“This frigid sea was a speckled mass of organisms. Tiny copepod crustaceans, looking like so many animated peas, beat their way in their thousands through the surface waters, feeding on plankton that I knew must be there, but which could not be seen without a microscope.” That picture of vitality in the Arctic begins the story of Life: An Unauthorised Biography by Richard Foley.
That was written in 1998. Today, in mid-2023, that mass of tiny creatures and the plankton they feed on is being boiled away. Rising sea temperatures of just a few degrees can kill plankton and now the seas around western Europe are over 3oC above normal. That’s a huge problem because phytoplankton, plankton which photosynthesise, is responsible for more than 40% of Earth’s photosynthetic production consuming carbon dioxide while producing oxygen for other animals to live. The rise in sea temperature is suffocating life. Humanity’s hubristic attempt at dominion over nature is killing life quickly now.
Foley’s Foreword in the 2008 edition explains how rare life is:
“Then there were several times during the pre-cambrian era when the earth might have frozen over almost completely (so-called ‘Snowball earths’). If the earth had not unfrozen from one of these crises, there would have been no more life story to tell.“
There is life elsewhere in the universe, but it is different and far away. Even the Sun, the star around which we spin, is eight light minutes away. And there are other stars, with other planets. Many others. Very many. That star, the Sun, is a star in a system of stars, a galaxy which we call the Milky Way. There are billions of stars in this galaxy and there are billions of galaxies. How many? Think the biggest number you can think and you’re heading in the right direction. 100 billion stars in our galaxy, which is 100,000 light years across. And billions of other galaxies. One underestimate suggests over 1 septillion (1 with 24 zeros). There are so many solar systems that the probability of an accident of life occurring on planets in other solar systems is NOT zero. There is life elsewhere in the space-time continuum. They might be different manifestations of life, but they are alive.
Nevertheless, even if Earth is not the only planet with life in the universe, life does seem special. Doesn’t it? It seems very special to those of us who enjoy this accident of life, who enjoy the feeling of being alive, the feeling of connection with life and other life-forms.
But life on this planet is dying. Not “some life is dying”. Life, the whole accident, that force that underlies the distinctive quality of self-animation of entities that is seen in the simplest cell to the greatest tree or mammal, that mystical accident which emerged from the chemical soup of this planet 4 billion years ago, that is what is being killed. The accident of Life is being killed. And perhaps the toxic, boiling planet we are cooking ourselves on will not recover even its most basic lifeforms like archaea and bacteria. To exterminate even those would be hard. But we are trying hard.
Earth is being destabilised by ignorant, selfish behaviour. The planet is on fire as the blanket of life that emerged from this planet’s outer layers, the biosphere, is poisoned by our pollution. Reason has shown us that our over-consumption of fossil fuels (which releases the energy of millions of years of stored sunlight along with toxic elements) is causing destabilisation of natural systems in the biosphere. Although humanity is a part of that sphere of vitality, we are consuming life, killing life.
It is appropriate to be anxious that humanity is visibly, knowingly killing Earth. I feel that anxiety in my gut. I like life. I like living. I enjoy being aware of the phenomenon of life. I enjoy breathing, eating, creating and being with others. I revel in relationships. If you also feel the anxiety that life is slipping through our fingers, that would be reasonable. It would be better than ignoring it, covering it up with platitudes, fatalistic apathy or ignorance. It is especially shameful to cover reason with ignorance because humans have a consciousness that can connect to the wider world, know itself and make imaginative choices, which no other species on Earth can do. We can think and choose things that are only imagined unlike any other species, including other primates. If you want to stop humanity killing life on this planet, then change course. Step beyond the primate, be human, be conscious and choose life.
If you do not feel anxiety, if you do not feel empathy for life, for yourself, then please stop, take a breath and reflect. Perhaps you too can overcome fear and greed to live consciously with all life.
The choice to change is simple, but hidden. We have allowed ourselves to become stuck in a survival mentality nurtured by centuries of oppression by a few insecure people who took advantage of human altruism. Most people just want to enjoy life, but some, who invariably suffered some neglect of sustenance, security or love in their youth, overcome their fears by pushing others around. The result is a pyramid of power. At the top a few individuals who own the planet. Below them a growing pile of workers who funnel wealth to them through rents and capital interest payments. It is a kind of enslavement, a kind of feudal system reminiscent of medieval imperialist command and military control. Most people just want to live their lives and let others live theirs. Occasionally there have been rebellions against power, sometimes resulting in modest advances, like habeas corpus (no unlawful arrest) introduced with Magna Carta, or popular voting for a nation’s leader enshrined in nations’ constitutions, but these are modest tweaks to a system in which people do not own the nations of which they are citizens. Most of the planet is owned by a few private individuals, while public ownership of any country’s wealth is less than 10% and popular influence is similarly insignificant. We don’t realise that and we probably don’t care because we are trying to pay the rent and feed the kids. We don’t wonder if there is another way because we are a forgiving creature and have given up our freedoms for stability, for the expectation of not being beaten, raped or tortured in to servitude. We are wage slaves to the owners of capital. (It has not been easy or comfortable for this privileged, entitled, capitalist, male to find himself seeing the devil in the mirror.)
We are too busy striving, yearning to be the person we want to be, that we sacrifice our own humanity, our higher capacities for consciousness, communication and connection, in a poor exchange for painful self-aggrandisement, for working for the company and the bank to eat, pay for housing and stuff, and perhaps dignity. Although most people on Earth are faced with drudgery for life to survive. Humanity has chosen to sacrifice freedom for stability, but in the bargain have unknowingly sacrificed consciousness, communication and connection. And that presumed benefit of stability has evaporated. The stability afforded by the survival meme of hierarchy, of command and control (as bell hooks insightfully phrased “imperialist white supremacist hetero-patriarchy”) has sacrificed millions of years of life in the future for a few decades too many of blissful ignorance and apathy while we lift a few forgettable individuals up on pyramids of power.
It does not have to be like that. It is never to late to change, to choose a different way. And we all have the resource that makes that possible – our consciousness. We can think critically about our own situation, we can inform ourselves about our desires, values and opportunities and we can imagine and create alternative ways of living that satisfy our needs and engage our desires without oppressing other people and other life. We can choose to stop relying on the impoverished masses who grow our food, make our clothes, deliver our luxuries around the world. We know in our hearts, our consciousness, what is right and we know when we choose to ignore the message we feel inside. We know how to do the right thing the right way. A little courage can help turn the tide from striving to thriving.
There is certainly enough to go around if public luxury is prioritised over private secrecy and public sufficiency is prioritised over private dominion of planet Earth. We are human and have higher aptitudes and more sophisticated values, cooperative values that enabled us to excel in the face of sabre-toothed tiger and mastodon, to understand the universe and the emergence of consciousness. I do not want that to evaporate in a puff of greed and hubris. I can not be complicit in the fight against nature. I choose to live for nature, at my expense if it means nature’s survival. And it feels good to stand shoulder to shoulder with others who fight against extinction of life on this planet, Earth.
So pause, take a breath, inform yourself, think critically and choose whether you want to kill Earth or fight for Life.