Thursday, October 15, 2009

Human Arrogance

"There are other forms of intelligence on Earth . . . Only Human arrogance would assume the message must be meant for man." - Spock, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

I must admit, I don't really know that much about climate change. Oh, I'm familiar with the scientific principle and theory behind it; I've seen An Inconvenient Truth. I would hardly call myself an "expert" on the subject, though; I really don't have much to say about it. So when I heard that was going to be the topic of "Blog Action Day" this year, my first thought was, What the heck am I going to say about that?

Of course, I've had plenty of time to think about it since the topic was announced. When I looked back at my previous blog postings including last year's Blog Action Day post "Cause and Effect: The Dynamics of Poverty," I realized that my strength was talking about psychology and the way people think. So that's the way I'd like to approach the subject: from the Human perspective.

I've heard many differing opinions and theories on climate change. Some believe it's inevitable; others believe it's preventable. Some believe Humans are the cause of it; others believe it's just a natural temperature cycle of the planet. However, whether you believe Humans are the cause of it, whether you believe it can be prevented or even if it should, there is one overriding thought I have when I think of the subject:

If the cause is us, it is Human arrogance that has done the damage.

Christianity has more influence on Western culture than probably any other religion. One of the central tenets of Christianity, particularly in the Old Testament, is that Earth was created exclusively for the use of Man because Man was ostensibly the smartest of God's creations; in fact, this is stated in The Bible's very first chapter:
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. - Genesis 1: 27-30
Of course, this passage is one of those "chicken and the egg" situations. Did we come to the belief that we were superior to all creatures on the Earth because The Bible told us to, or was it written into The Bible because we already believed this? In either case, though, it's pretty clear that this passage has influenced the way Humankind has treated this world of ours over the past 6000 years or so, particularly in the Western world and among Christians worldwide.

When I read that passage from Genesis, I can't help but ask myself: what made Humans think they were so much better than everyone and everything else? Just because we can perceive a little bit of the way the Universe works? What makes us think that there aren't other creatures out there with just as sophisticated an understanding of our world? What makes us think there aren't other creatures who understand this world better than we do?

"Well, you've never seen any other creatures create vessels to take them into space or technologies to communicate around the world or techniques to feed millions of people or cure deadly diseases," etc. When you think about it, though, that doesn't really mean anything. Our biggest advantage as a species isn't our intelligence; it's our bodies: opposable thumbs, bipedal locomotion; these things give us huge advantages in tool use which other animals don't have.

Dolphins may be as intelligent or more so than we are; maybe the only reason they haven't developed technologies like ours is because they lack the ability to manipulate tools with the dexterity we can. Maybe elephants would've learned to travel to other stars by now if they had hands to build the machines; their trunks are of relatively limited utility. Maybe crows might've overthrown us by now if they didn't have to manipulate everything with an awkward beak.

Our belief in our intellectual superiority rests only on the most flimsy of foundations: our accomplishments. If you really look at them, most of our accomplishments are due not so much to intelligence but our numerical superiority (6.79 billion of us, at last count) and our bodies' remarkable flexibility in tool use. If our minds were trapped in bodies without those abilities, and if there were less of us, we would likely be no more "advanced" than dolphins.

"But chimpanzee bodies are just as dexterous as ours," one might argue. "How come they aren't at least our equals?" OK, maybe chimps aren't as intelligent as we are; since they have virtually the same physical capabilities, that's hard to dispute. But how can we possibly know how intelligent any other species is if that species can't demonstrate its intelligence through advanced tool use only because of the limitations of its body?

For millennia, Humans have behaved like the lords and masters of this planet, as if everything was ours for the taking regardless what other creatures it may hurt. We dump toxins in the water until we create disgusting legacies like the Sydney Tar Ponds. We're careless with toxic technologies until accidents like Chernobyl contaminate hundreds of square kilometers of land. We use devices to move around that spew thousands of toxins into the air yearly.

Because we've developed this mindset that the Earth is ours to use, we also get the subconscious feeling that the Earth is eternal; no matter what we do to it, the Earth will always provide. It doesn't occur to us, however, that the very physical laws of our Universe make infinity impossible. Even a resource as vast as the Earth has limitations; we can only take so much before we have to start giving back lest we use up the resource.

One of my good friends believes that Humankind simply isn't powerful enough to have had enough impact on the planet to cause climate change. "The planet's been warming and cooling for billions of years," he argues. "No way Humans are so much different from other animals that anything we do could possibly have a global impact on the environment; we're just one species among millions."

Did we cause global warming, or is it just a natural cycle? If you ask me, it doesn't really matter. The simple fact is, putting things into the environment that kills plant and animal life (and plenty of things Humans put into the environment does this on enormous scales) can't possibly be a good idea; to me, that's common sense. Yet, because we as a species believe this planet is here "just for us," we don't care what dies so long as we accomplish what we want.

But other creatures hurt, just like we do. If you accidentally step on a cat's tail, it yells; it feels pain. If you put a lobster in a pot of boiling water, it screams; it feels pain. We've all felt pain. It's something a vast majority of us avoid because, as physical sensations go, it's probably the least pleasant of all. Knowing what it's like, why would we want to inflict that on any creature?

"But they're only animals; they're not smart like us." So? Not every Human is smart, either; believe me, I've encountered my share of stupidity in my life, as we all have. Still, even if I met a Human being who was mentally handicapped with no more intelligence than a chimpanzee, I'd still feel compassion for them if they were in pain or dying. It's not about how smart the person is; it's about having some understanding of how they feel.

So why is it so hard for most of us to extend that metaphor to all creatures? Just because a dog doesn't look like us doesn't mean it doesn't have the same feelings we do. Just because insects look so ugly to our eyes (as I'm sure we do to theirs) doesn't mean they don't feel pain when they're injured. Indeed, how do we know they don't experience grief at the death of a loved one like we do? How do we know they don't experience love?

We don't.

If we did cause climate change, maybe that's poetic justice. Maybe global warming is nature's way of making us feel the suffering we've caused to the "lesser" creatures we share this planet with.

"I don't know about you, but my compassion for someone is not limited to my estimate of their intelligence." - Dr. Jillian Taylor, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home