The idea that we can tame the wilds of the planet is deeply ingrained in our western worldview. Not only do we think that we can; we think that we have to. We are the ones chosen to set order to a chaotic system. But this philosophy has sadly guided us to a deep misunderstanding of the world and our place in it. It has led us to believe that our actions are without environmental consequence. Worse yet, it has made us act against our own self-interest.
Our theology reinforces the notion that we are superior to the world. “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule over the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth” reads both the Bible and the Torah. They go on to instruct “fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” The Quran notes that “He has subjected to you whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth.” Core to our western theology are themes of dominion.
Those themes extend as well to our philosophical thought. Francis Bacon, the father of the scientific revolution, urged humanity to find “in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use,” and to exploit them. Industrialization used these instructions to try vainly to free humanity from the natural order of our world. This philosophy extends to the west’s history of conquest and empire as well. It is us, the people of the west, that have been chosen to tame and subdue all wild things; nature and human alike.
You can also see this thinking in our dizzying rate of resource extraction; resources that we consume without thought to the consequences. If we are indeed the masters of this planet, we think, then it doesn’t matter how we use our spoils. We think that we must certainly be able to curtail any negative outcomes that might arise from our actions. As a result, we ignore the consequences that are being placed on us from a changing climate, a collapsing ecosphere, and our ever-present pollutants. We drive blithely on toward a precipitous destiny with no concern passed next quarters’ fiscal returns.
Enter the counter-point to this type of thinking. When pollution and litter pile up, many people get out their gloves and garbage bags to give the earth a helping hand. Stream clean up days and tree planting rallies are popular to ‘help out’ mother nature. The earth needs us, we think, and without us won’t be whole again. We have to get out there and make things right!
But this type of thinking suffers from the same flaw as the humanity-as-conqueror line of thinking. Now, to be clear, I absolutely encourage these types tree planting, litter collecting events. Especially as a way to get people engaged and thinking about their personal environmental impact.
However, taking the attitude of being a force that puts the earth back right still suffers from the fallacy that we have dominion over our planetary home. It still assumes that we can control, shape, and mold this place as we would see fit. The goal may be different, but the fallacious idea of dominion is still asserted.
We do not have nearly the control that either of these lines of thinking assumes that we do. I would go so far as to state that it is wrong to say that we should do anything ‘for the earth.’ Rather, we should do these things for ourselves. No matter what we do, the giant spherical hunk of iron, magma, and rock that we call home will be here billions of years from now.
So, what’s at stake in all this is not the earth, but our place in it. If we expect to continue to have this home, we need to curtail our crippling impact here. When we talk about fighting climate change, it’s not about saving the polar bears; it’s about preserving a planetary state of balance that has treated our species well for millions of years. Acting environmentally isn’t altruistic. It’s about saving our future from our worst impulses.
What we face is a crisis of philosophy. Both what is causing the problem and how we typically address it. The only solution is to internalize that we are not in the driver’s seat. We are not in control. With any other starting point, we are deluding ourselves into a corner from which we will not escape.