Given our planet's complex nature, it is likely humans serve Earth a multitude of
purposes in maintaining ecological balance. Biologist Lynn Margulis proposed that
our warm, mammalian bodies serve as hosts for anaerobic microorganisms that perform critical chemical functions, yet could no longer survive above the surface once the atmosphere was oxygenated 2.5 billion years ago[i]. We also help circulate oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide as we breathe. We grow our
bodies and die and decompose, circulating life’s molecular building blocks above the surface. And before our populations and industries blew up, our smaller scale interactions with natural resources and ecosystems likely supported a healthy, seasonal cycling of nutrients in our soils and oceans.
Yet as Lovelock describes, once our big, versatile brains were out there, full of billions of neurons and malleable synapses – and an able, tactile body at its whim – life took advantage of the opportunity to evolve further[ii]. And eventually, some 6 million years ago, homosapiens came along, with imaginations and a capacity to actually communicate our abstract thoughts through song, story, ritual, gesture, word…[iii] Combined with our incredible knack for cooperation, we have been able to survive environmental challenges and
globalize our planet like no other species before.
These unique human agencies have carried us through environmental crises for millions of years.
A period of extended climate havoc about 4 million years ago first pushed our earliest ancestors to walk
upright on 2 feet, likely to help us adapt to our changing environments. Another period of chaotic climate
swings 800,000 - 200,000 years ago prompted our brains to rapidly increase in size. This is around the same
time when we first learned how to control fire, allowing us to get more protein from meat and extend our social
gathering time, which enhanced our cognitive abilities and social proclivity. And then, 200,000 years ago, a sudden
glacial phase nearly brought humanity to extinction, with only a few hundred of us remaining at the southern tip of Africa.
But with our big brains and social networks, those left began to develop symbolic language, art, and sophisticated technologies and tools to sustain themselves. Out of this genetic bottleneck emerged what we now know as modern homosapiens[iv]. Since then we have continued to grow, invent, and socially advance, becoming nomadic hunter-gatherers, settling and urbanizing through agriculture and industry, and eventually connecting our social and technological networks across the globe.
This is where our story gets tricky. Time and time again, our connective imaginations — our ability to dream up, share and manifest new ideas and ways of being — have been the secret to our success. But as we’ve gotten bigger, our wonderful, interconnected world has gotten smaller. We’ve become lost in our individualized, competitive imaginations, consumed by our politics, economies, ideologies, innovations… And while we’ve begun harnessing incredible technological power, we have also begun to severely damage our world. We destroy our rainforests — Earth’s headquarters for biodiversity, carbon sequestration, and nutrient cycling. We pollute our air, and pillage our oceanic ecosystems with waste and overharvesting. And we dehumanize one another, all for our insatiable appetites for material goods and economic growth.
Because of this, our lifelines — the ecosystems and physical cycles we know and depend on — are
at risk. 1 million plant and animal species are at the risk of extinction within decades. The abundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased by 45 percent in the past century, increasing global temperatures and destabilizing our global climate system. Glaciers are melting at a precipitous rate, threatening sea level rise and the stability of our ocean currents. Permafrost in the arctic is melting, releasing long dormant, potentially deadly microbes and even more carbon dioxide. Storms are becoming more intense, as oceans warm and wind patterns change. And all the while, poor and marginalized communities – the least responsible for climate
change – are suffering the most from these changes.
We are not doomed, but we are in trouble, and we have no time to waste. We need to remember that it was not our destructive way of being that got us ahead on this planet, but our imaginations, and our cooperative nature. We can steer ourselves – and Earth, Gaia, the biosphere – back on course, if we conceptualize new, sustainable ways of living globally. And we certainly ought to, for as humanity globalizes, it is possible we could become something entirely new for Earth, beyond merely a nuanced contributor to her cybernetic feedbacks.
Through us, and through our science and communication, the biosphere can monitor and direct itself. If the Gaia hypothesis is onto something, and Earth does actively maintain its own homeostasis, then it now potentially has the power to utilize humanity’s globally connected technologies and social structures towards its end. As Grinspoon has proposed, we are potentially at the advent of a new eon, in which conscious, technological agency may be becoming an integral part of the way Earth functions[v]. We may be becoming Gaia’s eyes, Gaia’s brain…
“Who is to say that some such pattern of globally connected nodes cannot develop some sense of identity, a purpose, and an instinct for self-preservation? As this global mentation arises, we (individual human beings) may not be aware of it. Is a neuron in your brain aware of your thoughts? We may be participating in a form of large-scale consciousness, and intelligence, that we don’t individually perceive, and then observing the behavior of that emergent being, sometimes being surprised by its actions. In this view, with democracies, market regulation, environmental activism, international diplomacy, and other activities, this globally embodied mind is learning to exert some self-control to avert its most self-destructive behaviors. With these activities we are helping it to perceive new threats and respond constructively. Through us, and our technology, the global biosphere is developing a mind. This way lies survival.”[vi]
David Grinspoon, Earth in Human Hands, 2016
If we can heal humanity, our various nodes of human activity could create technology to stop meteors, to avoid natural disasters, to help maintain a chemically balanced atmosphere, to regenerate and nourish habitats, to truly create a more just and equitable society... By “applying global technology in concert with the functioning of our world”[vii] we could become a lasting planetary force, collectively protecting and enhancing our biosphere.
That is, if we can first get a grip on ourselves. Our self-destructive tendencies are wreaking havoc on our world, and as we are clearly still beholden to them, many scientists question whether or not we are truly even intelligent yet as a species. For is what we have intelligence if we cannot figure out how to survive on our own planet? If we cannot sense and respond to our own existentially threatening errors?
In order to access our full cooperative, creative potential, and develop true intelligence, we must get back in touch with our planet and our fundamental human nature. Thankfully, history shows us this is not only possible, but perhaps even likely. Time and time again, existential environmental challenges have forced humans to harness our capacities of cooperation, communication, and innovation and “become, in a sense, successively more human.” While it is true that “humanity is creating climate change… it is also true that climate change created humanity.”[viii] It is up to us now to continue with our legacy, and evolve with today’s climate crisis.
[i] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 109. Oxford University Press.
[ii] From “The Gaia Hypothesis: A New Look at Life on Earth” by James Lovelock, 1979, p. 149. Oxford University Press.
[iii] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 415. Grand Central Publishing.
[iv] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 433. Grand Central Publishing.
[v] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 275. Grand Central Publishing.
[vi] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 428. Grand Central Publishing.
[vii] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 326. Grand Central Publishing.
[viii] From “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” by David Grinspoon, 2016, p. 433. Grand Central Publishing.