The other day, I spotted this meme on Facebook:
It's appealing, in that simplistic way of memes, but what does it really mean?
Don't most, if not all, of the activities that humans engage in — driving, flying, eating food, drinking water, ordering from Amazon, using computers and cell phones, having kids, taking vacations, furnishing homes, burning energy (be it cow dung or oil), to name but a few — contribute in some way, large or small, to destroying the planet, killing other human beings?
Is it even possible for us to simply exist — 7-plus billion strong and growing — without destroying our planet or killing people?
We can't blame technology for our plight, because slash and burn agriculturists, and even hunter-gatherers, had their own impacts on the planet. Nor can we blame religion or politics, because our behavior pre-dates all of that, and those are human constructs, anyway.
It's the combined sum of our activities over the 200,000 years that humans have occupied the planet. We're all in this together, in terms of both the problems and the solutions.
I thought about that when I read Jan TenBruggencate's Raising Islands blog post on Hawaii's beautifully-patterned land snails. Some 95 percent of the species have gone extinct, a systematic extermination that began with the arrival of the Polynesians and accelerated with the arrival of westerners, massive land clearing for agriculture and the introduction of invasive species.
It's a process that's been repeated around the world and continues today as we precipitate the “sixth extinction,” which is also the title of a book by journalist Elizabeth Kolbert, that won this year's Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. As Kolbert notes in an interview with National Geographic:
There are very few, if any, extinctions that we know about in the last 100 years that would have taken place without human activity.
The sort of fundamental question is, can 7.3 —going toward 8, going to 9 billion people —live on this planet with all of the species that are now still around? Or are we on a collision course, in part because we consume a lot of resources that other creatures also would like to consume? That’s a question I can’t answer.
There are two questions that arise: One is, OK, just because we’ve survived the loss of X number of species, can we keep going down the same trajectory, or do we eventually imperil the systems that keep people alive? That’s a very big and incredibly serious question.
And then there’s another question. Even if we can survive, is that the world you want to live in? Is that the world you want all future generations of humans to live in? That’s a different question. But they’re both extremely serious. I would say they really couldn’t be more serious.
There's another question, that is also very serious: How are we altering humans in the course of altering the planet and all of its other species?
A friend recently sent me a link to an article that ran last year in The Atlantic about toxic chemicals that are blamed for widespread cognitive and behavioral problems. A former teacher, he wondered if this could explain the changes he saw in his students over the years, most notably the advent of ADD and ADHD.
The chemicals include methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, ethanol, lead, arsenic, and toluene, manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, tetrachloroethylene, polybrominated diphenyl ethers and dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane.
Still, as the article's author writes:
I found that the real issue was not this particular group of 12 chemicals. Most of them are already being heavily restricted. This dozen is meant to illuminate something bigger: a broken system that allows industrial chemicals to be used without any significant testing for safety. The greater concern lies in what we’re exposed to and don’t yet know to be toxic. Federal health officials, prominent academics, and even many leaders in the chemical industry agree that the U.S. chemical safety testing system is in dire need of modernization. Yet parties on various sides cannot agree on the specifics of how to change the system, and two bills to modernize testing requirements are languishing in Congress.
Could these exposures also be contributing to the increased rates of dementia and degenerative brain disease we're seeing? After all, Boomers are the first generation to be exposed to so many toxins, frequently before regulatory schemes were developed.
It seems we're all participants in a grand, largely unplanned experiment that is changing life and the planet as we know it. Still, some risks and fears are real, and others, like genetically engineered products, are perceived, even manipulated, by special interests. It behooves us to discern the difference if we want to take meaningful steps toward change.
Because there is no "going back."