In their new book Discovering Our World: Humanity’s Epic Journey from Myth to Knowledge (Pitchstone Publishing, 2015), Paul Singh and John R. Shook offer scientific explanations to questions normally reserved for religion: Who are we? Where did we come from? What determines our destiny?
In the excerpt below, the authors explain why we have a moral imperative to save our planet:
The ethics of human enhancement should be guided by commonsensical and compassionate wisdom, so that a genuine “enhancement ethics” can lead the way. While we have been busily modifying our local environments and even our own bodies, we have also been causing immense changes to the entire planetary biosystem. We now need a genuine “ecological ethics” as well.
Religions have been hopelessly left behind, for the most part, especially their dogmas about some god who is ultimately responsible for the world. If a supernatural deity is intelligently controlling the world, then whatever happens here is proceeding according to divine wish or plan. Unfortunately, a god focused on saving some for an eternal life after this world won’t be prioritizing what happens to this world. If no god is caring for this world in the long run, then as far as this worldly life is concerned, we might as well suppose that we are on our own. Yet, is humanity so alone? There is plenty of life all around us, after all. If we take a fresh perspective on our kindred relationship to all earthly life, then we should feel a renewed sense of responsibility towards each other and all living things on this planet.
No god, supernatural or natural, will save us from the fate we deserve if we destroy the only home we will ever know. Our fate may be closer than we suspect. Our moral standing with the planet couldn’t be lower, as we parasitically drain the vitality from it. Polluting every habitat and ecosystem as fast as we can is not a sustainable plan. Some people fancifully hope that a loving Earth will repair itself and us. But not even a planet can keep pace with a rapacious species like humanity. We aren’t that different from any other species, in a way. The number of species that have voluntarily used fewer resources, to date, is precisely zero. The difference with humanity is the way we exploit technology to exhaust all resources at an exponential rate. Technology has been our destiny, and it will determine our fate.
It is unlikely that humanity will do anything else besides applying more technology, from new energy sources like fusion to novel ways to wage war, to deal with its problems. Hope for humanity’s survival may rest on further technological advancement. Unless physics is misguided about relativity and space-time, travel to other stars’ habitable planets within an astronaut’s single lifetime will not happen soon. For small colonies of star voyagers willing to take generations to journey to a new home, there probably are a few nearby planets roughly similar to our own. With advanced technologies, humans could slightly modify planetary temperatures and air pressures and adjust the atmospheric conditions to make them habitable. We are already in the process of discovering some Earth-like planets fairly close to home. One example is Gliese 581g, only 20 light years away, which is a short distance considering the vast size of the Milky Way galaxy by comparison.
What is this hope for new planets to populate, but an expression of that anciently human drive to explore and exploit fresh territory? There are other, far closer options. Any technology sufficient for star traveling and planet terraforming would be sufficient to clean up this planet we already have. We might use novel technologies to evolve into indestructible cyborgs, merging humanity and machinery. We may create artificially intelligent machines that are capable of replicating themselves, machines that far exceed our current human intelligence, machines that could continue to live and thrive by withstanding the onslaughts of our violent universe.
Our species is already highly evolved compared to others on the planet, so much so that we have become agents of change just like the mother nature. It is becoming apparent that we are the very first species ever to evolve on this planet that will decide its own evolution. We are about to become a much bigger force of nature. Humans are presently altering the Earth’s land, water, and air faster than any competing geologic process. Although we can be proud of ourselves for our ability to become a powerful force of nature, we also need to be embarrassed when we use this ability in transforming our watersheds, leveling beautiful mountains, eliminating dense forests, changing the balance of gases in our atmosphere, and extinguishing thousands of other species — destroying all the things that have sustained and nourished life throughout the history of our planet.
Science has revealed the incredible journey that our home planet has taken from its fiery birth to today. We live on a warm, watery, and living globe. As soon as life could get started it spread everywhere, survived many challenges, and transformed the Earth’s surface in ways to permit its continued evolution. Feeling deep respect and reverence for our home, so far our only home, is entirely natural. Now we must act dutifully, and act quickly, from that sense of profound reverence.
Humans, as well as all other species that ever existed, have survived entirely at the mercy of our planet and other natural forces prevailing in our solar system. We know that more than 99% of all species that ever lived have gone extinct. It is difficult to believe that we would be an exception — species eventually fall victim to something, an asteroid, a super volcano, a gamma ray burst, a disease, a famine, etc. Homo sapiens, with its vast intelligence, has aroused additional risks to itself and the entire planet, such as nuclear war, poisoned oceans, depleted drinkable water, and global warming.
It is hard to understand how we can destroy everything that has sustained our lives and yet expect to continue to live as a species here. Humanity had better understand the nature and purpose of our own earth-shaping powers if we are to have any hope of controlling them. Life is stubborn and persistent, made for survival. If our damage to the planet gets beyond our control, life will still go on, long after humanity is gone. The earned pride we can take in coming so far to occupy where we stand now will melt away from the shame of having thrown it all away. If humanity’s story is essentially about replacing ignorance with knowledge, let us use that knowledge responsibly now that we possess it.
Discovering Our World is available online and in bookstores beginning today.