Monday, October 4, 2010

Proud to Pollute

We have a right to pollute the Earth.

We have a right to cut down trees, eat meat, have factories, use its resources, enjoy technology, hunt, and fish.

Let me tell you a story.  There is an organism that has put billions of metric tons of toxic gas into the air.  This pollution has caused a mass extinction of organisms across the entire globe and is changing the chemistry of the entire globe.  What organism am I talking about?  Maybe you’re already savvy to my trick here, but I’m talking about the single celled cyanobacteria of billions of years ago.  That gas?  Oxygen.

It’s a important fact to remember that all organisms produce pollution - big, small, simple and complex.  We all impact each other.  There was a time in evolutionary history that oxygen literally caused a mass extinction.  It was a toxin to anaerobes.  Everything poops, pees, farts, belches, exhales, respires and there’s some other organism, somewhere that’s impacted because of it.

Furthermore, all animals hurt some other organism to survive and that’s okay.  A cheetah has a right to eat an impala, a polar bear a seal, a rattlesnake a bunny wabbit and a bunny wabbit, alfalfa.

What's the 'essential' part in 'essential amino acids'?  Essential to all life?  No.  Essential to humans.   Cows have essentially no 'essential' amino acids since they synthesize them quite well themselves.  So, why are we different from other animals that make their own complete amino acids?  In our evolutionary history we had those amino acids in our diet so regularly that mutations could eliminate the ability to synthesize them and we'd still survive (something similar happened with our ability to make Vitamin C.  Boy that'd change the vitamin industry.).

We've evolved to eat meat.  It's why our gut is so small relative to our body weight.  If we were evolved for eating plants alone our gut would look like the other largely vegetarian primates like gorillas and proboscis monkeys - utterly, protrudingly huge pot bellies.  A small set of intestines shows we are made to eat a high energy diet that takes little processing to yield high quality results.  Also, it's pretty universally accepted that eating meat gave us the incentive and means to become as brainy as we are - we're hunters and a hunters diet gives enough fat to power our calorie zapping noggin.  Early stone tools weren't for cutting spinach; I can tell you that much.

You've seen these guilt trip photos showing the leveling of land and the emergence of buildings - the decimation of a habitat.  The message is that's awful.  Is it?  Is it really awful that humans exist?  Or, is it amazing that biology has produced an organism that is doing something amazing, building edifices, cities, nations, technology that have never existed before (to our knowledge).  Is it worth it to destroy some environment to make the Large Hadron Collider?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  If I had to choose between the extinction of the California Condor and the building of the LHC, I'd shoot the bird myself.  Thankfully we don't have to make that decision, but what does it take to make a LHC?  It takes a whole bunch of awful stuff like strip mining, fossil fuels, habitat destruction, and vast societies to pull great minds from.  It takes a lot, but it's worth it.

People like microbiologist Lynn Margulis have helped me see this.  She eloquently pointed out that life is tough, far tougher than we realize.  We couldn’t wipe out life even if we tried.  We could blow up all the nuclear bombs in the world and we still won’t be able to kill life, lives, yes, but not life.  Somewhere, deep within the recesses and bowels of the earth, life would reemerge, recolonize and start the evolutionary process of populating every niche and corner of the planet all over again.

With ‘rights’ come ‘responsibilities’.

During my seminary days, I remember being haunted by this Bible verse: “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial.”  What a scandalous verse.  “You can do anything you want, but you’ll have to live with the consequences,” is what it’s saying.  Questions concerning moral permission aren’t usually answered in ‘yes’ or ‘no’ but in ‘not in this way’ or ‘only with wisdom guiding.’

Please recognise that I write this as a reactionary.  I’m reacting to the over-exaggerating, fundamentalist environmentalists that try to scare the world with global warming hell fire and polar ice cap melting apocalypses.  I recognise that I need the planet in working order, as a healthy ecosystem to eat, breathe, flourish and even to enjoy the wonder of nature.

There’s two ways that the manner in which we pollute and destroy is fundamentally different from other organisms: our time scale and our scale of influence.

Time Scale

Life is exceptionally keen at turning water into wine, coal into diamonds, lemon into lemonade.  Any example of pollution that I can come up with produced by an organism has over an evolutionary time scale become a fertilizer, a gourmet dinner, or a breath of fresh air.  We, on the other hand, are presenting pollution in never before seen quantities and types that are posing new obstacles to life.  Can life overcome it? Of course.  Should we wantonly decimate the work of millions of years to test that out?  Well, listen, I love evolution.  I love it on many levels.  I love its pragmatic elegance.  I love the way it comes up with ingenious engineering inventions.  I love the baffling serendipity that it exists.  Life is miraculous.  So, know that it crushes me to lose any of it.  Please hear me say that.  It is a great, weighty, crushing loss.

Scale of Influence

There’s never been another organism that has wielded so much power.  We’ve been to the effing moon for Pete sake.  We have the power not only to destroy other species, but whole ecosystems, and an entire biosphere.  AND we have the power to knowingly do it OR to not.  We are not separate from the system.  When we poison the Earth we are poisoning our drinking well and ourselves.  When we destroy millions of acres of habitat we are destroying the 'lungs', 'heart', and 'guts' of the living Earth.  That's dangerous.  That will have consequences.

Humans don’t do moderation well.  We like either/or scenarios, on/off, right/wrong.  It is vastly easier for us to completely condemn and guilt every act of normal living: being a carnivore, driving, using electricity, etc. than to ask and then answer the tough question of, how much is too much?  So, we condemn any use (See Romans 14 for an interesting Biblical commentary on this right/wrong vs responsibility topic).  We guilt people for existing - like the planet would be better off if humans didn’t live in it.  That’s wrong.  We have a right to be here.  We have a right to live.  It is good that evolution made us.  It is good that we are creating societies and technology that may have never existed before.  It's good that something new under the sun has come about.

It's also wrong to say that we just need to live like the Native Americans.  Let me remind you a little history: they wiped out almost all the mega-fauna in the Americas after they came over the Bering straights.  Not the greatest environmentalist examples if you ask me.  They were constrained in their exploitation by technology far more than their ideology.  All that to say, going back to the Stone Age isn’t the solution.  It’s asking the tough question of:

How much is too much?
How much is enough?
What are our rights?
What are our responsibilities?
What can I do with out?
What can I enjoy?
*What is sustainable?

And, those are tough, tough, gut wrenching questions.

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