Popular environmentalist rhetoric tends to revolve around saving the planet and its myriad non-human creatures. Even now, we hear stories about endangered orangutans, rhinos and polar bears, and the damage we’re doing to our oceans and rainforests. Bees are going extinct. The ice caps are melting. Dolphins, whales and fish are now being found full of plastic bags, killed by the weight of the human greed in synthetic form. We should take shorter showers, dump our cars and decrease our meat consumption to save the planet, many activists and organisations tell us.
But the truth is, the planet will probably be okay. It is better placed to survive climate change than any of us, or any of its species. When the Earth was formed 4.6 billion years ago, its surface was mainly molten and there was almost no atmosphere. Eventually, gases spewed by volcanoes gathered in the sky, mainly sulphur dioxide, methane and carbon dioxide, creating the first real atmosphere. Slowly (like, over a half a billion years slowly) the atmosphere cooled enough to allow water to gather on its surface. Oxygen started to be released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria (see, I knew that biological education would come in useful sometime) and the atmosphere changed again. Over the billions of years that the Earth has been around, the concentrations of various gases have changed significantly. There once was enough oxygen to support creatures the size of dinosaurs and enormous prehistoric sharks and snakes like the megalodon and the titanoboa. There have been ice ages and mass extinctions. Once, so much of the oceans were tied up in glaciers that sea levels were 300ft lower than today.
Recently, it feels like there have been more reports – or at least, the reports that do exist have been receiving more press and promotion – that suggest that our lifespan as a species is getting shorter and shorter due to anthropogenic climate change. I haven’t read enough of the research to comment on that, though most of the books I’ve read suggest that we will still be around in a hundred years, though how many of us and what our quality of life will be like is still up in the air. But regardless, while it is true that climate change will wreak havoc on the many aspects of the natural world, from habitats to food webs to the survival of whole species, the planet itself will be okay. The concern here is not that climate change will split the Earth in two, leaving a blank space in our solar system. Moreover, the Earth doesn’t care what state it’s in. It’s a hunk of rock hurtling through space. The planet is no happier now than it was during any of the ice ages or during the volcanic years some four and half billion years ago. If we drive ourselves to extinction and drown a few countries in the process, the Earth doesn’t care. The Earth will be fine. Some species may survive, or they may not. In all likelihood, the planet will one day again be teeming with plants, as human climate change is unlikely to be enough to wipe out every living species. And while it will take thousands of years, one day, carbon dioxide will be gently sequestered back out of the sky, and a new environmental paradigm will exist. I have no idea what it will be like, and I have no idea if we’ll be there to see it, but it will continue.
In his book The World Without Us, Alan Weisman breaks down what would happen if human beings all disappeared in one fell swoop, right now. He details the process by which trees would destroy buildings by wending their branches through window frames, and how the rivers would fill up the subways in a matter of years. He tells the story of ancient forests re-expanding, eventually coming to cover Europe and Canada and other parts of the Earth in their entirety, along with exploring exactly how the chemicals and other toxic substances that we’ve deposited into the environment will slowly be broken down and reincorporated into the ecosystem. Nature will prevail. We are the little blip in the Earth’s evolutionary history, and if we slowly let our species die off because we like fast fashion and fast cars more than keeping the Earth’s climate and habitats in the tiny narrow band that supports our delicate human lives, then that’s on us.
So no, fighting climate change is not about saving the planet. It’s about saving us.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t care about the planet. Empathy is a great human quality and it’s fair to look upon the extinction of other species and the destruction of glorious natural wonders and feel sad for how damaging human desires are for everything around us, including ourselves. With great power could come great responsibility and our position as the ultimate apex predator is, arguably, being exploited by our rampant destruction of the planet’s natural resources. It’s okay to say that you want the oceans to be healthy and the bees to be buzzing – but even then, you’re saying this from the perspective that it matters to you, as a living, breathing, feeling human being. If humanity ceases to exist, there’s no altruistic reason to want the trees to still prosper. It becomes irrelevant to us as soon as we stop being part of Earth’s ecosystem, should we disappear from the face of the planet.
So yes, you can be a tree hugger. But you don’t have to be to care about climate change. In fact, it’s perfectly logical to become a climate change activist from an entirely self-serving place: you want to be alive and not suffering in the future (and you might want that for other future humans and future generations of your own family too, should you plan to have children). Trying to stop climate change is not about saving the planet. It’s not about protecting the Earth for the Earth’s sake. It’s about saving us. So, the real question is, how much do you value humanity? How much do you think we’re worth saving?