The Selfish Planet

Have you ever caught a cold, and perhaps had a sore throat?

It’s not the cold virus that makes your throat sore—it’s your immune system carpet-bombing the cells that line it.

There will be collateral damage, to be sure—healthy cells wiped out along with those that are infected. But your body’s defence mechanism considers the losses to be acceptable. Or, rather, that is how it is so designed, whether by evolution, or by some other authority.

The point is that, in order to be effective, our immune system also has to be dangerous. Dangerous to us. Indeed, it is even capable of turning on us, as is the case with autoimmune diseases.

Even so, we would not want to be without it—it’s our ticket to living long enough so that we may perpetuate our species.

With that in mind, it would not be unreasonable to suggest that what is good for one system is good for another.

A proven design, as it were.

And yet when we look at what we, as a species, are doing to the earth, all too often the comparison is made to that of a virus. The human race is seen more as an affliction of the planet, than a natural part of its biosphere.

But the question we should ask ourselves is whether we are, in fact, a hoped-for outcome of the earth’s ecosystem.

A means by which a planet might seek to protect itself.

There have been five mass extinctions during the earth’s existence, and there is no reason to suspect there will not be more. Now is just one vanishingly brief moment in the planet’s lifetime, no different to any other period.

Save for one thing—us.

For the first time the ecosphere has produced an intelligent dominant species, one capable of wielding a great power—technology, advancing at exponential rate.

Some would say that this is destroying the world.

But is it?

The selfish planet does not care.

It does not care if the oceans fill with plastic, or the atmosphere chokes on CO2, or if the diversity of species that inhabit its biosphere is decimated.

The selfish planet is a cat with nine lives, five of which have been spent. It sees only one thing—an inevitable extinction level event that will truly be a profound finality. One from which it will not recover, its time as mother to an ecosystem at an end.

Perhaps it will be another asteroid strike, or a rogue planet colliding with ours, or a gamma-ray burst from a nearby star. The earth is helpless against these things.

Helpless unless built into its design is a mechanism to create a means to protect itself. An ecosystem that is constantly evolving, one species emerging after another, a regime that sees only the fittest survive, only to then be surpassed, over and over, each tested to extinction as countless millennia tick by.

Trial and error. All with a singular purpose—the hope that from the soup will arise a species capable of action.

As far as we know, homo sapiens is the first such species to emerge on earth.

Can we protect the earth from events that would see it left sterile?

No—not today. Not for a long time.

But…perhaps one day we could.

And that would make us the planet’s immune system—capable of action, but at a cost.

Collateral damage, even possibly turning on the planet itself.

It’s a risk the planet is willing to take.

And if we fail, others will come after us.

Because the selfish planet does not care.

It cares only that some spark of life continues, even if only a single species of plastic-eating microbe–the beginings of something new.

So, when we look at ourselves—when the mirror is held up—we might reflect on the true nature of our place in the world.

For all the damage we do to the earth, we are still part of nature, created by nature.

And as such everything we do, from polluting the atmosphere to poisoning the oceans, is itself part of nature. All these terrible things as natural as life itself.

Some might say that we should slow down—eschew technology for a simpler life. One that is kinder to the earth. It would certainly seem to be the obvious solution.

The selfish planet does not want that.

The selfish planet wants us to go as fast as we can, because time is not on its side.

It wants the white heat of technological advancement–the means to push asteroids out of the way, shield the planet from solar flares, and all the other things–and, ultimately, spread earth’s progeny amongst the stars. 

It does not care about the consequences, because in the long run there is no cost that is too great.

So, if we are monstrous, then perhaps we were made monstrous–and for a reason.

None of this is to say that we should let ourselves continue as we are. It is not the excuse that some might seek. That it is somehow acceptable to stand by and watch the world burn–for this world will happily swallow our poison if it offers even the slightest chink of hope for procreation. 

Rather, when we come to decide what we should do about the problems our planet faces by our own hand, then perhaps we need first to be honest with ourselves about our role in this world.

The world is not here for us–it’s the other way around.

Only by considering all sides of the question, no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, or counter intuitive, will we find the right path.

But what’s in it for us?

Nature is known to be a great rewarder, whether nectar in exchange for pollination, or a delicious fruit so that the seed might be carried far.

What’s our reward for saving the planet? Our own skins?

Perhaps our reward is to care–to feel good about cleaning up the world, while saving its flora and fauna.

Technology, advancing at an exponential rate. Yet, while fast, not too fast. For there seems to built into us a form of self governance–to marvel at the world around us, and to care about it.