World Without End?

April 21, 1991|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,FRANK D. ROYLANCE is a science writer for The Evening Sun.

"My point is that life on Earth can take care of itself. . . . We can't imagine its slow and powerful rhythms, and we haven't got the humility to try. . . . If we are gone tomorrow, the Earth will not miss us."

Ian Malcolm, the mathematician who utters these words as he lies dying at the end of Michael Crichton's latest book, "Jurassic Park," expresses what I've come to believe is a stark and haunting truth.

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 -- maybe since the first warnings about the "Population Explosion" decades before that -- earnest, well-meaning people have fought the good fight to save the world.

If we don't stop polluting the air and water, we're going to poison the delicate environmental web that supports all life, they said.

If we don't stop building more and more plutonium bombs, one day we're going to use them against each other and turn the planet into a lifeless, radioactive cinder, they said.

If we don't limit ourselves to two children per couple, and help poor nations control their explosive population growth, we're going to cast humanity into a hellish black hole of starvation, war and disease.

Everywhere, from books to Saturday-morning cartoon shows, we are warned that the fate of mankind, the fate of the planet, is in our hands.

What astonishing conceit.

I've come to believe that Ian Malcolm was right. The stark truth is that this 4 billion-year-old planet can and will take care of itself. But it will probably go on without us.

Our mistake, I think, is to imagine that the fate of all life is somehow linked to what happens to Homo sapiens -- to us.

We forget, or the limits of our imaginations prevent us from seeing, that we have been a significant factor on Earth for barely two centuries.

Five million years ago the forests and plains were filled with herds of mostly familiar-looking mammals, hungry predators, birds, bugs, trees and flowers, all going about the business of survival and extinction. A thoroughly "natural" place. A kind of Eden. Without us.

By 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, we had appeared, and we looked like we do today. But there were barely 10 million of us -- about as many people as live today in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- scattered around the entire planet, hunting and gathering our food.

There was plenty for everybody, and we hardly made a ripple.

By the time of Christ, 2,000 years ago, there were perhaps 300 million of us, about the population of the Soviet Union today, but still thinly spread around the globe.

Now we planted crops, raised domestic animals and smelted a few metals from the rocks around us. But still we made precious little impact on our environment. We used "natural" materials, and we had little more than muscle power to apply against the landscape. And it would remain that way pretty much until the Industrial Revolution arrived.

By 1850 -- recent enough to have been captured in photographs and described to us by the grandparents of people living today -- there were barely a billion of us. But we had learned to tap potent new sources of energy -- coal, oil, steam, electricity -- that vastly magnified our ability to rearrange our environment.

The fossil fuels we began burning in huge amounts a century ago have raised the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to unprecedented levels that threaten our agriculture and coastal cities with global warming.

The energy we unleashed also has allowed us to dam rivers, carve up the land and create new elements according to our whims, often with dire consequences we could not foresee. Plutonium waste will be lethal for millenniums. Chemicals we've concocted are eating away at the atmospheric ozone that shields us from harmful radiation.

The avalanche of food we produce keeps some of us fat, but at quite a price. The rich genetic variety that for millenniums had protected our food sources against disease, drought and climate change has been sacrificed in favor of a hybrid few reliant on pesticides and fertilizers. The pests we seek to kill now grow resistant to our chemicals.

And a century of scientific medicine has saved and improved millions of lives. But it is also responsible for a population which has ballooned to more than 5.3 billion today. It will top 11 billion by 2030.

The finite Earth, of course, cannot sustain such growth and exploitation indefinitely.

With any other species -- deer, locusts, lemmings, gypsy moths, whatever -- when population begins to outstrip the carrying capacity of the environment, starvation, disease and predation step in to right the balance.

And over the longer term, when the climate changes beyond the species' ability to adapt, nature has had no compunctions about eliminating that species from the planet. So far, the intellect we've evolved over the past 4 million years has enabled us to adjust quickly to our vastly increased numbers, and environmental change.

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