we know enough to be sure that we couldn’t make it without them.  And trying to get rid of any of them without knowing their roles is playing Russian Roulette: the consequences of mistakes can be very high.

Two of the many species that are in real trouble: Sumatran rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and oceanic whitetip shark (Carcharhinus longimanus), photo by Masa Ushioda.

Assuming also that you’re not the kind of person who drives your car until it runs out of gas, your foresight has likely been your key to salvation.  If you want to protect your grandchildren, your children and for you, you’d better do what you can now.  Right now our world is not doing that.  The “world” (the world of people, that is) is not saving the Earth.
We’re committing suicide.
Now I think there are legitimate ethical reasons to kill oneself, but no legitimate ethical reasons to harm other people and other living things in the process.  Our suicide is terracide (killing the Earth), which means genocide (killing the Earth’s people).
That isn’t a smart or kind or morally defensible thing to do.
Nothing could be more insanely nihilistic.
Even if we are total solipsists who care nothing about any reality but our own, we cannot escape the fact that we depend on the living Earth for our sustenance.
No Earth, no us.  It’s that simple.
We can’t be nihilists if we want to survive.
Even if you care only about yourself and you don’t think about your own long-term future, you have to take care of the Earth. Bad things are coming. And not in the future. Now. We’re already seeing them.
Katrina came. Sandy came.
Devastation from Hurricane Katrina, Biloxi, Mississippi, photo from Mark Wolfe, FEMA
And they’re not alone. Their companions include Midwest drought and tornadoes and spiking grain and beef prices, London’s miserably cold spring, Moscow’s hottest summer, many people drowned in unprecedented Buenos Aires floods, the worst fire season in Tasmania, more famine and political chaos in Africa, millions of Chinese dying prematurely from air pollution, and much more.
There will always be people in denial who say that these are “natural phenomena.”  And they might be right.
But there’s an alternative possibility: somebody’s trying to tell us something.
Some scientists believe that the Earth has the key attributes of life (their thinking is called the Gaia Hypothesis , after the Greek goddess of the Earth).
As a scientist, I have no unambiguous data that would prove that the Earth is a living entity, nor data to disprove that.  The jury’s out on that question.
It’s possible that phenomena we scientists are duly recording—the extinctions of rhinos and songbirds, the proliferation of weeds and jellyfishes, the collapses of our agricultural lands and fisheries, the growing threats from zoonotic diseases such as bird flu, Ebola fever and the majority of infectious human diseases, the increasingly severe storms, the growing toll from sudden Earth movements and eruptions—are not signs of a living Earth that’s feeling threatened.  It could all be explained in other ways.
But if the Earth were alive and sensed what we humans are doing to her, I suspect she’d respond to our threats in ways we won’t like.  In ways very much like what we’re increasingly seeing.  Which reminds me of that margarine ad from the ‘70s that said, at the end, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!
A lot of people say “Sure bad things are going to happen, but not now, not yet.  Later.  So I don’t have to do anything yet.”
From the perspective of a biologist and grandfather, I think that’s a very big mistake because our fate, even in the near term, is utterly dependent on the Earth’s processes.  We live in a house of cards, one that can come crashing down on us.
As a student of the Earth’s history, I know that half or more of the Earth’s species became extinct at least five different times.  It’s not a good idea to say “It can’t happen now.”
So if there’s any meaningful possibility that what people are doing is arousing the Earth’s ire, it makes sense for people to treat her differently.
We need to make nice really quickly.
The Earth is in our hands (photo source unknown)

Or else the bad things we’re seeing now could get a lot worse a lot sooner than you’ll like.
Whether you’re American, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, European, African or from somewhere else, whether you’re filthy rich or dirt poor or (like most people) somewhere in the middle, you’re going to see more bad things affecting you a lot faster than you know if you don’t stop harming the Earth.
Whether the Earth is a living entity that protects itself or is just a piece of rock covered with living things, it seems wise for us to maintain the Earth’s capacity to support us.
That means not destroying its biological diversity.  Not destroying the sea, the land, fresh waters, the atmosphere.
Seems like a no-brainer.  Yes?
Elliott Norse, Founder and Chief Scientist, Marine Conservation Institute


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