Gazing over the countless transformations in Earth’s multibillion-year history, I am struck by the unique strangeness of the present moment. We suddenly find ourselves sort of running a planet — a role we never anticipated or sought — without knowing how it should be done. We’re at the controls, but we’re not in control.
Climate change is the most obvious example, but it is one of a large number of ways in which we are modifying the planet. The scientific community is now converging on the idea that we have entered a new phase, or epoch, of Earth history — one in which the net activity of humans has become a powerful agent of geological change, equal to the other great forces of nature that build mountains and shape continents and species. The proposed name for this new epoch is the "Anthropocene" or the age of humanity. Many species have changed the planet, like the cyanobacteria that long ago pumped oxygen — terribly poisonous for most life at the time — into the atmosphere. But there has never before been a geological force aware of its own influence. We are witnessing something unprecedented and still completely unpredictable: the advent of self-aware geological change.
As an astrobiologist, I study the evolutionary relationships between life and the planets that may host it. The planetary perspective allows us to step away from the noise of the immediate present, to see ourselves from a distance. When we do so, what we see is an entirely new evolutionary stage in the development of life. We also see the planet entering a phase where cognitive processes are becoming a major agent of global change. Earth’s biosphere gave birth to humans and our thoughts, which are now reshaping its planetary cycles. A planet with brains? Fancy that. Not only brains, but limbs with which to build and manipulate tools. We are just beginning to come to grips with this strange new development. Like an infant staring at its hands, we are becoming aware of our powers but have not yet gained control over them.
It’s a challenging moment for human civilization. The great restless cleverness of our species has gotten us into a tough spot. Our collective actions threaten the well-being of many of our fellow humans, not to mention vast numbers of our more distant biological relatives. Our very survival may be threatened. Paradoxically this comes at a time, and even largely as a result, of unparalleled advancement in our scientific and technological prowess. But if we’re so great at figuring things out and inventing solutions to problems, how come we’re in this mess? Part of the reason we are, so far, stumbling through this transition is that we have not yet seen it clearly for what it is. Our fundamental Anthropocene dilemma is that we have achieved global impact but have no mechanisms for global self-control. To the extent that we are like some kind of global organism, we are still a pretty clumsy one, crashing around with little situational awareness, operating on a scale larger than our perceptions or motor skills.
We have, unconsciously, been making a new planet. Our challenge now is to awaken to this role and grow into it, becoming conscious shapers of our world. There are some ways in which our evolutionary history and our unique plasticity as a species may equip us for the job.
Some of the most amazing things are very easy to take for granted. How cool is it that you are reading this? By thwacking away at these dirty little plastic keys in some coded pattern, I’m sending you a detailed message over expanses of space and time. Our fingers were not evolved for this. They were made for grasping and throwing, touching, making tools, making dinner, making love. And yet the human nervous system is so flexible, seemingly made to be rewired as needed. Time and time again our species has escaped existential threats by reinventing ourselves, finding new skills not coded in our genes to survive new challenges not previously encountered.
Before we were modern humans we were hominids who were nearly wiped out by climate change but survived by constructing new material and social technologies and finding new ways to live. Who would have imagined, when we were all hunter-gatherers, that we could live in towns and cities? Doing so caused massive public health problems, many of which were eventually solved by the invention of sewage systems. We were taken by surprise by our inadvertent destruction of the protective ozone layer, but quickly invented technical and political solutions that are now fixing what could have been a deadly mistake. We’ve bounced back a few times from the edge of extinction, and ultimately thrived due to our abilities to communicate, work collectively, adapt creatively to changing environments, and solve problems through technological and social innovation.
Now we need to do so again.
If human civilization is to persist and thrive we will need a completely different view of our planet, and of ourselves, in which we acknowledge both our deep dependence and our increasing influence. We need visions of a future in which we have applied our infinite creativity to the task of living on a finite world, where we have embraced our role, become comfortable and proficient as planet-shapers, and learned to use our technological skills to enhance the survival prospects not just of humanity but of all life on Earth. My name for this vision is Terra Sapiens, or “Wise Earth.”
One hundred million years from now, what will our time have been? A brief climate spasm that Earth shrugged off and largely forgot, leaving a thin layer infused with bizarre plastic objects? Or the beginning of a lasting new phase when the biosphere finally woke up and adjusted its grip on the planet?
Our obligation now is to move beyond lamenting the job we’ve done as reluctant, clumsy, incompetent planet-shapers. We have to face the fact that we’ve become a planetary force, and figure out how to be a better one. A planetary view of the human journey suggests that we are not stuck, just disoriented, not evil, just confused, struggling to find our way in a world increasingly of our own making. We’ve been building an expanding, rapidly changing civilization on a finite world with no long-term plan. Our challenge is to acknowledge the predicament we’re in, and not to succumb to toxic fatalism. Our most valuable resources — creativity, communication, invention and reinvention — are in fact unlimited.
If we make it through the next few centuries it will be because we’ve honed our survival skills and adapted them to work on a planetary scale. Once we achieve that, we’ll have done much more than ensure our own persistence against shortsighted self-induced challenges. We will have unleashed the power of reason and foresight in permanent defense of Earth’s biosphere.
Awareness of ourselves as agents of geological change, once propagated and integrated, could provide us with the capacity to avoid doom and to take our future into our own hands.
Excerpted from "Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future" by David Grinspoon. Copyright © 2016 by David Grinspoon. Used with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.