Birthing the Planet of Disaster
“The planet cannot sustain continued global economic growth.” – Nature Magazine
“The flourishing of non-human life requires…a substantial decrease of the human population.” – Arne Naess and George Sessions, The Deep Ecology Platform
“Discovery is always rape of the natural world. Always.” – Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park
“We have lived our lives by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption, that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and learn what is good for it.” – Wendell Berry
Bear with me while I repeat something crucial. Nature is not a benevolent earth goddess who will give us peace and a leafy paradise if we remove the greenhouse gasses with which we are disturbing her balance. Nature herself has sometimes driven the level of greenhouse gasses to over a thousand times what they are today. Nature’s deepest addiction is upheaval. Our job is to adapt to the challenge that nature has thrown us ever since we invented the first stone tool 3.1 million years ago. What is that challenge? Inventing ways to triumph over nature’s bread and butter–change. Inventing ways to be doom riders and catastrophe tamers. Inventing ways to turn cataclysms into gourmet treats.
let’s go back 3.42 billion years and spy on the strange doings at the bottom of the seas. Let’s spy on the years when life had just gotten its start.
To repeat, nature is not a conservationist. And she is not nurturing and kind. In fact, she has a nasty habit of destroying herself. She tosses a tantrum, tears up her existing order, and forces her children to deal with the remains. We call her supersized rages natural disasters. And they are as common as lightning bolts in a thunderstorm. Take the clashes that produce violence among tectonic plates.
Today, the rocky outer crust of the earth’s surface is dominated by eight huge sheets of cooled, solidified rock millions of square miles in size floating on an oozy sea of hot, melted, liquid stone. These tectonic plates are accompanied by a flock of smaller floating stone saucers—volcanoes and chains of islands like Hawaii. The planet-girdling rafts of rock and their smaller outliers float on the viscoelastic rind of mantle called the asthenosphere. They float on the liquid of molten rock. And, tectonic plates don’t play nice in the sandbox. Ever so slowly, they grind up against each other and battle for dominance. It’s called “subduction.” When they meet, one plate tries to climb on the other’s back. Just like lobsters, lizards, and puppies in their showdowns do. How animal-like. But there is no conscious struggle for status among these rock sheets. There is no conscious anything. These sheets of rock have no mind. They simply obey physical laws. Nature’s laws. The laws that we are sometimes told lead to harmony.
Needless to say, harmony is seldom the name of nature’s game. Take the Pacific Plate, 39.76 million square miles of slowly moving rock, a tectonic slab like a parking-lot ten times the size of China. Where the Pacific Plate drifts over a deep, stationary hot spot, a “melting anomaly” in the asthenosphere, it throws a fit, producing volcanoes like Mauna Loa in Hawaii, a volcano that can rip 376 million cubic meters of red-hot stone from deep beneath the earth and fling it high above the surface in a single eruption. That’s in recent times, in the last 700,000 years. That’s just to give you an idea of how plate tectonics work today.
Now let’s lunge back in time to 3.42 billion years ago. It’s a mere billion years after this third rock from the sun pulled itself together. Life has taken hold and is churning forward, seeping into as many new territories as it can eat. But life thrives because it is a doom rider and a catastrophe tamer. As you would suspect, at a tender 1.08 billion years old, this adolescent planet, this billion year old earth, is still a troublemaker, a violator of nature, and a wrecker of its environment. First off, it is a violator of its environment in outer space. The new born planet still bullies and threatens the calm of a floating sea of stones beyond our skies–asteroids, planetesimals and meteors. Meanwhile, down here on the roil and struggle of our gravity ball’s surface, tectonic plates are new, but in the area of what would later be South Africa, they are already doing their competitive thing. There’s a massive supercontinent called Vaalbara, a supercontinent that in the distant future will rip itself in two, a supercontinent that will someday split into Africa and Australia. Violently. The battles of tectonic platelets around Vaalbara are fierce. Geological wounds and gore emerge from these struggles. They emerge in the form of volcanoes. And the volcanoes do a few things common to nature. They spew so much soot into the atmosphere that they change the climate for a year or three. Yet from trauma, volcanoes produce astonishments.
The wonder that emerges from these molten stone gashes, sores, and blisters, these volcanoes of the adolescent earth, is a form of stone scab. It’s accidental jewelry. It’s black and shiny or quartz-gray and translucent. Its surfaces are surprising—slick in a way that’s alien to a planet of gravel. The facets of these glass shards are reflective as curved mirrors, flashing and glinting in amazing ways. And they are not like anything the earth has known before.
But as you are aware by now, nature has very little respect for her creations, no matter how brilliantly they glitter. She assaults them with desecrators, spoilers, looters, plunderers, and opportunists. She opens her treasures to those who would dare scar them for selfish, material gain. She throws her treasures open to what some of us might call “rapists”. And nature’s most creative rapists 3.4 billion years ago are the descendants of the first half teaspoon of life. They are bacteria. Remember, bacteria are microscopic creatures who function in armies of trillions. Invisibly thin armies with tight communal cohesion. Organized hordes that specialize in migrating, scavenging, and settling down. Hordes whose individuals gather knowledge, communicate it in a chemical language, and add it to their society’s data base. A database that constantly updates the community on new ways to digest its environment. New ways to plunder the innocent. New ways to feast and feed. And when it comes to how to do that feasting, bacteria invent.
These hordes obey life’s 350 million-year-old imperatives. Kidnap, seduce, and recruit as many dead atoms as you can into the project of life. Be fruitful and multiply. Show no mercy for the status quo. Violate “nature.” Invade every nook and cranny. Make cracks where there was perfection. Make rough footholds where there was beauty and smoothness. Gorge on your environment. Do it fast. Do it with speed and greed. Do it with all the ingenuity this cosmos has planted within you. Why? Because you are up against a deadline. Before the next great catastrophe arrives—the next comet, the next wave of cosmic rays from a spiral arm of your galaxy, the next climate fry or climate freeze—you have to place your chips on so many possibilities in so many places with so many metabolic innovations that a few of you will survive. But how? It’s not easy. It takes radical disrespect for the current norms. It takes rapaciousness. It takes ingenuity. It takes what Oxford’s John Odling-Smee calls “niche construction.” It takes making new niches where there were none. It takes violating the environment’s “virginity”. It takes inventing new appetites. It takes inventing new recipes. It takes eating your environment in radically new ways.