We know from a vast body of research that the earth has entered into what a growing number of scientists call the anthropocene, the age of man.
This is an epoch where we collectively influence the nature of life on our globe, replacing natural phenomena (glaciers, volcanoes, solar cycles) as the most powerful force.
In large measure because of the conservative movement, a serious civil discussion of what this means has ground to a halt. Democrats and Republicans who once talked productively about climate change have fallen silent.
Population growth is a taboo subject, even for many environmental groups.
The irony, of course, is that we know more and more about what our planetary civilization is doing to the planet we rely upon for, well, everything.
We know that fishing pressure and pollution are literally altering the bios of our oceans, making them more acidic, eliminating whole species with an efficiency that would be impressive if it weren’t so bleak.
We know that human commerce is rapidly spreading invasive species around the globe, so that the Great Lakes begin to look more like the Black Sea and whole forests in America fall prey to insects from Asia.
We also know that by the end of this century, there will be another 2.4 billion of us sharing this rock.
To put that in perspective, that population growth will require the construction of four additional New York City’s per year, every year, until the year 2100.
That’s four NYC’s this year. And four NYC’s the next year. And four more the year after. And repeat.
Economists also expect the standard of living to rise for billions of humans. That’s a good thing, except that it also means more consumption of resources and food, and likely far more emissions of carbon and other forms of pollution.
Balanced against these facts are two human traits that make it very difficult for us to confront what the science of the anthropocene will mean for our civilization.
First is the fact that for many of us our basic cosmology — the mental construct that we use to imagine our world — is still based on a world where humans weren’t such a big deal, at least in scientific terms.
In 1804, when the grand experiment of the United States was just hitting its stride, the population of the earth was one-seventh its current size.
It stood to reason that mankind could “use” and “master” the natural world around him without considering the wider consequences. We like to think of that kind of behavior as “freedom” and a part of our “manifest destiny.”
When a pointy-headed bureaucrat, or an egghead scientist, suggests to us that it might be a bad idea, say, to dump a factory’s toxins into a river that now has tens of millions of other people living along its banks, that sounds to us like “big government” and “regulation.”
The second thing that makes it difficult to grapple with the new science of life on earth is what some researchers call “shifting baseline syndrome.”
This is our tendency as a highly adaptive species to see the world around us as “normal.” Generations growing up now in China and India have no visceral sense of what their countries were like before human activity overwhelmed the natural world.
Here in the US, we like to tell ourselves that we’ve tackled some of these problems. In recent decades, we’ve restored much of our environment. We’ve protected forests and rivers to a remarkable degree.
But the truth is that we accomplished many of those gains simply by shifting the burdens we place on the planet to other places. And we now know that what happens in China doesn’t stay in China.
There are also signs that our impact on the planet is entering a new, more unpredictable phase.
The Gulf oil spill was a vast science experiment in what happens when the anthropic system hiccups. We still don’t know what the long-term impacts will be on the Gulf’s vast ecosystem.
The idea that we might generate energy for the next century by pumping caustic chemicals into the groundwater table is another big lab project.
And it’s inevitable that as our population grows the search for energy, and food, and other resources will force us to take bigger and bigger risks.
It’s also worth pointing out that the 2.4 billion population increase now projected could be wrong. The best estimates suggest that population growth will begin to plateau, and reach some kind of long-term stability.
But if birth rates are just a tiny bit higher, and life expectancy grows just a little bit more, the number of humans relying on our world could easily double.
I suspect that for a while longer, we’ll avoid talking about the ramifications of all this.
The cosmology of a world where humans — beautiful, precious humans — must also be reckoned as a burden and a problem, is just too frightening. It forces us to think hard about basic moral questions.
And the ramifications of what it might mean to be required to think globally are just too complex. We’ll have to re-examine what a healthy family looks like and what a healthy nation-state looks like.
But as scientists will tell you, it really doesn’t matter in the end what we believe, or what we want to talk about. The earth is a closed system, finite and ultimately fragile.
As more and more of us look to share the world, we will sort out how to be good stewards, respectful of the facts of life. Or we will watch in dismay as it breaks under our weight.