Self-Consciousness and the Future of the Earth

By Ayres, Ed | World Watch, March-April 1999 | Go to article overview

Self-Consciousness and the Future of the Earth


Ayres, Ed, World Watch


Ten years ago, in a speech assessing where things stood in the defense of Planet Earth, Denis Hayes asked a rueful question that has been quoted by rueful environmentalists ever since. "How could we have fought so hard and won so many battles," he asked, "only to find ourselves now on the verge of losing the war?" Hayes, as you may recall, was the co-founder (with Gaylord Nelson) of Earth Day. His speech, on the 20th anniversary of that seminal event, noted that great progress had been made in fighting off thousands of specific degradations, yet the overall decline of the planet had continued. A few years later, Hayes spent several years with Lester Brown at Worldwatch, working on the kinds of policy solutions intended to shift the momentum the other way. He's now the chairman of the forthcoming Earth Day 2000 campaign, and a good many reporters will be waiting to hear what he has to say. Are there any signs yet that the momentum is shifting?

Lester Brown thinks there are. But the problem now, as Brown suggests, is that time is getting short. As things have transpired since Hayes' speech, we have continued to win battles - and to fall further behind in the war. But that doesn't yet mean it's too late. From time to time, over the millennia, our species has made great leaps in a very short time - undergoing fundamental transformations not just in how we live but in what kind of world-view we have, and even what kind of species we are. Brown acknowledges that we need another such leap now, and he suggests that we may well be headed for one. Not everyone who reads this magazine will agree, but I think few will dispute that such a leap - a miracle, if you want to call it that - may now be necessary.

As an example of the kind of rapid transformation of world-view that can precipitate revolutionary changes in civilization at large, Brown mentions the shift that took place when science moved from a Ptolemaic to a Copernican view of the universe. But that raises intriguing questions about what such a sudden shift might entail now. We know what we want it to mean in terms of economic principles and behavior, as Brown's essay in this issue makes clear. But what would it mean - what would it feel like - in terms of our changed consciousness or cognition? Would we continue to covet material wealth, celebrity, and personal security as we do now - altered only by pragmatic recognition that the services providing these rewards must now be achieved with far less energy and materials use and less C[O.sub.2] emissions? Or, will this new worldview mean not just a revamping of how we produce and consume, but a pervasive transformation in how we experience ourselves and our surroundings?

By one account, a big part of the problem we have now is that the Copernican view never did really transform humanity as a whole - it changed the way astronomers and physicists explained physical phenomena, and that change was indeed profound, but it didn't end the inclination of humans to see ourselves as the center of the universe, both as societies and as individuals. The idea that God created the world for us, and created the rest of the species for our use, remains pandemically alive in the global consumer economy of today. Ecologists may cry out for the wilderness, but their talk of our need to sustainably share the planer's resources with other species continues to be marginalized throughout most of the consuming world. Denis Hayes still isn't as widely quoted as Rush Limbaugh or Ginger Spice. Wilderness areas are being set aside, but not nearly as fast as plantation owners and developers are stripping them. The majority of humanity still seems to have an urge to dominate. Until that is reversed, our consciousness still has a Ptolemaic cast - a self-centered nature that could prove a fatal handicap. As environmental scientist Jesse H. Ausubel advises, "We must take seriously the Copernican insight about Earth's position in the cosmos and not simply replace geocentrism with anthropocentrism. …

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