We’ve all heard it before: we have to save the world. It has become the battle cry of our environmentally concerned generation. As environmental activists protest in the streets in a noble effort for planetary salvation, the same sentiment is echoed in the media. On Monday, VICE published an article titled “Watch These Climate Change Documentaries Then Help to Save the World,” and similarly, the Nature Conservancy recently published an article with the headline “Can the Earth be Saved?”
I love nature, the planet and the humanity that inhabits it, but referring to nature in this way not only demonstrates anthropomorphic naivete but is also evolutionarily incorrect.
This is because the earth will be fine. What will not be fine is the earth’s continued hospitality to human habitation as we know it today.
Ecological succession, the natural process in which species create ecological communities over time, is the reason nature is definitionally eternal. There is essentially no circumstance in which nature, given the right amount of time, will not regenerate into an ecological network of diverse species. In what seems to us to be lifetimes, nature ensures beautiful regrowth in an evolutionarily timed blink of an eye.
The 2008 National Geographic documentary “Aftermath: Population Zero” explored how the natural world would react in the event of the sudden disappearance of humans from the earth. The documentary showed that 230 years after human disappearance, man-made structures will vastly be buried under newly generated vegatative growth and soil; after 500 years, forests would return to a pre-Agricultural Revolution status; in 25,000 years, the last traces of New York City would vanish. The brilliance of nature is in its dynamism, which would result in a healthy and functioning earth without human presence.
Yet it is possible to say that a sudden global disappearance of humans is too hypothetical to conceptualize or that the degree of unprecedented industrialization in the past couple hundred of years might indeed affect the well-being of the planet indefinitely.
Let us then look at a case study on nature’s resilience: Chernobyl. An explosion at the power plant in 1986 led to radioactive fallout, which is regarded as one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. Since then, scientists have recorded an ecological rebound, with some even calling the area around Chernobyl a “nature reserve.” Even after the most severe disturbances in an ecosystem, nature inevitably transforms the affected area into a landscape of new ecological growth.
Instead of using language that implies the end of the earth, we should emphasize that climate change and environmental destruction challenge human habitation of the planet as we know it today. This is not to say that environmental issues are not legitimate threats but rather that our language of the world ending is incorrect and may trigger unnecessary existential anxiety.
While I understand that the dire ‘the earth is ending’ rhetoric of the environmentalist is to emphasize the severity and urgency of the threat to humanity and the natural world we are familiar with, it promotes an inaccurate anthropocentric perspective of the world and disrespects the earth by asserting human dominance over the natural world.
Some environmental movements acknowledge the natural resilience of the earth and correctly refer to the threat that humans are causing to the continuation of our current lifestyle in future generations. This is the case with the global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion, whose name does not insinuate incorrect existential doom but rather emphasizes the importance of environmental action for the prolongation of humanity as we are familiar with it.
Change is inevitable, especially with the unsustainable lifestyle we are living. Yet it is an extension of human ego to desire that the natural world remain familiar to us indefinitely. To understand the true beauty of nature is to understand our minimal role in the long-term well-being of the world.
Let us not continue to disrespect nature by pretending that she is reliant on us for her survival. Instead, let us strive for a world that is hospitable to the version of humanity that we want to inhabit the earth, all the while knowing that we, too, one day will be gone — along with the ecosystems we are familiar with — only to be replaced by a new, equally beautiful world.
Ta’ir (Ty) Rocker PZ ’23 is from Riverdale, New York. He loves nature and Michael Pollan, and thinks everyone should grow as much of their own food as possible.