On July 9, New York magazine published “The Uninhabitable Earth,” a worst-case climate change scenario suggesting that our current human course may produce an unlivable future for Earth. A burst of media commentary and controversy followed, and it quickly became the most-read article in the magazine’s history.
I’m often struck in conversations with friends and colleagues by the number who feel that humans may not have a future. They are comforted, however, by the thought that Earth will ultimately recover. This response suggests that in some deep sense, our love for Earth may exceed our love and concern for our own species. Perhaps we consider our fate a fitting punishment for the sins that we, in our anthropocentric arrogance, have committed against one another and the Earth that birthed and nurtures us.
No one knows for certain the outcome of human-caused climate disruption and accelerating depletion of Earth’s fertile soils, freshwater supplies, forests, and fisheries. Nor can we be certain of the causes and consequences of deadly new infectious diseases, declining human sperm counts, and Earth’s release of methane from the melting permafrost.
We are coming to understand that Earth is a living superorganism that self-organizes to create and maintain the conditions essential to its own vitality—and our human existence. Human activity, however, is disrupting living Earth’s regenerative system. We are destabilizing the climate through the release of sequestered carbons; disrupting natural habitats through ocean acidification and temperature change; destroying natural forest and grassland habitats; and depleting, degrading, and contaminating soils and sources of fresh water on which all species depend. This in turn drives species extinction and renders growing areas of Earth uninhabitable.
Humans have become like an invasive species.
I recently read Clive Hamilton’s book Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. Hamilton notes that as humans have become like an invasive species, Earth has begun to respond as living organisms do: rejecting the invader. He goes on to suggest that humans may be disrupting Earth’s living systems beyond her capacity for self-healing. More startling—but equally plausible—is Hamilton’s suggestion that Earth’s survival as a living organism may depend on humans transitioning from our role as Earth exploiters to a role as facilitators of Earth healing.
Herein lies a potentially game-changing insight. Earth has recovered before from extreme shocks and mass extinctions, but there is no guarantee. Earth may now need us as much as we need her.
Begin with a recognition that Earth is breathtakingly special. Among the now estimated 2 trillion galaxies in the universe, scientists have yet to identify another planet with the water, soils, atmosphere, and climate required to sustain complex life. Earth may be a unique miracle in the vastness of creation.
Our actions represent a breach of cosmic proportion.
I find it impossible to acknowledge Earth’s distinctive beauty and wonder without being overwhelmed by unbearable grief and despair at what humans—in our anthropocentric arrogance—have done to her. Our actions represent a breach of cosmic proportion in our human responsibility to creation and Earth.
As individuals, most humans regularly demonstrate an extraordinary capacity for love and caring—sometimes to the extent of sacrificing our own lives for others. This for me demonstrates the positive potential of our nature.
As societies, however, we have demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for violence and mutual oppression at the expense of both ourselves and Earth. It appears our nature is defined by neither love nor violence, but rather by our ability to choose between sharply contrasting and deeply conflicting paths. We exercise that choice both as individuals and, through our culture and institutions, as a global species.
Disgusted by our long history of violence and abuse against one another and Earth, we humans seem ready to abandon hope for ourselves. But what of our Earth mother? Might our love for her hold the key both to her salvation and to ours? Might we, by willful choice, transition from Earth exploiters to Earth healers? If we recognize Earth’s uniqueness, her need for our help, and our responsibility to respond, might we unite in common cause? Might we muster sufficient commitment to serve as loving healers to two of creation’s most extraordinary miracles—a living planet of spectacular beauty and a species with a unique capacity for conscious choice?
David Korten is co-founder of YES! Media, president of the Living Economies Forum, a member of the Club of Rome, and the author of influential books, including “When Corporations Rule the World” and “Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth.” His work builds on lessons from the 21 years he and his wife, Fran, lived and worked in Africa, Asia, and Latin America on a quest to end global poverty.