Hamsadhwani

I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.

The possibility that one day we will inflict the full force of our ruthlessness on the earth is quite real. At some point in our history, we may succeed in pushing the climate to a point of no return, we may annihilate ourselves through a cold and dark nuclear winter, or we may generate a grave pestilence against which we have no defense. But can we really destroy the earth?

No. The earth needs no saving.

But how can you say that humans are not capable of destroying the earth? That our planet needs no saving? In a very short span of time, humans have put a physical mark on the landscape like no other species before us. We’ve lit up the night sky and etched wonderworks which are visible from space. We’ve climbed the tops of mountains and dived into the depths of the oceans.

For the earth is not just any planet. It is the only one we know which teems with life. The myriad life forms on earth are as much a part of the planet as the oceans, ice-shelves, and canyons. And we’re killing these life forms off at an alarming rate. If we continue to impact the environment, won’t that threaten living organisms which are a constant part of this earth? As for anthropogenic climate change and nuclear war – wouldn’t events such as these be cataclysmic for the planet?   

The earth does need saving.

Here is a hypothetical scenario: if someday the technology that aliens in science-fiction novels use to pulverize the earth becomes a reality for our descendants, would they contemplate using it? There is not an iota of doubt in my mind that they would. For all of our skills, we are still capable of extremely short-sighted suicidal tendencies. We don’t lack the impudence to think about destroying the planet: we lack the technical ability. The earth will survive because we can’t destroy it, regardless of how hard we try. At worst, we are a  pesky comet or a supervolcano. We are not a heating sun or a supernova. Life, as it exists on our planet is supported by the alignments of the planets, the precise temperature of the sun, the gravitational pull of the moon, and other planetary and geological wonders which we cannot violate.

Speaking of extinctions, most species that existed on this planet – by some estimates, 99% or more – became extinct before we could contemplate our place here. We helped death along by precipitating the demise of the passenger pigeon and the dodo. Before we become extinct, we will continue to kill off other species. Perhaps, in our final dying moments, the number of species which are wiped out will spike. But the earth will survive as it has in the past. We are in a hurry to modify our surroundings because our lifetimes are short, but evolution does not follow human timetables. With time, traces of the ugly abominations we erected will vanish and new life forms will develop and cherish this wonderful planet. Maybe they will be wiser than us? We will never know. When our time comes, we will go. The earth will still survive.

Are you saying that if the earth is physically destroyed that would be a tragedy, but that the extinction of life around us is inevitable? If the earth changes because of us, then we have failed to save it. You can’t deny that humans have modified the planet like no other single species before us. If we don’t save the wondrous life around us, wouldn’t that be a tragedy? Don’t you feel a pang of sorrow when you see a polar bear stranded on shrinking ice knowing that it might be too late to save the species? When you know that there are plants in the Amazon River basin that are dying because of massive deforestation to feed our so-called progress? We can do something about it. We should do something about it. We’re an advanced species with the gift of conscious thought and the power to make decisions that impact our planet.

I never condoned inaction. We’re currently in the middle of a mass extinction, no doubt. This worries me immensely and I wince to think about how many forms of life we are destroying each moment, some perhaps, without our knowledge. The fact remains that the earth is the only planet I will ever know. I wish I had many lifetimes to study it, to observe it, and to simply be filled with wonder. I’ll do whatever I can to save the polar bear, the panda, and the tiger, even though for some species it may be too late. I do not attempt to explain why I feel this way logically, but I consider this part of what makes me human. Our descendants deserve to enrich their own lives by knowing the life we have around us; by killing it off, we’re failing both our ancestors and our descendants.

On a human scale, the plants we farm and the animals we’ve domesticated have changed irreversibly already. As natural surroundings change, so do organisms. Plants and animals should live unaltered according to my own convenient whim. But this is an anthropocentric view. My curiosity, my sorrow, my acknowledgement of the scale of tragedy of death has no bearing on what happened billions of years on this planet and what will happen for billions of years after my infinitely short life. What I can do is to try to prevent destruction in my own lifetime.

I’ve heard the argument that humans are an advanced species, but why do we take that at face value? How are we superior? There are other organisms which exceed us in numbers: there are many more tiny bacteria in the human body than “human” cells.  There are organisms which can live in more extreme environments like the boiling cauldrons of sulfurous springs. Many species of bacteria can replicate in the span of minutes. Tortoises live longer than us by decades.

And species we consider primitive? If all living organisms trace their roots back to common ancestors that arose several billion years ago, if we all evolved over the same billions of years in a constant struggle to survive in our changing niches, how are any more advanced or primitive than others? The dodo was no less suited for its environment than the monstrously-oversized chicken is in an assembly line farm where it thrives. We precipitated its demise. Who is to say that some day some other organism doesn’t precipitate our own? Neither is the sloth lazy nor the snake vile, in an absolute sense. For all of our superiority, a minor change in atmospheric temperature might wipe us out, without causing the least discomfort to a unicellular bacterium.

That is not to say that humans are not unique. We possess intellect. We can manipulate tools. We can record our histories and archive our collective thoughts. We have certain skills which no other organism possesses. We can analyze and learn from our mistakes, when we choose to do so. To be able to express emotions, record abstract thoughts, and attempt to understand surroundings are both collectively and individually a blessing. I am grateful for the written words on this screen, longevity due to modern medicine, notes of Hamsadhwani, the frescoes of Ajanta, bitter dark-chocolate, and comfortable walking shoes, among countless other gifts.

But, quintessentially, in our minds humans are the most advanced species on the planet because we are human. Perhaps, since I am a member of the species, I find nothing wrong with this prismatic viewpoint. But, increasingly I believe that the earth was not created for us and will not perish with us. There is nothing divine about us. We are not the Chosen Ones.

If this world is all we have- and there is no compelling reason in my mind to believe otherwise- there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve it. Especially with the sobering knowledge that ultimately it is an impossible feat.

In reality that is what saving the earth is about. It is about saving ourselves and the life we know and value.

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11 thoughts on “Hamsadhwani

  1. Good read, this! In response to the opening sentence of your post (“I cannot recall when I first heard someone say that humans should try to save the earth from imminent destruction. It may have been written on a sign, or I may have read it in column. It is a common argument: humans need to act now to save the earth or we might propel the planet toward destruction.”), I feel compelled to say something.
    A special issue of Life was dedicated to ecological damages when I was five or six. Another issue in the same year was dedicated to possibility of the earth being destroyed by a meteor strike, or collision with the moon. Perhaps the same year I saw the movie “When Worlds Collide”. I was inconsolable on the train back from Howrah when father retold the tale of খাণ্ডবদাহন, and explained the inevitable connection between the process of civilisation and mass destruction of nature. He also assured me that, either way, the process was either too slow or too instantaneous to matter. I don’t know how much I understood then, but the blood-curdling feeling remained till I grew up and, eventually, did.
    What Mother Nature has to do, she certainly will. We, the Mickey Mouse species of little concern to her, have certainly brought forward her wishes.
    Thought I should share this, the fact that we ALL are responsible, and have been so ever since the Ur raised its ugly head in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, Miśŗ was damning up the Aswan bend, and mysterious people were firing Indus-clay bricks by changing the river course and deforesting the region—all some 6,000 years ago.

    • A very astute observation, and a sad state of affairs.

      Thanks, as usual, for your excellent comment. I’ve made the minor change which you requested.

      Regards,
      Anirban

  2. Your observation that “there is nothing more spiritual than trying to preserve [the earth]” is, I think, true. It reminds me of this passage from Lewis Lapham’s essay on religion, Mandates of Heaven:

    Gathered in the mulch of print over the last three hundred years, the American delvings into nature (those of Audubon, Thoreau, Leopold, Muir, Eiseley, Carson, Berry, Dillard, Lopez, Abbey, Hitt, Matthiessen, Erdrich, et al.) can be likened to the compost heap engendering the science and logos of the polytheism (premodern and post-Christian) that discovers every organism in the cosmos to be made from the wreckage of spent stars. The ancient Greeks assigned trace elements of the divine to trees and winds and stones (a river god sulked and the child drowned; the fertility goddess smiled and the corn ripened); the modern American assigns trace elements of the divine to arctic glaciers and tropical rain forests (the ice melts and cities drown; parrots multiply and the flowers bloom.)

    A religion still hidden, like the yeast in the three measures of meal, in the secular disguise of environmentalism. The foundational metaphysics already have been incorporated into rituals of devout observance. The worshipful recyclings of eggshells and orange rinds celebrate the resurrection of the disembodied spirit; the eating of free-range chickens and organic heirloom tomatoes signifies the partaking in a feast of communion. Like the Councils of Nicaea and Trent, international conferences addressed to the problem of climate change seek to certify the existence of the Holy Ghost. The miracle is the rabbit, not the pulling of the rabbit out of a hat.

  3. A thought-provoking post, and I’m grateful to Madhu Katti for sending me this way.

    As it turns out, there is some thought that we might indeed be capable, with our current technology, of coming very close to “killing the planet” — or at least making it inhospitable to multicellular life forms. Paleontologist Peter Ward describes this prospect fairly well in his book The Medea Hypothesis.

  4. A beautiful essay, and I fully agree. The Earth and life will go on long after we humans wipe ourselves out, but I do believe it is a high duty to help preserve the beauty and diversity of life and nature from ignorant destruction today, so that future generations may marvel at what we did. But more than that I think nature has inherent rights to exist that should be defended, rather like “Los Derechos de la Pachamama” are defended in Peru.

  5. This is a great bit of writing.

    I think that what separates us from the beasts and bacteria has more to do with awareness of self than a capacity for reason, which we use only erratically and when our passions don’t override us. A lot of this essay echoes Einstein’s philosophy: Does the Earth need saving? Perhaps, but maybe it helps us more to remember that we are mortal, and that we are being suicidal with our attitude toward the planet. I think human beings need this reminder more than they need stability, so it drives us to die as more than we were born as.

    The crazy Islamonazis might blow us up in their holy wars, or perhaps the hypocritical crossfuckers are going to steer us into the Rapture. If we dodge them, the United States will steal our oil/maize/water, or maybe it’ll just be a meteorite or a solar flare that will sterilize the planet into premature graves. Maybe the Milky Way is shifting from the hospitable zone. Soon, enough, the Sun will be going one way and the Earth another. If that doesn’t get us, the Mayans ended their calendar in 2012 for a reason, right?

    Right. Man is fascinated with the Apocalypse because an end in the future reveals the potential for meaning for his life in the present.

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