The Earth: Not our mother, not our sister, not a living thing, but our treasure trove, our observatory, our library, our spaceship and our home
|November 16, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Five quick questions:
(1) What is your favorite metaphor for our Earth? Is your favorite metaphor an animate one (e.g. the Earth is our mother / our sister / a super-organism), or an inanimate one (e.g. the Earth is our home / a jewel / our spaceship / our way-station)?
(2) In the course of an average day, what percentage of your waking hours do you spend thinking about the following: (a) God; (b) issues that invoke abstract ideas, such as philosophical and moral questions (whether speculative or practical), mathematics, the sciences and the arts; (c) yourself; (d) people you love; (e) other people; (f) animals (including your pets) and other living things; (g) the global environment as a whole (Gaia, for some)?
(3) Imagine that the construction of a highway linking a small town to a large city is planned to go through an area where an endangered species (say, a community of frogs) lives, and there is no commercially viable alternative route. You are a politician with the power to veto the project. How do you decide on the right thing to do? Do you attempt to weigh the interests of the people involved against those of the frogs, or do you make a decision based on an appeal to some universal moral principle? Would you use a different decision procedure if the endangered animals were mammals instead of frogs?
(4) How worried are you about environmental problems in the world today? Do you believe we can solve each and every one of them? Or do you believe that the environmental problems confronting the human race may destroy it very soon, and will inevitably destroy it at some future date?
(5) Do you believe we were put here for a purpose on this Earth?
As we’ll see, there are strong correlations between the answers people give to these questions, and for a very good reason.
I intend to show that Intelligent Design has significant implications for how we view the world. In this post, I’m going to talk about the world in a very literal sense: I mean our Earth. I’m also going to discuss two environmental problems that concern many scientists today: global warming and ocean acidification.
Intelligent Design-friendly metaphors for thinking about the Earth
In 2004, Jay Richards and Guillermo Gonzalez wrote a book, The Privileged Planet, in which they argued that the Earth was designed for life and also designed for scientific discovery. A recurring theme of their book is that the finely-tuned conditions that make the Earth hospitable for life also make it well-suited for viewing, analyzing and understanding the universe. Since “life” includes intelligent life, and since intelligent beings have a natural desire to know about the world around them, it follows that there is an inextricable link between the Earth’s habitability and its suitability as a place for making scientific measurements (measurability). These ideas suggest a number of useful metaphors for thinking about the Earth. Here are just a few:
Treasure trove / treasure map. If the Earth is designed for intelligent life, then we would surely expect it to contain clues that point to the existence and attributes of its Designer. The Earth’s stability over time, coupled with its ability to recover from past catastrophes, points to a Designer Who is by and large life-friendly, human-friendly and science-friendly. (I’m not trying to minimize the problem of natural evil here; all I’m saying is that the mere fact that living things, and subsequently human beings, emerged at all, and somehow managed to remain in existence, is an utterly amazing state of affairs, which we have no right to take for granted.) If we think of the Earth as a gigantic treasure trove, designed for inquisitive human minds, and if we suppose that its Designer is an omniscient Being, we would expect that somewhere on this planet, we should be able to locate vital information about contemporary human problems, which only an omniscient Designer could have foreseen. The genome would be a logical place to look. (It is even possible that the Designer may have left human beings with some sort of treasure map or set of instructions somewhere on Earth, telling us where to look for the different kinds of information we need to solve our problems. This is pure speculation on my part, of course.)
Observatory. The Earth is in a very privileged location for observing the universe. For instance, our location away from the center of the Milky Way and in the flat plane of its disk makes the Earth an excellent vantage point for observing the stars. According to the authors of The Privileged Planet, the reason why Earth is such an ideal place for making observations is that its Designer wants human beings to exercise their intelligence, and learn as much as they can about the beautiful universe which He created. One of the things that we have learned is that the universe had a beginning; another thing we have learned is that the constants of Nature are very finely tuned.
Library. The Earth contains a detailed record of the past. In that respect, it resembles a library. To take one example from The Privileged Planet, the moon stabilizes the Earth’s orbit, which consistently preserves the deep snow deposits in the Earth’s polar regions, giving us a valuable window on the past. Ice cores can tell us about the Earth’s temperature in times past, as well as the composition of its atmosphere, and the strength of its magnetic field. They even tell us about the length of the sunspot cycle, through variations in the concentrations of beryllium-10. It is reasonable to suppose that the Earth was intentionally designed to store all this information about the past, because the intelligent beings who now inhabit the Earth would one day need this information in order to solve their environmental and technological problems. Scientists need to construct models incorporating past events, in order to test competing hypotheses about future events. An Intelligent Designer, having foreseen this need on our part, should have left sufficient information for them to do this, in the geological record.
Jewel. The earth is undoubtedly a thing of beauty, as the Blue Marble photo above illustrates. Exactly what makes it beautiful? We might say that it is unique; but then, the ugliest thing in the world is unique too. Or we might fabricate a pseudo-scientific “Just-So” story that we like the colors blue and green because we’ve looked at blue skies and green grass all our lives; but then, repeated exposure to a stimulus usually results in desensitization. If we are truthful with ourselves, the only adequate answer to the question of what makes the Earth beautiful is that it really is a work of art, created by a Great Artist who had a much better eye for beauty than we do.
Spaceship. The Earth is the vehicle which we live on, as we orbit the Sun, which orbits the center of the Milky Way. Moreover, Richards and Gonzalez make a strong case that the Earth is a planet that’s finely tuned for supporting life, and in particular, for allowing intelligent life to thrive. The Earth, then, really is a giant spaceship. But if the Earth is a spaceship, then who made it? Obviously not us – the Earth was here long before we were. Aliens, maybe? Well, who made their spaceship? Or maybe the Universe itself is in some way intelligent, and capable of designing our Earth? But if the Universe created our Earth, how do we explain recent scientific discoveries indicating that the cosmos itself is finely tuned for life as a whole?
Home. The Earth is not just the place where we live; it’s also the planet to which we are naturally adapted. As far as we know, no other planet in the cosmos is hospitable to human life; so apart from Earth, there really is no other place that we could call our home, or even our second home. And while there are planets where some kinds of organisms can survive (bacteria can survive on Mars), we have yet to find any where it can thrive. Even Mars would require a massive degree of terra-forming, in order to make it a truly life-friendly planet. Now, the fact that the Earth is our home can be understood in a way that does not explicitly mention a Designer: we could say that human beings have biological ends which can only be realized in a terrestrial environment. But this explanation fails to address the deeper question of what makes finality of any kind possible (be it intrinsic or extrinsic finality). Living things, and even the workings of inanimate Nature, cannot be adequately described using norm-free, non-teleological terminology. Norms, however, can only be created by an Intelligence. If we and other living things are naturally fitted to living on Earth, it can only be because Someone intended us to be here.
Way-station. For many religiously minded people, Earth is but a temporary dwelling place; Heaven is our true home. The meaning of the way-station metaphor is that we should not grow too attached to our earthly abode; according to the Bible, it will one day be completely obliterated (2 Peter 3:10-12; Revelation 20:11, 21:1). However, the Bible also speaks of a new heavens and a new earth, and it tells us that people will live on the new one.
How does Intelligent Design affect the way we respond to environmental problems?
Someone who believes (as many Intelligent Design proponents do) that the Author of Nature is a supremely good Personal Being will also believe that this Being intended humans to know and love their Maker. In other words, Intelligent Design proponents would tend to expect that the world we live in is a well-designed, resilient planet, where we don’t need to spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about environmental crises. A God who made the world in such a way that the only creatures who were capable of knowing Him didn’t even have time to think about Him because they were too busy making sure that their activities didn’t destroy His fragile world, would be a pretty inept God.
As an aside, I find it very curious that when discussing the question of origins, opponents of Intelligent Design insist that the world, if it had a Designer, should have been designed so as to be capable of generating new life-forms, from microbe to man, without the need for continual intervention by God. Yet these same people also argue that the world is too fragile to withstand the impact of seven billion human beings enjoying an affluent lifestyle, all by itself! My intuitions are precisely the other way round: it seems obvious to me that designing a world that can withstand the impact of seven billion people raising the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from its “natural” level of 0.03% to a level of 0.08% by the year 2100 should be a far easier engineering task than designing a world which is capable of generating ten million species of living things, including Homo sapiens, all by itself, from nothing more than a bunch of simple organic chemicals!
How, then, should Intelligent Design proponents who believe in a personal God respond to environmental crises? If our government tells us that there is an urgent environmental crisis that we need to fight, which imperils the very future of humanity itself, and that it will require a great deal of time, money and effort to combat this crisis, our first reaction should be one of deep suspicion. We’re probably being conned. After all, we know beyond reasonable doubt that there is a God, and God wouldn’t make the world like that. If there are any genuine environmental crises, we would expect them to be problems where the correct course of action is clear, and which can be attended to in a quick, no-nonsense fashion, and at an affordable cost, which doesn’t interfere with our duties to other human beings.
A case study: global warming vs. ozone depletion
The way in which humanity successfully managed the ozone hole crisis back in the 1980s contrasts dramatically with the way in which our scientists and politicians are mismanaging the global warming in the twenty-first century. I’d like to highlight four key differences.
First, concerted international action to stop ozone depletion was not taken until scientists had established beyond reasonable doubt that human activities were responsible. It is true that a few countries, including the United States, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway, moved to eliminate the use of CFCs in aerosol spray cans after the United States National Academy of Sciences released a report in 1976, which concluded that the ozone depletion hypothesis was strongly supported by the scientific evidence available. However, the European Community did not follow suit – and subsequent research, summarized by the National Academy in reports issued between 1979 and 1984, appeared to show that earlier estimates of global ozone loss had been too large. What galvanized the international community into action was the discovery of the ozone hole in 1985. The hole was much larger than anyone had expected. Susan Solomon, an atmospheric chemist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), proposed that chemical reactions on polar stratospheric clouds (PSCs) in the cold Antarctic stratosphere caused a massive increase in the amount of chlorine present in active, ozone-destroying forms. This hypothesis was decisively confirmed, first by laboratory measurements and subsequently by direct measurements, from the ground and from high-altitude airplanes, of very high concentrations of chlorine monoxide (ClO) in the Antarctic stratosphere. Alternative hypotheses, which had attributed the ozone hole to variations in solar UV radiation or to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns, were also tested and shown to be untenable.
By contrast, the scientific establishment has failed to properly investigate the various explanations put forward for the climate change we have experienced in recent years. While anthropogenic global warming remains a plausible hypothesis, many alternative hypotheses have been sidelined. In the words of NASA climatologist Dr. Roy Spencer:
What the big-government funded climate science community has come up with is a plausible hypothesis which is being passed off as a proven explanation.
Science advances primarily by searching for new and better explanations (hypotheses) for how nature works. Unfortunately, this basic task of science has been abandoned when it comes to explaining climate change.
About the only alternative explanation they have mostly ruled out is an increase in the total output of the sun.
The possibility that small changes in ocean circulation have caused clouds to let in more sunlight is just one of many alternative explanations which are being ignored.
Not only have natural, internal climate cycles been ignored as a potential explanation, some researchers have done their best to revise climate history to do away with events such as the Medieval Warm Period and Little Ice Age. This is how the ‘hockey stick’ controversy got started.
If you can get rid of all evidence for natural climate change in Earth’s history, you can make it look like no climate changes happened until humans (and cows) came on the scene.
The second major difference between global warming and ozone depletion is that the technological action required to stop ozone hole depletion was well-defined and agreed on by scientists, whereas the technological solution to man-made global warming is not. In 1987, representatives from 43 nations signed the Montreal Protocol, agreeing to phase out production of CFCs, halons, and related compounds, and by 1996, CFCs and halons had been phased out entirely (aside from a very small amount marked for certain “essential” uses, such as asthma inhalers). The solution appears to be working: the 2010 report of the United Nations Environment Program found that global ozone and ozone in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is no longer decreasing. Since peaking in 1994, the Effective Equivalent Chlorine (EECl) level in the atmosphere had dropped about 10% by 2008. However, a detectable (and statistically significant) recovery of the Antarctic ozone layer will not occur until around 2024, and complete recovery is not expected to occur until the year 2050 or later.
What about global warming? Certainly, there is widespread agreement that we need to stop emitting carbon dioxide and methane, but what are we supposed to replace them with? Sadly, scientists and politicians are still bickering about this question. The most sensible solution, in my opinion, would be to build liquid fluoride thorium reactors (LFTRs) (see also here and here). Switching from uranium to thorium as our primary nuclear fuel could lead to cheaper, safer and more sustainable nuclear power. (Please see here for an explanation of why solar and wind energy do not stack up in comparison.) Thorium is far more abundant than uranium, and much more energy-dense. A tonne of thorium produces as much energy as 200 tonnes of uranium, or 3,500,000 tonnes of coal. A fistful would light up London for a week. The volume of waste is also very low. LFTRs could power Australia (population: 22 million), while producing only 48 tonnes (12 bathtubs) of recyclable by-product per year. Furthermore, meltdown in a liquid fluoride thorium reactor is impossible, and it uses 100 times less fuel than a conventional nuclear reactor. In addition, it is virtually impossible to convert the waste products generated by thorium into plutonium – and they remain dangerous only for hundreds of years, rather than hundreds of thousands. A further advantage of LFTRs is that they can be produced in factories. Most importantly, LFTRs would enable the conversion of coal and natural gas powered plants, cutting their carbon emissions by 99%.
Sad to say, the political will to implement this kind of solution appears to be lacking, at least in Western countries. Popular prejudice against nuclear energy dies hard, thanks to movies like The China Syndrome, and people are nervous about sudden change. However, if man-made global warming is real, rapid change is the only realistic option we have.
The third major difference between fighting ozone depletion and fighting man-made global warming is that of cost. From 1987 to 1997, the world spent approximately US$235 billion in total to contain ozone depletion. The cumulative total for “north to south” transfers (from developed to developing countries) was relatively modest, of the order of US$2 billion. However, a recent review by D. R. Ahuja and J. Srinivarsan, entitled Why controlling climate change is more difficult than stopping stratospheric ozone depletion (Current Science, Vol. 97, No. 11, 10 December 2009) concludes that “the climate problem is at least a hundred times more expensive problem to tackle than the stratospheric ozone depletion and north–south transfers could be a thousand times greater” (emphasis mine – VJT). According to the best current estimates, fighting global warming will cost about 1 to 2% of global GDP each year – i.e. somewhere between $600 billion and $1.2 trillion, at present-day prices – for the next several decades. (Note: I regret to say that I have yet to encounter any detailed estimates for how much it would cost worldwide to convert to liquid fluoride thorium reactors [LFTRs] – VJT.) And if we want to reduce annual CO2 emissions to zero, as many scientists say we must, the cost rises to 5% of GDP per year, for the U.S. alone. That’s $700 billion per year at current prices – for the next 30 years. This news, coming at a time when bankruptcy for the United States is a “mathematical certainty” if it keeps on spending at current levels, makes practical action highly infeasible. The problem is compounded by the fact that the world’s number two economy, China, shows no inclination to spend vast sums on fighting global warming. At the same time, we are also told that the cost of doing nothing about global warming will be a staggering 5 to 20% of global GDP, in perpetuity. If the experts are right, the cost of fighting man-made global warming is prohibitive – and yet, we are told, we must, or the problem will get worse. I have to say this sounds like emotional blackmail. The “high priests of science” are holding a gun to our heads. “Do as we say or humanity will be doomed.” Putting people into a state of fear is a counter-productive strategy, however: people seldom make rational decisions when they are in fear for their lives. And if scientists put our politicians into a state of panic, we can be absolutely sure that they’ll choose the wrong course of action to avert the crisis.
I might add that the “regret minimization” argument for fighting global warming now, is only valid if we have ruled out the most plausible alternative hypotheses to man-made global warming. If we haven’t, then shelling out 5% of GDP for the next 30 years is likely to prove a colossal waste of money.
A fourth and final difference between the ozone depletion problem and man-made global warming is that fighting ozone depletion was commercially viable, which is why the halocarbon industry shifted its position and started supporting a protocol to limit CFC production. A key factor in the decision by the chemical industry to support the Montreal Protocol in 1987 was that it set up a worldwide schedule for phasing out CFCs, which were no longer protected by patents, providing companies with an equal opportunity to market new, more profitable compounds. By contrast, combating global warming appears to be an uphill commercial battle: companies are happy to co-operate, but only if they receive massive government subsidies.
As Professor Fred Singer, a leading critic of man-made global warming, reports in an article (November 6, 2010) entitled The Green Bubble is about to Burst:
Nothing has been learned from European disastrous experiences, it seems. As Bjorn Lomborg (a firm believer in AGW) reports, Germany led the world in putting up solar panels, funded by 47 billion euros in subsidies. The lasting legacy is a massive debt and lots of inefficient solar technology sitting on rooftops throughout a fairly cloudy country, delivering a trivial 0.1% of its total energy supply. Denmark’s wind industry is almost completely dependent on taxpayer subsidies, and Danes pay the highest electricity rates of any industrialized nation. Spain has finally discontinued its solar subsidies as too costly; as Prof. Gabriel Calzada reports, the program actually caused a net loss of jobs.
Having successfully exploited domestic subsidies, Europeans are now looking at the United States as the new “land of opportunity.” A recent example (described in the Wall Street Journal of Oct. 26, 2010) is the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant, on 7,000 acres of Federal land in the desert of southern California. The $6-billion project is a venture by two German companies, and it may be eligible for a cash subsidy of nearly one billion dollars in taxpayer money…
In addition to direct subsidies, the companies are seeking federal loan guarantees and, no doubt, an array of benefits from the State of California. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
So how should an Intelligent Design theorist respond, when confronted with claims that we need to do something, now, about man-made global warming? With extreme skepticism, I would suggest. Politically and economically, the problem of how to effectively combat global warming still belongs in the “too hard” basket: it’s practically insoluble. It could only be accomplished if the entire planet gave it paramount attention for the next 50 years. It would have to dominate our thinking as no other issue ever has, before now. And that’s precisely why any believer in a personal God should be leery of the claims of the global warming crusade. God would not have designed a world for intelligent beings, with insoluble environmental problems. Nor would He have designed a world with problems that could only be solved by ditching our democracy and allowing ourselves to be ruled by a scientific / bureaucratic elite.
Case study: ocean acidification
Even if we manage to defuse the problem of global warming, the bureaucrats have another manufactured crisis in store for us: ocean acidification. In an article (The Times, Opinion, November 4, 2010) entitled Who’s afraid of acid in the ocean? Not me, Matt Ridley, a former science correspondent for The Economist and author of the recent best-seller The Rational Optimist, explains what’s going on:
As opinion polls reveal that global warming is losing traction on the public imagination, environmental pressure groups have been cranking the engine on this ‘other carbon dioxide problem’. ‘Time is running out’ wrote two activists in Scientific American in August, ‘to limit acidification before it irreparably harms the food chain on which the world’s oceans – and people – depend.’…
Start with a few facts. The oceans are not acid but alkaline, with an average pH of about 8.15 (0-7 being acid, 7-14 being alkaline)… The dissolution of carbon dioxide in the oceans may lower the pH slightly to about 7.9 or 7.8 by the end of the century at the worst – still alkaline…
…[This change in pH] is still well within the bounds of normal variation over space and time: the pH of the water intake at the Monterey aquarium varies by almost twice as much as this every month. The difference between the pH of the seas off Hawaii and Alaska is greater than this.
…[S]tudy after study keeps finding that far from depressing growth rates of marine organisms, high but realistic levels of carbon dioxide either do not affect them or increase them…
Studies of oyster sperm, cuttlefish eggs, juvenile sea stars, coral polyps and krill all point to the same conclusion: damage only occurs when carbon dioxide levels reach ludicrous levels, not expected for many centuries. A new study of plankton concluded: ‘Thus, both of the investigated coastal plankton communities were unaffected by twenty-first century expected changes in pH and free CO2.’
When I voiced some of these doubts in my book The Rational Optimist, I was accused of cherry-picking studies. All right, so let’s take a look at a ‘meta-analysis’, that is to say a comprehensive paper summarising all relevant studies. Iris Hendriks and Carlos Duarte of the Spanish Council for Scientific Research found that in 372 studies of 44 different marine species ‘there was no significant mean effect’ from lower pH. They concluded that the world’s marine biota are ‘more resistant to ocean acidification than suggested by pessimistic predictions’ and that ocean acidification ‘may not be the widespread problem conjured into the 21st century.’
In his article, Matt Ridley also cites evidence of vested interest groups beefing up the problem of ocean acidification. He also provides documentation for the studies he mentioned in his article, in the Comments section.
A rational person, surveying the evidence, would conclude that the problem of ocean acidification has been greatly exaggerated. It does not warrant public alarm, let alone drastic measures by the world’s governments, and we, the public, should not allow it to be rammed down our throats as the next Big Thing To Worry About.
To the Intelligent Design theorist, Ridley’s article provides confirmation of the belief, shared by many in the ID movement, that the Earth was designed with human needs in mind. Accordingly, we should expect it to be fairly resilient to human activities. The increase in the concentration of CO2 into the Earth’s atmosphere over the past 200 years was an inevitable consequence of the world’s population rising from one billion to seven billion. Scientists like James Lovelock think it should never have risen above the one billion mark – but if it hadn’t, how much of our technology would we still have, and how comfortable would our lives be? Big, lifestyle-changing ideas, such as electricity, the automobile, television, the computer and the Internet, require a certain “critical mass” of scientific and engineering minds to generate them. That can’t happen in a world with low population density.
Popular animate metaphors for thinking about the Earth
At the present time, the prevailing metaphor for the Earth in intellectual circles is that of an extended, self-regulating Super-organism, while among environmentalists, the image of Mother Earth is predominant. The two images are quite compatible, because they’re both animate, and James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis ties them together very neatly. We continually encounter these images on a daily basis, in conversation, on TV, on the Internet and on billboard posters. The motto of the eco-activist group Earth First says it all: In Defense of Mother Earth.
In everyday discourse, you may hear people portray Mother Earth as benign and bountiful, or as cold and uncaring, or as angry and vengeful, depending on their personal spiritual beliefs, and/or the ethical or political point they are trying to convey. But common to all these portrayals is the unstated premise that Mother Earth is powerful and that people are puny. She doesn’t need us; we need her. The ethical consequences of such an outlook should be immediately apparent. Individual people are, at best, nothing more than cells in the body of Mother Earth; and at worst, malignant carcinomas which Mother Earth is perfectly entitled to eradicate, using all the natural means at her disposal. And it is pointless to argue the question of whether she has the right to eradicate us – after all, who can fight her? What is most revolting about this ethic, however, is not its personification of a ball of rock cloaked in a thin layer of vegetation, but its subordination of every human endeavor to a single over-riding end: the good of Gaia, or the long-term sustainability of the biosphere. The goodness of any human project, however noble, is now provisional: only if it is compatible with the long-term sustainability of the biosphere can it be given the ethical green light. For instance, if the world currently has too many people for Mother Earth to support, then a real human mother’s act of having a baby suddenly becomes a crime. And if a technological revolution which will save the lives of billions generates pollution on an unsustainable level, then that too is a crime. However, the Gaia ethic is both sociologically naïve and intellectually incoherent.
“Sustainability” is an attractive-sounding concept, but what it overlooks on the sociological level is that the only constant about our society is change. As a species, we are incapable of standing still, even if we want to. And even when we change, we are simply unable to keep changing in the same way indefinitely. Due to the inherently dynamic nature of human society, no trend can last forever; hence it is a fallacy to extrapolate a trend into the long-term future and cry doom. I can remember reading Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb when I was 10 or 11, and being impressed at the time by Ehrlich’s argument that if the then-current rate of world population growth (2% p.a.) were to continue, there would be no standing room on Earth by the year 2600. But of course the population didn’t continue to grow that way, and it now looks as if it will start to decline after peaking at 9 billion, around 2070. If I had known a little history, I might not have been so credulous. Predictions of disaster based on extrapolations are not new, as this interesting article on the great horse manure crisis of 1894 illustrates. Writing in the Times of London in 1894, one writer estimated that in 50 years, every street in London would be buried under nine feet of manure. Of course, the great horse manure crisis of 1894 vanished when millions of horses were replaced by motor vehicles.
The intellectual incoherence of the “Mother Earth” ethic consists in the fact that although local ecosystems – and by extension, the biosphere as a whole – can (in some sense) be said to flourish, to benefit and to be harmed, the flourishing of these systems is derivative upon that of the individuals whose interactions comprise them. “Gaia” only thrives if individual trees do. Here, the flourishing of “Gaia” is derivative upon that of trees: it is the fact that trees have a biological “good of their own” which enables us to meaningfully talk of actions which promote tree growth as being “good for the planet.” Since ecosystems do not do any extra ethical “work” in this case, bio-centric individualism (the view that all – and only – individual organisms have moral standing or intrinsic value) is the only intellectually defensible way of articulating the “Earth First” view.
Why “Mother Earth” is ethically poisonous and inherently elitist and undemocratic
Now, I don’t deny for a moment that all living organisms – even the humble bacterium – do indeed possess intrinsic value. The ethical question that then confronts us is: what are we supposed to do when our interests clash with those of other organisms? Perhaps more to the point, politically speaking, is this question: who decides what’s right and what’s wrong for us?
How do believers in “Mother Earth” decide what’s ethically permissible? The Earth never tells us that there are too many people for it to support, of course; scientists do that. I am thinking especially of ecologists, but at any given time, scientists from other disciplines might be roped in as well, to speak on behalf of Mother Earth: oceanographers, climatologists, and biologists of various stripes. These might be irreverently called the “high priests” of Gaia. No doubt they sincerely believe that they are doing something good and noble; but what they are in fact doing is ethically perverted: they are teaching our children that people don’t matter, in and of themselves, and that the Earth is what matters most. According to the new ethic, only in relation to the Earth we live on can our human endeavors be morally assessed, because without Mother Earth, none of them would come to fruition. A human endeavor can only be called good if it’s earth-friendly.
The divisive nature of this ethic should be immediately apparent. The high priests of Gaia, the politicians who side with them, and the “enlightened” members of the public who follow their prescriptions are on one side; the “ignorant” masses who harm Gaia with their profligate lifestyles and the poor who “breed like rabbits” are on the other. An “Earth First” ideology inevitably pits people against people, and creates an elite. We get meritocratic “rule by the best,” instead of democracy.
Do you think I’m making this up? I’m not. I’m deadly serious. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth. Here is what scientist James Lovelock, author of the ground-breaking book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, says on the problem of climate change in a recent interview (“James Lovelock: Humans are too stupid to prevent climate change” in The Guardian, 29 March 2010):
“I don’t think we’re yet evolved to the point where we’re clever enough to handle a complex a situation as climate change,” said Lovelock in his first in-depth interview since the theft of the UEA emails last November. “The inertia of humans is so huge that you can’t really do anything meaningful.”
One of the main obstructions to meaningful action is “modern democracy”, he added. “Even the best democracies agree that when a major war approaches, democracy must be put on hold for the time being. I have a feeling that climate change may be an issue as severe as a war. It may be necessary to put democracy on hold for a while.”
The image of Mother Earth sounds reassuring, but in reality it is ethically topsy-turvy and spiritually idolatrous: human well-being is subordinated to that of an entity (Earth) which cannot even be said to have a “good of its own”, except in a purely derivative sense. The Earth is not a living thing. “Gaia” only thrives if individual organisms do.
Why “Sister Earth” is no better than “Mother Earth.”
Surprisingly, though, many religious believers have imbibed some of this new “eco-friendly” spirituality. Much of the “softer” New Age literature is written by clerics. In this literature, Gaia does not reign supreme; the Earth can never be deified. Yet neither is she entirely dethroned. Instead of being our Mother, she is now our sister. To take a relatively innocuous example, Sister Earth: Ecology, Creation, and the Spirit, a collection of meditations by the late Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian priest and archbishop, tells us that that God chose humans to be co-creators, “to complete the creation and to help nature express its full potential.” All very well and good, but what the good archbishop failed to realize is that if Nature is our sister, then she is also our equal. That means she has veto power over our endeavors, if her interests are significantly harmed. And who decides which way the balance tips? Once again, the “high priests” of Sister Earth. For it is they who shape our moral judgments – and those of our children – with their ethical pronouncements, and it is we who allow ourselves and our children to be shaped by the opinions they express in their books. In effect, then, “Sister Earth” spirituality is just Mother Earth-lite.
A parable: the highway and the frogs
The problem, then, is that if the interests of the Earth itself – or of the various species of organisms that dwell upon it – are ranked equal to our own, then we get ethical gridlock. Paralysis sets in: the construction of a highway linking a small town to a large city can be stopped by government officials if the only commercially viable route for the highway happens to go through a habitat where an endangered species (say, a community of frogs) lives. What started as an elitist meritocracy, dominated by the “high priests” of Gaia, has now given way to a bloated bureaucracy, producing a blizzard of papers and studies, in which the pros and cons of the highway are debated. To make matters worse, politicians from both parties are compelled to read these papers and take positions on them, in order to appear well-informed. Ordinary citizens watching the televised debates between politician A and politician B may feel cowed by the formidable intellectual prowess of the speakers on both sides, but they correctly intuit that something is amiss, morally speaking. This kind of intellectual talkfest can’t be the best way to decide what kinds of human endeavors should be permitted, and what kinds should be outlawed.
What’s wrong with bureaucrats making ethical decisions about the environment?
Why not? Firstly, the detachment and impersonalism of the humans-versus-frogs debate is deeply offensive. We are talking as if we were visiting Martians, or mini-deities, impassively weighing up the interests of species A and species B – even though one of the species is ourselves! That’s ridiculous. We’re not gods, and we shouldn’t pretend to be. We have a personal stake in this, and we shouldn’t attempt to reason as if we didn’t.
Second, we’re not just any old species, either. Humans are special. To explain why, I’d like to cite a short passage from (atheist) Jason Rosenhouse’s online article, Coyne lays an egg, in which he criticizes the snideness and ridicule of Professor Jerry Coyne’s review of Professor Michael Behe’s book, The Edge of Evolution. At one point Rosenhouse cites a remark made by Coyne in his review:
So what scientific reason can there be for singling out just one species as the Designer’s goal?
and answers Coyne’s question with a ready reply that an Intelligent Design proponent might make:
There is only one species with the intelligence to contemplate a relationship with God. That’s why we might single out just one species.
Bravo, Professor Rosenhouse! I couldn’t have put it better myself.
The intelligence that makes humans capable of contemplating a relationship with God also makes them capable of following rules. This ability forms the basis for moral behavior. Thus when a scientist of the stature of James Lovelock, despairing of our future, asserts (interview with the Daily Mail, 22 March 2008) that “It would be hubris to think humans as they are now are God’s chosen race,” he fails to realize the self-refuting nature of his assertion. How many species on Earth are capable of changing their behavior, in order to avert a long-term future threat? How many species on Earth are being asked to do something about global warming? Only one – Homo sapiens. And how many species on Earth are capable of changing their behavior for a reason – as opposed to an incentive, like bananas? How many species are capable of justifying their actions by an appeal to reason? Only one – Homo sapiens.
Incidentally, the fact that chimps, dolphins and a few other animals are capable of recognizing their bodies in mirrors doesn’t prove that they have any concept of their own body, let alone a concept of themselves as agents. I’d be far more impressed if they could recognize themselves in a portrait, and even more impressed if they sat for one.
Likewise, the tool-making feats of Betty the crow look impressive, but we cannot ask her: “Why did you make it that way?” as she is incapable of justifying her actions, as a rational agent should be able to do. The same goes for the extremely clever New Caledonian crows who are able to use three tools in succession to get some food (BBC news report, 20 April 2010, by science reporter Rebecca Morelle). Let us imagine an older crow teaching a younger crow how to use a tool. And now try to imagine the following dialogue:
Older crow: Don’t bend it that way. Bend it this way.
Younger crow: Why?
Older crow: Because if you bend it this way, it can pick up a piece of meat, but if you bend it that way, it can’t.
The dialogue contains only simple little words, but the problem should be immediately apparent. The meaning of words like “if,” “why,” “but,” “can” and “can’t,” cannot be conveyed to someone who does not understand them, through bodily gestures alone. Until we have grounds for saying that crows possess a language at this level of abstraction, we should react skeptically to claims that they can reason.
The very act of comparing the interests of a species whose members are intellectually capable of asking themselves what they should and shouldn’t do, and what Being (if any) they should worship, with the interests of a species whose members are incapable of asking themselves these questions, is a moral absurdity. It’s worse than comparing apples and oranges; at least they’re both fruits. It’s more like comparing cubes and squares. Humans have dimensions to their existence that frogs do not. Our intelligence is what gives us those added dimensions. Like it or lump it, we are special, and our interests simply cannot be “weighed against” those of frogs.
This brings me to my third reason why Joe and Jane Citizen are right to distrust the bureaucrats: Joe and Jane Citizen still retain the intuition that goodness is personal. We realize our fullest potential as moral agents when we are loving, helping, or working in partnership with, other people. The more time we can spend on inter-personal moral endeavors, the more we realize our human potential. By contrast, impersonal moral endeavors, in which we have to deal with things instead of people, or in which we have to deal with people on an impersonal level (e.g. by making decisions based on cost-benefit analyses which are carried out over aggregates of people, instead of individuals we know), are morally hazardous: they constitute a drain on our precious moral energy, and they tend to make us forget about our personal relationships. We should therefore spend as little time as possible engaging in impersonal activities, and as much of our time as we can engaging in personal ones. Above all, we need to set aside time to communicate with the God Who made us, and with Whom we all have a personal relationship. Anything that distracts us from that is bad.
I repeat: goodness is personal.
Whatever happened to Goodness?
This is a truth we have lost sight of during the past four decades. Two parallel trends have contributed to this loss of vision: we’ve “de-personalized” virtue, and we’ve “de-charitized” it.
Depersonalization set in when we started ridiculing as “small-minded” the kind of person who strove to be good in their personal dealings (e.g. a good spouse, a good parent, a good friend and a good worker) but who never attempted to question, let alone overcome, institutionalized forms of injustice, or unjust social structures. At the same time, we exalted the great humanitarian who dedicated their life to changing the world, but who may have had serious personal failings as a human being (e.g. by being a cold distant father, or an unfaithful husband). The point I want to make here is that a small-minded person may be morally blinkered, but still fundamentally good, as a human being; while someone whose “moral blinkers” have been removed does not thereby become a good person. Such a person is able to do good in ways that the small-minded person could never imagine, but may in fact be a deeply flawed, and even an evil individual.
De-charitization was the result of exalting “thin” virtues over “thick” ones. There was a time when a good person was defined as a loving spouse, a loving parent, a generous friend, a trustworthy person at work, and (time permitting) someone dedicated to serving their community as a volunteer. Love, generosity, trustworthiness and service are “thick” virtues. Nowadays, however, we tend to think of a good person as someone who is fair in their dealings with others (e.g. someone who does their share of housework and parenting), someone who is tolerant of other people’s beliefs and lifestyle choices (especially those of their children, friends and workmates), and someone who strives to avoid harming others as a result of their personal lifestyle choices (e.g. people in developing countries, or other sentient creatures). Now, fairness, tolerance and harm avoidance are all very well and good, and I don’t wish to belittle them. But they are “thin” virtues, which pale in comparison with love, or charity in the broadest sense of the word. If people are forced to spend too much time focusing on the thin virtues, they will have no time to think about the thick ones.
Why am I harping on these points? Because during the past twenty years in particular, the average citizen has been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time paying attention to things that don’t matter much, in the moral scheme of things: for instance, buying fair trade goods, buying cruelty-free cosmetics, garbage sorting, recycling, and reducing CO2 emissions by buying a hybrid car or an LED. Many of these things should be done: alternatives to animal testing should be found for shampoos and cosmetics; and alternatives for landfill sites should be found, to prevent needless destruction of trees. But doing these things is not what makes us good people. Goodness lies elsewhere: it is found pre-eminently in the domain of personal relationships. If governments decide, then, that we need to sort garbage or reduce CO2 emissions, they should strive to minimize the amount of time that we spend thinking about these things, so we can get on with what really matters most in their moral lives: being a good spouse, parent, friend, worker and community volunteer. Insofar as governments force people to spend a significant amount of their time attending to, or worrying about, the little things in life, they are doing the community a huge disservice. And schools that teach children not to hurt other living things, and not to criticize others’ lifestyle choices, while failing to inculcate virtues like charity, fidelity, patience, generosity, reliability and service, are producing a morally lop-sided generation of people.
I haven’t mentioned the greatest hazard that obsessing about the “little things” in life poses: it reduces the time we spend relating to our Creator. We don’t have time to sit down and think about Gauguin’s big three questions: “Where did we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?” We don’t have time to pursue Truth with the moral energy that such a quest merits; we don’t have time to hear the “still, small voice of God,” and we certainly don’t have time to pray.
Back to the frogs
Moral significance attaches to any being with a good of its own – including a frog. But in the paradigmatic sense, moral significance attaches to persons, who are capable of knowing that they have a good of their own, which they should pursue as agents – in other words, beings who are capable of having the concept of a norm, and choosing to follow it. (The term “capable” of course includes human beings, such as embryos, fetuses and newborn babies, who are as yet too immature to possess such knowledge or to exercise their moral agency, but who are nevertheless in control of the natural process whereby they acquire such knowledge and learn to exercise their agency.) Other living things do matter, but in a progressively weaker sense of the word “matter,” as we go from sentient animals to non-sentient animals to plants and microbes.
Does that give us carte blanche to ride roughshod over frogs, as we criss-cross the land with highways? Certainly not. What it does mean is that any sane and sensible ethic should start out from a “People First” premise. Highways save lives, over the long run. To take just one instance: think of how many seriously ill people they enable to get to hospital more quickly. (Highways are also associated with deaths caused by car crashes; but the failing here is generally not that of the highways themselves, but of the careless drivers who misuse them.) Highways also enable people get to work more quickly, and as a result, they spend less time on getting from A to B and more time on inherently valuable activities like doing creative work at the office, and spending more time with their families at home. Highways are job-creators too. If a highway can’t be swiftly and sensibly re-routed to avoid a community of frogs belonging to an endangered species, then it should still be built: it would be morally wicked to let frogs’ interests take precedence over people’s interests. However, since frogs have a well-being of their own, we should try to relocate the frogs, if we can do so without putting on hold any current projects that are vital for saving human lives.
If the frogs were endangered mammals instead, we would also try to minimize any physical discomfort that the animals might experience in relocating. But it would still be wrong to subordinate human welfare to that of the animals, when deciding whether to go ahead with such an important human project. People have to come first, in such cases.
The aim of this essay was to show that Intelligent Design theorists have a very different “take” on a suite of environmental issues, ranging from global warming to highway construction to the way we think about the Earth itself, simply because we believe that the Earth was made for human beings (especially) and also for other living things to inhabit.