Planet Of The Year: What on EARTH Are We Doing?

  • Share
  • Read Later

(4 of 5)

The Judeo-Christian tradition introduced a radically different concept. The earth was the creation of a monotheistic God, who, after shaping it, ordered its inhabitants, in the words of Genesis: "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the air and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." The idea of dominion could be interpreted as an invitation to use nature as a convenience. Thus the spread of Christianity, which is generally considered to have paved the way for the development of technology, may at the same time have carried the seeds of the wanton exploitation of nature that often accompanied technical progress.

Those tendencies were compounded by the Enlightenment notion of a mechanistic universe that man could shape to his own ends through science. The exuberant optimism of that world view was behind some of the greatest achievements of modern times: the invention of laborsaving machines, the discovery of anesthetics and vaccines, the development of efficient transportation and communication systems. But, increasingly, technology has come up against the law of unexpected consequences. Advances in health care have lengthened life-spans, lowered infant-mortality rates and, thus, aggravated the population problem. The use of pesticides has increased crop yields but polluted water supplies. The invention of automobiles and jet planes has revolutionized travel but sullied the atmosphere.

Yet the advance of technology has never destroyed man's wonder and awe at the beauty of the earth. The coming of England's Industrial Revolution, with its "dark Satanic mills," coincided with the extraordinary flowering of Romantic poetry, much of it about the glory of nature. Many people in this century voiced the same tender feelings on seeing the first images of the earth as viewed from the moon. The sight of that shimmering, luminescent ball set against the black void inspired even normally prosaic astronauts to flights of eloquence. Edgar Mitchell, who flew to the moon aboard Apollo 14 in 1971, described the planet as "a sparkling blue-and-white jewel . . . laced with slowly swirling veils of white . . . like a small pearl in a thick sea of black mystery." Photos of the earth from space prompted geologist Preston Cloud to write, "Mother Earth will never seem the same again. No more can thinking people take this little planet . . . as an infinite theater of action and provider of resources for man, yielding new largesse to every demand without limit." That conclusion seems all the more imperative in the wake of the environmental shocks of 1988.

Let there be no illusions. Taking effective action to halt the massive injury to the earth's environment will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation and sacrifice unknown except in wartime. Yet humanity is in a war right now, and it is not too Draconian to call it a war for survival. It is a war in which all nations must be allies. Both the causes and effects of the problems that threaten the earth are global, and they must be attacked globally. "All nations are tied together as to their common fate," observes Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. "We are all facing a common problem, which is, How are we going to keep this single resource we have, namely the world, viable?"

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4
  5. 5