It’s hard not to walk away from a couple of current programs – the gorgeously filmed but ideologically quiescent Netflix documentary Our Planet, narrated by David Attenborough, and HBO’s Chernobyl, about the explosion of a nuclear reactor in 1986 – without thinking that things would be so much better for the earth if humans weren’t around.
The two programs overlap when in one segment, Our Planet notes that the absence of human pressure in Chernobyl’s blast zone has immensely improved the biodiversity of the place. Animal species long thought disappeared now wander through the architectural debris left behind when the area was evacuated, and plant and insect species have crept back in to enrich the landscape. (The same has been noted about the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.)
Chernobyl shows the usual human process, when confronted by disaster, to do everything except tell the truth and correct the mistakes, willing to sacrifice thousands to preserve ideology and fantasy. The leaders and engineers who have created the hellish nuclear technology refuse to believe that they can’t control it, and when they’re proved wrong, they are paralyzed by their own ignorance.
But there’s a mistaken premise at the heart of both of these programs, and that has to do with balance. Attenborough, in his well-rounded tones, talks constantly about the need for humans to find balance with the world in which they live. But nature isn’t really about balance, or, more accurately, is not about maintaining a balance that favors us to the point where we can merrily go our way shitting where we eat without suffering any consequences.
Nature is not Gaia but entropy; it doesn’t care if we’re comfortable of not. If we screw up one arrangement, it will create another arrangement regardless of whether that keeps us warm or kills off the species. It’s done much species-killing before, and it will do so again.
But the human species is not without resources here to restore, not balance, but fitness. Much, if not all, of the problems modern humans face come from mindsets grounded in austerity, scarcity and technological utopianism. (Witness Jeff Bezos’ recent witless maunderings about shipping people off the earth to live in revolving space tubes as the equivalent of paradise.) People can change these mindsets in more healthful directions, but the leadership for that is not going to come from Bezos and his ilk, nor can the savior tools be AI and neural networks with unrenovated biases driving the coding of the algorithms.
In her really excellent take-down of Bezos’ technoblab, Caitlin Johnstone concludes that we need to rethink the linkages between profit and invention, money and motivation, inequality and ill-health to achieve the fitness we need. Her conclusion is worth quoting at length:
[We can] dramatically improve our collective ability to reverse this extinction event and all we have to do is get saner, stop punishing each other, start sharing and start collaborating. The only issue we have as humans is that a handful of highly competitive, highly sociopathic and yet incredibly mediocre people have all the power to build our future for us with virtually no input from anyone else. Because all the power in the form of all the money has been allowed to pool into the hands of those most willing to do whatever it takes to get it, we have just a few ruthless yet surprisingly dumb individuals calling the shots on the future of all living beings. The competitive mindset that gave rise to Jeff Bezos is the exact opposite of the kind of collaborative, harmonious mindset we’ll need if we’re going to overcome the challenges we face on the horizon.