The paradox, in a nutshell, is this: humans are grown so powerful that they have become a force of nature - and forces of nature are those things which, by definition, are beyond the power of humans to control.
-Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
Don't worry, this post isn't a plea to care about the planet. I figure you are burned out on being told the world is going to pot and it's your fault. This post is about our godlike power as a species and our collective impotence.
I know you don't have any particular reason to trust me. I’m a Mormon ecologist so whether you are skeptical of environmentalists and government-funded science, or if you break out in hives at the mention of organized religion, I’m bound to push at least some of your buttons. But if you can turn off what you are supposed to believe for a few minutes, I promise not to tell you what to do with the environment or your soul
The following are facts. Not model predictions or bent statistics from a press release. These are observed changes wrought by the communal and cumulative power of human activity.
- Humans have plowed, paved, burned, or built 75% of the earth’s ice-free land.1
- The combined weight of humanity (anthropomass) is tenfold greater than all land vertebrates, and our livestock weigh more than twice what we do. This means that we and our domestic animals account for 98% of all mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians on earth.2,3
- Human agriculture, resource extraction, and construction move approximately 20 times more dirt, rock, and soil as all natural processes combined, including rivers, glaciers, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and landslides.4
- The combined effects of habitat loss, invasive species, and direct human consumption has increased the extinction rate 1,000 times over background. We drive 2,000 to 10,000 species to extinction every year.5–7
- Air and water pollution cause approximately 12.6 million deaths a year (34,500 people every day), primarily due to premature heart failure, respiratory disease, and neurological disorders.8,9 For context, 1.3 million people die annually from car crashes, 55,000 from war, 40,000 from natural disasters, and 9,000 from terrorism.10–13
A few springs ago in May, my friend Sarah talked to me about God while we were dragging permafrost cores back to camp on the North Slope of Alaska. She tactfully told me that it seemed incredibly self-centered and irrational to believe in an anthropomorphic god. In her opinion, this kind of belief was evidence that man had created god in his image, not the other way around. She also worried that an anthropomorphic god encouraged exploitative relationships with the earth and other creations, since it gives humans special status. It does seem implausibly convenient that the creator of the universe just happens to look like us.
Before and since that interaction with Sarah, I've been asked versions of this question by believers and nonbelievers. While I see how belief in an anthropomorphized god could predispose us to some forms of environmental negligence, I’ve come to hold that this exceptionalist theology also carries fundamental truth about our relationship with the earth, whether or not you believe in God.
When God described the creation to Moses some 3,500 years ago, the prophecy that man would dominate the earth must have seemed laughable. Even Moses didn’t buy it initially, responding, “Now, for this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed.” There were eight million species on earth at that time, and Homo sapiens was not on anyone's short list to become the top dog (so to speak). A slow-reproducing primate with no particular gifts in strength or speed, we didn't have any claws or teeth to speak of, and we'd given up the safety of the trees. There were no ecological or evolutionary reasons to believe that we were exceptional or more like God than any of the other creatures.
Nevertheless, God was right. It turns out we are exceptional. Our species now has dominion over the air, the earth, the sea, and all that moves within them. Believing that we are the image of God prepares us to accept that we are not just another species. What we do with that knowledge depends on whether we have understood what Voltaire, Spiderman, and Churchill have been trying to teach us: with great power comes great responsibility. If we don’t take our stewardship seriously, we could fall into the trap of believing that because we are exceptional, the rules don’t apply to us. As Dr. Gould said, “Look in the mirror, and don't be tempted to equate transient domination with either intrinsic superiority or prospects for extended survival.”14
Our situation is particularly precarious because our dominion of the earth is godlike in its magnitude but decidedly human in its unwieldiness. Our grip is strong but our control is blunt. Many people are in denial of one or both of these conditions, potentially leading to what I call selective belief in imaginary solutions. A few examples of this phenomenon:
1. Humans are too insignificant to change the climate, but if we ever did, we'd be able to fix it.
2. Communal action to prevent environmental catastrophe or conserve resources is politically impossible, but when things apart we’ll produce a technical solution on demand.
3. If we hobble the economy to protect the environment we might stifle innovation that would have allowed unlimited growth and sustainability.
Last October, an acquaintance I’ll call Mr. Smith gave a particularly compelling example of believing in man’s exceptionalism but ignoring his limitations in an epic Facebook thread on whether we should regulate development to preserve habitat. He wrote:
For example. Cost of DNA sequencing is dropping exponentially. Costs per megabyte of data storage are also dropping exponentially. At some point (likely in the next 20 years) it will be economical to decode al the DNA of all the living organisms on the planet. Generic cloning of organisms will also likely be economical in the next 20 years or so. At which point we are one step from restituting any extinction events. This is a robust sustainable long term policy. It should have higher priority than many of the short term fragile policies currently espoused.
I’ve met many people with such beliefs, some from sloppy reasoning, some from willful denial, but most from missing the two lessons God taught Moses on Mount Sinai: you’re different and you’re in charge. The trick is remembering that we need to take care of the environment not only because we’ll get in trouble with God if we don’t (though we will), but also because our survival is completely dependent on maintaining the life-sustaining functions of the earth.
I know I promised not to tell you what to do with your soul or the environment, but a quick note about the goings on in DC. I don’t blame anyone for being afraid of terrorists, but anyone claiming to protect the safety and health of the American people while undermining the EPA and laws that protect our water and air is a barefaced charlatan. Since the year 2000, pollution has killed more than 1,400 times more Americans than terrorism—200,000 a year from air pollution alone.15 I don't care who the special interest is or whether you believe in climate change, our lives should not be for sale.
I, the Lord, should make every man accountable, as a steward over earthly blessings, which I have made and prepared for my creatures. I, the Lord, stretched out the heavens, and built the earth, my very handiwork; and all things therein are mine. And it is my purpose to provide for my saints, for all things are mine. But it must needs be done in mine own way; and behold this is the way that I, the Lord, have decreed to provide for my saints, that the poor shall be exalted, in that the rich are made low. For the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare; yea, I prepared all things, and have given unto the children of men to be agents unto themselves.
-Doctrine and Covenants 104:13, April 1834, Kirtland Ohio
1. Ellis and others. Anthropogenic transformation of the biomes, 1700 to 2000. Glob. Ecol. Biogeogr. 586–606 (2010).
2. Smil, V. Harvesting the biosphere: The human impact. Popul. Dev. Rev. 37, 613–636 (2011).
3. Pelletier, N. & Tyedmers, P. Forecasting potential global environmental costs of livestock production 2000–2050. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 107, 18371–18374 (2010).
4. Wilkinson, B. H. Humans as geologic agents: A deep-time perspective. Geology 33, 161–164 (2005).
5. Sala, O. E. et al. Global Biodiversity Scenarios for the Year 2100. Science 287, 1770–1774 (2000).
6. Mora, C., Tittensor, D. P., Adl, S., Simpson, A. G. B. & Worm, B. How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLOS Biol. 9, e1001127 (2011).
7. Vitousek, P. M., Mooney, H. A., Lubchenco, J. & Melillo, J. M. Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. Science 277, 494–499 (1997).
8. World Health Organization. An estimated12.6 million deaths each year are attributable to unhealthy environments.
9. Brauer, M. The Global Burden of Disease from Air Pollution. in (AAAS, 2016).
10. Golstein, J. Think Again: War. Foreign Policy (2011).
11. Country Reports on Terrorism 2015. U.S. Department of State (2015).
12. The plague of global terrorism. The Economist (2015)
13. 20-year review shows 90% of disasters areweather-related; US, China, India, Philippines and Indonesia record the most - UNISDR.
14. Gould, S. J. Life’s Grandeur: The Spread of Excellence From Plato to Darwin. (Random House, 2011).15. Caiazzo, F., Ashok, A., Waitz, I. A., Yim, S. H. L. & Barrett, S. R. H. Air pollution and early deaths in the United States. Part I: Quantifying the impact of major sectors in 2005. Atmos. Environ. 79, 198–208 (2013).