Search This Blog

Thursday, December 8, 2011

THE BALANCE OF NATURE

CHAPTER 10B

THE BALANCE OF NATURE

This is not to say that we are always looking out for the interests of the species, few of us are. But then we are practically never looking out for the interests of a stranger, although if we see him collapse on the street many of us would feel a strong impulse to come to his assistance. Similarly, the appropriate time to recognize the interests of the species is when we become aware that they are threatened. And in any event, insofar as we accept the responsibility of deciding for the species, the argument that ought to work is that which takes the interests of the species into account.

I think that the social critics should be, on the whole, very well satisfied by now. But the ideological critics are a different matter altogether. They may agree, though grudgingly, that given the present situation space science provides a possible solution. Or even, that given the present dilemma, space science looks essential. Nevertheless, they may want to challenge the description of the dilemma and insist on a solution more to their liking. And their alternative is this. Space science looks imperative because of the enormous pressure that the incredibly large population is putting on the environment, particularly when that population demands increasingly larger per capita shares of energy and other resources. But is it not obvious that if our numbers were significantly reduced, and our demands for consumption lowered, then the pressure on the environment would be relieved?

Suppose that we institute programs that would lower the total population of the planet. First we cut it in half in fifty years. With other measures that would involve a simpler standard of living and reduced energy consumption per capita, this would certainly accomplish much to make our problems manageable. Suppose then that we continue to cut in half the population of the Earth every fifty years, until after a few centuries the impact of humans on the environment is no longer a threat to the entire planet. China is already taking stern measures to reduce its population drastically. It seems, then, that there are alternatives to the exploration of space.

Now, how could such a momentous decision to reduce population be implemented on a global scale? The amount of coercion in China is considerable, in spite of the fact that China is a relatively homogenous society in which a dominant political ideology facilitates near unanimity of opinion. But I am not sure it is reasonable to suppose that anything short of widespread and unmitigated disaster could bring together the different hostile factions in the world to put such a global program into effect. The disaster may come. Although by then it might be too late. And even if the struggle could still succeed, the misery visited upon mankind may be too high a price to pay, particularly if space exploration could have kept disaster at bay. It does not seem like much of an alternative after all.

And what leverage would the Wendell Berrys of the world employ to launch the conflicting powers that be on a joint enterprise of such monstrous proportions? Surely not moral persuasion and enticements to instill what he calls good character. Appeals of that sort would not have a prayer, at least not in time to avoid the disaster which gives such views an air of reasonableness, however they may have to be accompanied by resignation. So it is unclear just how feasible this ideological alternative is, but two considerations would seem to buttress this position. The first is that we have to do something about the population growth anyway. Space exploration will not be in a position to play a significant role in the reduction of the Earth's population for a long time. If we could take a million people a year into space, which we cannot at the present, it would take thousands of years before we began to make a dent in the amount of population we have now, let alone on a population that is growing at today’s dangerous rate. We have centuries, at the most.

The second consideration is that we better protect the Earth by nurturing respect toward it than by letting people think that we can always move onto another nest. For otherwise we imagine that spoiling our present nest is regrettable but not an insurmountable loss. Learning to live within the confines acceptable to our mother planet is a wiser policy because we already know that we can lead dignified and fruitful lives here. By contrast, learning to live in space is only a promise. Can we bet the future of mankind on it? The greatest gift we can make to posterity is a beautiful Earth and the strength of character to live in harmony with it. In other words, we accomplish more by preserving the natural balances that have been so accommodating to human beings in the past, and by restoring such balances where modern life has already disrupted them. The result of exercising greater moral responsibility toward the world is a better world.

Space exploration, on the other hand, presumably would continue the disruption of the natural balance. If technology has already caused a mess, why should we expect better? Moreover, space exploration would be worse than a necessary evil, for it is not an enterprise that we can engage in just once before returning to a more pastoral existence. As Berry says, in condemning the scientific mind, "(1) It would commit us to a policy of technological `progress' as a perpetual bargaining against `adverse effects.' (2) It would make us perpetually dependent on the `scientific' foretelling and control of such effects -- something that never has worked adequately, and that there is no good reason to believe ever will work adequately." Why could it not work? Because "when you overthrow the healthful balance of the relationships within a system --biological, political, or otherwise -- you start a ramifying sequence of problems...that is not subject to prediction, and that can be controlled only by the restoration of balance." Berry's warning is that "if we elect to live by such disruptions then we must resign ourselves to a life of desperate (and risky) solutions: the alternation of crisis and `breakthrough' described by E.F. Schumacher."[1]

How reasonable an alternative is this to the course of action I have recommended? The first thing that deserves comment is this matter of disruption and restoration of balance. A very early and rather important disruption of natural balance took place when life was born and changed the chemistry of the planet. Another crucial and massive disruption of balance came when the oxygen liberated by life "poisoned" the atmosphere and the oceans. And this was followed by the adaptation of life to oxygen, with the subsequent destruction of the cozy arrangements between early life and the environment. Disruptions of similar magnitude were brought about by the appearance of complex organisms, by the formation of an ozone layer, which made the land available to life --would it have been better for life to stay in the oceans? -- and then by the return of vertebrates to the water, which led to whales and dolphins. Ever since, the evolution of life has created new forms that have remade the environment anew, destroying the very memory of whatever balance had been struck previously, and leaving at best a few scattered fossils of what the Berrys of the time would have insisted on preserving.

The fact of the matter is that life has often created new opportunities for itself, unwittingly no doubt, and has always changed the balance between its different forms --most of which are now extinct. The biota of the planet has remade itself many times over. The natural balance of the ideological critics is merely a fiction, a temporary arrangement that would change even if there were no human beings around to mess things up. And surely life does not exhaust the range of natural causes that have brought about massive disruptions of balance. Do volcanic eruptions, droughts, and asteroids always make for small reversible changes? What may we say, incidentally, of the galactic disruption that forced the collapse of the pre-solar cloud into a planetary system? Of the earlier obliteration of what may have looked like states of cosmic equilibrium, and thus of natural balance? Which balance is it that we are morally obliged to restore?

Clearly humans are not the only creatures that transform their environment and interfere with it. R.C. Lewontin, S. Rose, and L.J. Kamin point out that "all living beings both destroy and create the resources of their own continued life. As plants grow, their roots alter the soil chemically and physically. The growth of white pines creates an environment that makes it impossible for a new generation of pine seedlings to grow up, so hardwoods replace them. Animals consume the available food and foul the land and water with their excreta. But some plants fix nitrogen, providing their own resources; people farm; and beavers build dams to create their own habitat."[2]

The issue is not, then, one of disrupting balance and interfering with the environment. Perfect balance can be found only right before the birth of the universe and perhaps right after its death. Even then we do not really know. And to avoid interfering with nature would be out of character for living things, while impossible to achieve anyway. The issue is rather one of interfering wisely, and of preserving (approximately) certain balances that offer the best compromises for a worthwhile existence on this planet. But how are we going to achieve these goals without the kind of global and long-term knowledge that we have discussed in this book?

To say that we should diminish the presence of man--in numbers and in scope of action--so that nature may run its course as undisturbed as possible, assumes that man is a scourge upon the land, and it denies man the very liberties we give to the rest of living things. But even so, how far should that diminution go? And at what price in human misery? I think that this attitude, to force man back, also assumes that there can be no middle ground between the obliteration of the environment and the reduction of man to insignificance. For at any place in the middle we will see a rather large human interaction with the environment. We are sinners, it appears, and now the time has come to pay for our sins. Without this general mea culpa in the hearts of the large majority of human beings, it is difficult to see why they should act in what surely will seem to many as directly against their interests and those of their descendants. Should we not instead gain knowledge of the world in order to determine what is wise? No. These critics would rather do penance than science.

Nevertheless, as long as our dealings with nature involve a creative element, as long as the transformation of the environment is inevitable, with or without our participation, it seems more sensible to learn the secrets of nature so we can act with our eyes open. Berry and his cohorts may not think highly of many of the opportunities that space exploration may open to us. But why should they bar others from taking advantage of them? What right do they have to decide for others what good character is and to insure that nothing else will have greater priority? Their case is based on a myth about nature. And that is only half the trouble.

The present rate of population growth may well be unsustainable, and for space exploration to make a difference it would have to provide means of carrying billions of people into space, a feat that is not in the cards in the foreseeable future, although eventually it will. In the meantime, space science may help us monitor the pressure on the environment and avail our planet of the resources of the solar system. Moreover, let us remember that in the long run the workings of nature, if man does nothing about them, are bound to create first a most unpleasant world for our descendants and then bring extinction upon them. Having science is no guarantee that those things will not happen. We cannot be assured that the desired level of knowledge is possible within whatever time limits infringe on our future. Nor can we be certain that just because we have that knowledge we will choose according to the best interests of the species. But we can be sure that, without the global knowledge that requires space science, we will simply have no choice to make. Our descendants will suffer for it; and eventually our species will disappear at the earliest cosmic inconvenience.

A species full of self-hatred may well choose such a path. But is the appeal of presumed atonement the most fitting choice for us to make? That ascetic choice may buy us a bit of time, but for what? In the long run it leads us straight into a grave. The other choice, the one that really lets nature run its course offers the opportunities for expansion and diversification that so far life has been fortunate to procure for itself. I refer to it as the one that really lets nature run its course because it recognizes that we, too, are part of nature. There is no question in my mind that in this case the way of nature has the potential for greater wisdom.

Sometimes it is said that a little bit of knowledge is dangerous, and that since we are not likely to have complete knowledge through space or any other kind of exploration, we are better off not embarking on this scientific enterprise in the first place. But we have seen, clearly I hope, that even though a bit of knowledge can be dangerous, there is no long future in ignorance.

My point is not that environmental concerns are unimportant. Just the opposite. They are very important and we should take the steps necessary to make decisions based on the most comprehensive picture of the Earth's environment we can obtain. Only then we can pay proper attention to the interests of our species. What I argue against is the rigid demand to act on myths about nature that have little more than mysticism in their favor.

The decision is, of course, not mine to make. My intent has been to bring before the reader the considerations relevant to these large issues and the arguments that are most suitable to them. I hope I have shown that the very heart of space exploration contains within it the best justification of the entire enterprise. In doing my small part to reduce the dimming of starlight, I trust that, as H. G. Wells said, “Life, for ever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars.”[3]



[1] Op. cit., p. 83.

[2] Lewontin, R.C., S. Rose, and L. J. Kamin. Not in Our Genes: Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984).

[3] H. G. Wells, The Outline of History, 1920, from www.spacequotes.com/.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

That is a thoughtful post. I would posit a couple of critiques. First, your hypothesis might be weakened by the fact that population growth is projected to stabilize and even to start trending downwards around 2050. Second, it is quite possible that countries will find ways to generate significant amounts of "clean" energy, thereby ameliorating environmental issues. As a corollary, it might be wiser (from a cost-benefit perspective) for countries to put money into developing these clean fuels as opposed to investing in space travel. Finally, I do not think that we (the world) currently have the technology necessary to create viable colonies either on the Moon or on other planets. I am not even sure if we could develop these technologies regardless of how much we spend.

I think that your hypothesis also assumes rapid advancement in robotics, physics, computer science, nanotechnology, etc. I think it is quite feasible to expect this scenario to occur. At the same time, I do realize that current population estimates assume that both average and maximum human lifespans do not increase significantly. If biotech and other scientific discoveries radically increase human lifespan, populations may continue to increase well into 2150 or beyond.