An Anthropocenic Oath

An Anthropocenic Oath

One review in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review that caught my attention was Naomi Oreskes’s review of Randi Hutter Epstein’s Aroused: The History of Hormones and How They Control Just About Everything (“Science or Quackery? / Hormones research and its many missteps and mistakes.”). A byline notes that Oreskes — along with co-author Erik M. Conway — wrote Merchants of Doubt.

This was an interesting review. I was disappointed the reviewer left out discussion of the claim — made in the title of the book — that hormones “control just about everything.” But Oreskes got my attention when noting that according to one estimate, the cost of the disease burden associated with endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), has been put at $340 billion.

Something else in Sunday’s Times, that caught my attention, was one of their cover stories (Steven Lee Myers and Olivia Mitchell Ryan, “Once Strict on Births, China Races for a Boom”). I’ve seen this sort of thing happen before. As a developing nation’s population begins to decline, instead of breathing a sign of relief, that news is met with alarm and dread, and remedies are immediately proposed, such as offering monetary incentives to have more children. This particular news article, which concerns China, states: “Experts say the government has little choice but to encourage more births. China — the world’s most populous nation with more than 1.4 billion people — is aging quickly, with a smaller work force left to support a growing elderly population that is living longer. Some provinces have already reported difficulties meeting pension payments.” Once again, we see that ecological sustainability considerations don’t enter the picture, while economic sustainability considerations are always the main driving focus.

But the article I most want to talk about is Erle C. Ellis’s opinion piece “What Kind of Planet Do We Want?” (The online title for this piece is “Science Alone Won’t Save the Earth. People Have to Do That / We have to start talking about what kind of planet we want to live on.”) Ellis is a smart scientist, who is doing good work, and he makes some fine points, but I respectfully differ with his views in a number of ways. We need a vision — an ecologically-appropriate one — and saying people will fill that vacuum over time, isn’t a vision. We need it now, and we need one that will set us on the right course.

He states that there are no technological hurdles toward supplying even 11 billion people with the lifestyles they strive for, there are only cost barriers; and he suggests that “the wealthy and the vested interests of the world” need to “step up to pay for” this. But why stop at 11 billion? And just how many people does Ellis believe this planet can comfortably hold?

Ellis recognizes that we have “increasingly impoverished this planet of wild species and wild spaces, and the carbon emissions that power modern lives are causing the earth to warm faster than at any time since the fall of the dinosaurs.” But I don’t think he comes anywhere  close to recognizing the full extent of the dangers facing mankind, when he states that man’s future will be “an everlasting struggle among different people seeking different futures.” An everlasting struggle? And he states unequivocally that  the Anthropocene is not the end, but “just the beginning.” Nowhere does he seem to recognize the potential existential nature of the threats facing humankind.

I wish I had several weeks to take off from work to really sink my teeth into articulating just how bad the trajectory we are on now actually is; but I don’t. So I’ll just mention a few things that lead me to draw that conclusion. The mere fact that a Donald Trump could even get to where he is today, I believe says so much. And the fact that Scott Pruitt came to head the E.P.A., also speaks volumes concerning how far off course we are. Consider, too, that billions of people in the world will tell you that they don’t think man can affect the planet, even though a sizable hole in our stratosphere’s ozone shield, proves otherwise. And just imagine if it had taken us considerably longer to have made that initial discovery — about how certain popular consumer products were causing ozone depletion. Where might we be today?

But I think it boils down to this (and this has nothing to do with what experts are telling us, or what scientists are reporting). The mere fact that all the damage we’ve wreaked on this planet so far, has been accomplished within the time frame of not even a blink of an eye, in geological terms. Doesn’t that fact alone beg the question: “If we’ve done that much damage in just the past 150 years, how can we possibly last another 15,000 … or even 1,500?”

Think about that. Truthfully, doesn’t that say so much? Doesn’t that point to the obvious need for coming up with some very different way of living on this planet? The mere fact that we’ve caused so much damage already, and in just 150 years? As I point out on this website, horseshoe crabs have been around for some 400,000,000 years.

This also brings to mind that memorable “The $99,000 Answer” episode of the mid-1950s sitcom The Honeymooners, where Ralph Kramden is on a game show and is determined to go “all the way” to the end, to risk everything, to take the final $99,000 question. And yet, as it turns out, he couldn’t even make it past the very first question (you can watch this, on YouTube). How long will our species last on this planet? It’s conceivable that we may not even make it to the end of this millennium we’re now in– as Stephen Hawking has suggested.

Perhaps, if we want to heal the planet, and survive on it long-term, we could begin by thinking like a doctor. Doctors have their Hippocratic Oath. Perhaps these times call for an Anthropocenic Oath: First, do no further harm!

Note: Those words don’t actually appear in the Hippocratic Oath. That’s a popular misconception.