This week’s T3aser is brought to you by our in-house philosopher and student of life, Mark Skelding.
Behind the ongoing climate “ping-pong” argument – how much, how soon, how bad – is another, even more arresting concern. Human beings, as a species, have reached a point where we can change the way the planet system functions – and we know it.
In relocating fossil carbon from underground to atmosphere to ocean, we impact the geology and the chemistry of the planet. In diverting rivers and clearing rainforest, we change local ecosystems. In parallel to these activities, a massive extinction is underway, plastic turns up in the foodchain, weather systems change, deserts move, populations starve, war, or migrate – and so it goes.
Intellectually, it is almost impossible to believe that one species can become a force of nature in little more than 50 years, yet viscerally, emotionally, intuitively we know this in our bones and being. We have had the knowledge for around 25 years, and in that time things have got much worse – including the social and psychological damage to ourselves. That we fail to look for connections keeps it simple – and preserves the illusion of powerlessness.
The sudden collision with so many human driven events has been called “catastrophic” for the planet, a word that places human impact alongside that of the asteroid that hastened the demise of dinosaurs. That’s powerful.
Ironically this opened the way for our evolution: we are children of chaos. We are unique, however, in now knowing the impacts of our actions. This intelligence brings with it unprecedented moral and ethical issues for which Western thinking has little language, less imagination and almost no appetite.
As we clear-fell the lungs of the planet, convert oceans into plastic micro-bead soup, frogmarch species to extinction, allow human population unlimited increase, treat rivers as chemical drains and reduce the growing capacity of living soil, what does kaitiakitanga mean on a planetary or national scale – or even for our regional and local members and staff?
In treating the planet as an inert, uninvolved setting for our human drama, we maintain our focus on the “only-human”dimension of life. By making only ourselves meaningful, we consign all else to wallpaper. However, in exercising our power over the Earth system we have changed a balance, and that system is resetting itself in ways we cannot fully know – we just get the data of a power infinitely more all-encompassing than our own pushing back to reach a new equilibrium over the next hundreds or thousands of years.
To become a force of nature means that we have made a mark in the geological record. As well as the upward march of CO2, the radiation from our nuclear explosions has caused a measurable gauge of when we stumbled upon this rite of passage – the Trinity Test: 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945. This marks the start of the Anthropocene, a new geological age, predicated on the shift of one species from smart ape to planetary force.
We have begun to understand that we and this beautiful planet are uniquely bonded. We depend upon the Earth system for the miracle of life, creativity, love, care, and laughter. The Earth depends on us for the recognition, awareness, appreciation that only a self-reflective consciousness can bring. Evolution appears to follow a trajectory of finding ever more efficient ways of moving energy and information around. The latest appears to be self-reflective consciousness, and we have an opportunity to co-evolve this, or go the way of the dinosaurs through our own volition.
We will doubtless continue to debate the meaning of the data, but, in concluding that we have careered into the planet system and knocked it sideways, we must decide whether we continue to try to bend it further to our self-interested service or whether we can learn to work with the Earth system processes to achieve the great benefits of civilisation. The one is a form of violence that will almost certainly end in tears, and the other is like stepping into a brand new, committed relationship: a responsibility for sure, but it’s a whole new adventure, impossible on our own.
Either way, there’s no going back now: mopping up won’t work.