Few will doubt that humankind has created a planet-sized problem for itself. No one wished it so, but we are the first species to become a geophysical force, altering Earth’s climate, a role previously reserved for tectonics, sun flares, and glacial cycles. We are also the greatest destroyer of life since the ten-kilometer-wide meteorite that landed near Yucatan and ended the Age of Reptiles sixty-five million years ago. Through overpopulation we have put ourselves in danger of running out of food and water. So a very Faustian choice is upon us: whether to accept our corrosive and risky behavior as the unavoidable price of population and economic growth, or to take stock of ourselves and search for a new environmental ethic.
That is the dilemma already implicit in current environmental debates. It springs from the clash of two opposing human self-images. The first is the naturalistic self-image, which holds that we are confined to a razor-thin biosphere within which a thousand imaginable hells are possible but only one paradise. What we idealize in nature and seek to re-create is the peculiar physical and biotic envrionment that cradled the human species. The human body and mind are precisely adapted to this world, notwithstanding its trials and dangers, and that is why we think it beautiful. In this respect Homo sapiens conforms to a basic principle of organic evolution, that all species prefer and gravitate to the environment in which their genes were assembled. It is called “habitat selection.” There lies survival for humanity, and there lies mental peace, as prescribed by our genes. We are consequently unlikely ever to find any other place or conceive of any other home as beautiful as this blue planet was before we began to change it.
The competing self-image – which also happens to be the guiding theme of Western civilization – is the exemptionalist view. In this conception, our species exists apart from the natural world and holds dominion over it. We are exempt from the iron laws of ecology that bind other species. Few limits on human expansion exist that our special status and ingenuity cannot overcome. We have been set free to modify Earth’s surface to create a world better than the one our ancestors knew.
- Edward O. Wilson, Consilience (pages 277-78)