It is written that the meek shall inherit the Earth, and there is not much meeker than the bottom-dwelling invertebrates that some scientists believe have ensured life has continued on Earth despite cataclysmic disasters of the kind that wiped-out 90% of marine life and 70% of terrestrial vertebrates in the Late Permian period.
There are people I know who hold a firm conviction that human ingenuity and technological advancement are able to solve all practical problems faced by humanity. I do not share their faith. I think it is entirely possible that human life on earth will be decimated due to its own self-harming.
Just one example among a great many. We throw poisons into the sea and then we eat the toxic fish, and we think that's normal and acceptable despite dying of nasty diseases. This video from an Italian television programme succinctly explains (unfortunately for the uneducated masses, in Italian) how:
- Toxic and carcinogenic fish are freely and commonly sold in Europe.
- Mercury is toxic, it causes cancer and neurological diseases, and accumulates in the body over a lifetime.
- High levels of mercury are found in large carnivorous fish such as tuna and swordfish.
- All tuna fish on the market contains mercury, often at levels far exceeding the legal limits.
- "Legal limits" means "accepted", it does not mean "compatible with health".
- No level of mercury in foods is safe, because any amount that is ingested adds further to the accumulated mercury that is already present in the body.
- All this mercury ends up in fish because human beings throw it into the sea.
Mercury and other toxic heavy metals are used in many industrial processes and technological components. Despite systems to prevent or reduce their escape into the environment, it is inevitable that they will do so. Human beings accept this because it is more important to maintain this way of life (wealth, "progress", "development", consumerism) than it is to live in health and safety.
I do not say this glibly. I recognise that individual people are sometimes stuck between a rock and a hard place with this compromise. The glass-makers of Murano island in the Venetian lagoon colour their glass with dyes made from toxic heavy metals. Their kilns blow these into the air for their children to breathe in, and from there they also enter the lagoon and out to sea where local fishing fleets fish it up and bring it back onto their dinner plates. These glass workshops are small-scale, family affairs, and the craftsmen say: "This is the way we've done it for centuries and lived to tell the tale", and "To change would be too costly". So the organisations responsible for ensuring that environmental pollution is kept within legal limits (but remember, NO amount of mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, etc. that can be taken into our bodies is compatible with health) are hampered by resistance all the way. Nevertheless, people see their livelihoods at stake.
Yet this kind of resistance is nothing compared to that put up by large industrial sectors or companies, whose raison d'etre (self-preservation) depends absolutely upon the maintenance by human society of a highly dysfunctional lifestyle driven by novelty, greed and ever-growing consumption.
I repeat: this is just one tiny example among many, the accumulative effect of which means we're all doomed. On the other hand there are those that point to the fact that despite all our environmentally-damaging activities, in modern societies the average human lifespan is higher than it has ever been since records were kept and is continuing to increase, an increase only partially accounted for by the fall in child mortality in the first half of the 20th century. This is a serious objection, but I see this stay of our self-imposed end as a passing phase.
Another objection is that as societies become wealthier, the birth-rate drops, and so environmental degradation slows. Which leads me to ask then why the Mediterranean, a sea bordered on one side by wealthy industrial countries with low birth rates and on the other side by poorer countries without much in the way of polluting industries, is so toxic we can't eat its fish? Who put more mercury in the sea, the rich ones or the poor ones? One thing is certain in my mind: if the whole world tries to follow the road to wealth taken before them by the so-called "developed" world, it would be wildly unrealistic to expect them to achieve equivalent levels of wealth before the sky falls in under the weight of heavy metals.
Now let me confront the reader with my philosophical question: Does it matter?
In the wider scheme of things, if human beings did wipe themselves out through their own folly, would it really matter? The world would go on regardless. There are species of bacteria which have been found living in all kinds of extreme environments: under Arctic ice, inside volcanic vents, in radioactive waste. There are marine creatures that live in near boiling geothermal outlets in pitch-blackness and extreme pressures at the bottom of the ocean. These creatures or ones like them will survive. I'll wager they'll let out a collective sigh of relief at our disappearance and say to each other: "Good riddance to bad rubbish". And if not them the plants, some plants, will thrive.
In this context I can think of only a few reasons why we ourselves should feel sorrow for our forthcoming plight i.e. non-existence.
- We are sorry that our children and grandchildren may suffer. I agree, but this will probably not come to a head in their lifetimes. And how far do you want to take it down the blood-line? Great grandchildren? Great great grandchildren? There comes a point down through the future generations where the emotional attachment fades, does there not?
- We have a highly egotistical and vain regard for the permanence of our own genes. Narcissistic personality disorder is the technical term for pathological self-regard.
- We have a sentimentalised view of future human life on Earth: joyful children laughing and skipping through sunny, flower-dotted meadows, etc. That is probably an unrealistic view, as if they survived, they'd all be glued to their latest technological gizmos. Anyway, if that sunny and happy picture is what you want, the current plan ain't the way to achieve it.
- We feel we have some ethical imperative to prolong human existence, an entirely irrational feeling, in the wider scheme of things, if in the absence of (5) below.
- A belief in some spiritual design that is served by our continuing existence. Because, for example "...God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."