Feeling “green guilt?” Don’t be so self-absorbed.
Once upon a time — approximately 2.4 billion years ago — when the Earth was young, steamy (with volcano eruptions) and intoxicating (with over 70% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere), there lived a bacteria called cyanobacteria.
She floated in a world ocean surrounded by her merry single-celled cousins, busy transforming water and nitrogen into food through slow, anoxygenic photosynthesis, never wishing for anything else. But she felt she was different. That she could change the world.
According to scientists, cyanobacteria was responsible for the Great Oxidation Event, (dubbed Great Oxidation Catastrophe), which completely changed the Earth's atmosphere, inverted its whole biosphere inside out, and resulted in the first mass extinction.
What made cyanobacteria special was her new, more efficient way to produce energy — using light to transform water and CO2 to sugar and oxygen. With an overwhelming quantity of source material around and hardly any competition, she was sure to reign supreme forever. But the oxygen that she was pumping out uncontrollably had kickstarted the evolution of entirely new, multicellular forms of life — who in mere billions of years evolved into us.
Cyanobacteria is still hanging around — you can find her in damp soil, lakes, and ponds, where the water is calm. It produces toxins that poison the water, so gardeners and aquarium owners attack her with hydrogen peroxide as soon as she appears.
I wonder if she misses the good old days.
The plotholes of human exceptionalism
What I find the most disturbing in environment-related discussions — both among tree-huggers and climate change deniers — is the notion that the human race is separate from the rest of the natural world. We are either the worst — and should immediately commit mass suicide and/or give up our way of life to go ask forgiveness of every mosquito ever killed; or we are the pinnacle of creation — and entitled to unlimited use of all the Earth resources.
Neither one of these points of view makes any sense.
If we weren’t so self-absorbed, we would notice that every form of life, from reptiles to mammals, from bacteria to insects, strives towards world domination: trick all the predators, claim all the resources, and multiply its own DNA infinitely.
In fact, animals are more than happy to wreck entire ecosystems if given the chance: think of European starlings that started to bully native birds and transmit unknown diseases as soon as they arrived in North America; possums that devour the unique species of New Zealand; or even the seemingly peaceful Kudzu — a sweet-smelling climbing vine that can choke adult trees to death.
Do you really think this frog would reject an idea of rebuilding an entire world to serve its needs and exploit all the other species?
It just didn’t get lucky yet.
Nature owns your guts
When you try to zoom out as far as Harari did in “Sapiens”, you notice that those big god-given brains don’t bring you many benefits. That despite the fact that the food is plenty and no saber-toothed tiger is going to eat our babies, humans still find — and create — very real reasons to suffer. And the only thing that our great breakthroughs had served to was the multiplication of the copies of our DNA. Not happiness. Not spiritual development. Not wisdom. Just the mindless multiplication of those selfish genes.
We live in a time when scientists start to bring to light all the dark schemes that our genes are pulling behind our backs: that our brains weren’t made to comprehend the objective reality around us — just a loosely painted picture of it; that our emotions and even our thoughts are impacted by what we eat; that our happiness levels are pre-determined and were designed to be hardly reachable so we never stop hunting, fighting, and reproducing.
The apparent truth is that we, as a species, have never ever broken away from the laws of nature. We are merely following the script. And our self-elimination in a magnificent nuclear strike may be the start of an entirely new ecosystem where billions of fascinating species will evolve happily ever after.
We wouldn’t be the first to follow the script of rapid expansion and elimination, and certainly not the last. And who knows, who will be the next in the line to the throne. Crows? Frogs? Sentient cockroaches?
Could we still surprise Mother Nature?
Manipulating people through the feeling of guilt is one of the dirtiest tricks, and I believe that the fact the environmental activism adopts it so enthusiastically is what really fires up the resistance. Don’t be disrespectful, nature is not some poor angel baby. It made us — and taught us all we know.
It’s not our fault we grew up to be like this: greedy, hyper-adaptive, creative, never-settling creatures with abilities almost limitless.
This sustainability thing that we are doing isn’t some “I’m sorry” card for the planet. It’s our latest venture to finally overcome the limits of our animal nature. It’s an ambition to finally defy our creator.
As a species, we are now in a place when we can really understand the script that brought us and our environment in a precarious position — and revert it. We can study, accept, and control our urge to own everything and spread everywhere. We can balance out what we give and take from the ecosystem. And we’ll show Mother Nature that we are now too grown-up to be pushed around like some bacteria.
And after we’ve used our unique collective intelligence and creativity to revert our inevitable biological fate and secure our sustainable development, we can then apply for the “pinnacle of creation” badge.
And I really want that badge. Don’t you?