By Ancient Futurist
In this article series, I have outlined what an extinction-proof civilization, one that can exist over geological timescales, would resemble in terms of technology, economics, and politics. The most important factor in our civilization’s survival, however, might be ideology. In order to change how we behave in the long run; we must also change how we think. How must our thinking change in order for us to become a civilization that can last indefinitely? Whatever ideology or ideologies reign, it will need to be an ideology emphasizing peace and stability both with our fellow humans and with the planet. I have already addressed the human side of this in the previous article on the political system of an extinction-proof civilization, so I will focus on our relationship with the planet itself.
The present paradigm
The current philosophical and spiritual framework that guides global ambitions and policies is the one which has been in ascendancy at least since the Enlightenment, the notion of progress. Essentially, the belief that humans should use science and technology to make life better for themselves through the use of Earth’s resources. While this is not a bad belief system to have, and certainly I support using science and technology to improve the human condition, progress has come to have a specific meaning for many people. Essentially it has come to mean more stuff, more wealth, more commodities for an ever-larger percentage of the population. The problem with this paradigm is that it is inherently unsustainable. Earth’s resources are not limitless, and we are starting to see signs that the planet’s resources are being exhausted. This is leading to the destruction of natural ecosystems, climate change, and impoverishment of millions of people as farmland and grazing land becomes unusable due to desertification. The ultimate goal of this progress is untenable because the planet probably cannot sustain a civilization where 8 billion people have the same level of consumption of commodities as the average North American or Western European.
The current paradigm puts us at odds with nature and the ecological relationships within which we are embedded. A philosophical and moral framework which puts us at odds with the very natural systems that we need to survive is a maladaptive one to say the least. The current paradigm needs to be replaced by one which sees progress as being more than just accumulation of goods and that also sees this progress as being not just for humans but for the entire planetary community. We need a truly eco-planetary civilization.
How could humanity construct a new paradigm of progress that is not based on taming the Earth to produce more commodities and that means progress for the entire planet including humans?
Developments in geology and planetary science may help with this task of constructing a new paradigm for humanity that promotes a type of progress and benefits both humanity and the entire planet.
When life took over on Earth several billion years ago, life became a geological force. Life does not just passively come along for the ride as tectonism and chemical weathering shape the planet. Life shapes the planetary surface environment as well. For example, it is the biogeochemical cycles established by micro-organisms that have stabilized our climate so that it remains generally hospitable to the majority of living things. This is probably why we do not have dramatic climate swings resulting in super-ice ages like in the Precambrian. Over time, life has changed the chemistry and atmosphere of the surface environment so that conditions are hospitable for life. The biosphere in a sense took control of planetary processes and Earth became a living planet. In other words, the biosphere became the planet. The biosphere is in fact what many people are referring to when they say that we need to “save the planet.” Most of the physical Earth will not be affected much by climate change or by anything we are doing on the surface. For all intents and purposes, the biosphere, and its interrelationships with the atmosphere, oceans, and soil, is the “planet.”
It could be argued, and has been argued, that something similar has happened with humanity. In the same way that life is a geological force that actively influences the surface environment, creating a living planet, human civilization has become a geological force that is also actively shaping the surface. This is the meaning of the Anthropocene epoch, the geological epoch in which humans became a dominant enough geological force to leave their mark in the geologic record. How does this influence our self-identity and relationship to the planet? The planetary scientist David Grinspoon suggests that just as the planet became living with the rise of the biosphere, the planet may potentially become sapient with the rise of a mature technosphere that is not self-destructive. In other words, human civilization is no longer just on the planet, human civilization is the planet.
If we are the planet, this should significantly change our attitude towards the planet, its life and its ecosystems. The planet is no longer just a stockpile of resources that we can abandon once we are finished with it. The health of the planet is now as integral to our civilization’s health as the health of our individual bodies. If we destroy the environment, we are engaging in a sort of self-abuse. If we are the planet, then any notion of progress would also need to promote the welfare of the planet itself. Wherever we are going into the future, we are taking the planet and its biosphere with us even if we become a multi-planetary species and create biospheres and technospheres around other geospheres. Humanity will go on using science and technology to shape this and other planets, which I believe can be a good thing, but it must be with the attitude and intention of benefiting this planet and other planets as well as our own species, rather than just seeing Earth and other planets as stockpiles of resources to exploit.
Eco-planetary civilization and religion
Religions and cultures of the world will need to become cognizant of the fact that we are the planet. Some religions are farther ahead in this than others. Many indigenous spiritualities, for example, have a very strong theology of creation and see humans as being deeply interconnected with nature. Other religions and cultures still have a lot of work in this area. Within Christianity, the scene is not very encouraging, but there is also much potential for an ecologically sensitive Christianity. For example, there is a rich tradition of creation care and creation spirituality. In his book, Ancient-Future Faith, Robert Webber argues that the early church believed that redemption of the world would be cosmic and that creation itself would be redeemed along with humanity. Sandra Richter argues this more directly in her book, Stewards of Eden, based on her interpretation of scripture. Saint Francis of Assisi believed that humans are siblings with creation. Theologians, such as Pierre Teilhard and Leonardo Boff, have argued that the work of Christ in the world involves all of creation and not just humanity. Taking all these traditions together we may have the recipe for an orthodox, Biblically faithful Christian eco-techno-theology for the future.
Whether in politics or religion, an extinction-proof planetary civilization will need to see itself as being an integral part of the planet and be concerned not just with human welfare, but the welfare of all life on Earth. If not, our civilization will be at odds with the planetary system and thus more likely to collapse. The most adaptive species after all, are not the strongest or the smartest necessarily, but the ones that are able to fit most harmoniously into their ecosystem and its web of relationships. We need to care for the planet because we are the planet. This conviction must shape our thinking about the future of civilization if ours is to last more than a blink in geologic time.
One thought on “Creating an Extinction-proof civilization — Ideology”