Descending the nearby mountain I had hiked last Sunday afternoon, I slipped a bit, and almost sprained my ankle. Though I quickly recovered my balance, the brief incident caused me to think about how clever nature is; in the case of such a trauma, my body would have instantly provided pain and swelling to the injured joint, limiting motion, thus minimizing further injury.
Of course, this is one of many self-limiting systems that helps regulate individual organisms, and society at large. We laugh about the annual Darwin Awards, posthumously bestowed on people who accidentally kill themselves in the process of attempting extraordinarily stupid things, thus unintentionally performing acts of kindness, removing bits of “stupid DNA” from the human gene pool.
Similarly, the natural environment contains numerous systems to counteract the damage that humankind is inflicting on it. As the late comedian and social critic George Carlin pointed out, “I love these people who talk about ‘saving the Earth.’ Don’t worry about the planet; the planet will be just fine. It’s people who are going away. The Earth is in the process of shaking us off like a bad case of fleas — like a landlord who evicts tenants who don’t pay their rent.”
Of course, he was exactly correct; that’s precisely what’s occurring. Those of us who can observe this, but who have, thus far, been ineffective in preventing the destruction, describe it as “watching a train wreck in slow motion.” The processes by which all this happens at the geologic scale are so slow that untold ruin is occurring while we’re gradually coming to understand the magnitude of the disaster we’re creating. Imagine how much damage an individual would sustain to his ankle, if, after a sprain, there were a week’s delay in the experience of the pain and swelling.
Because ecosystems on a planetary scale change so slowly, there is no real way to assess the harm we’re doing to the atmosphere and oceans on a day-to-day basis. As a result, it is possible that we’ll be bickering about which countries should cut greenhouse gas emissions until the damage is so great that it can no longer be corrected.
How many people will die in extreme weather events? Starved through desertification of our farmland? Displaced from their homelands by global climate change? There’s no way to know. But maybe we should consider wrapping our planetary ankle right now, limiting further injury.