We Were the Fittest for A While
Tom Van Sant, “Earth From Space,” 1990, digital photograph. © Tom Van Sant/Geosphere Project
Scientists say that our beautiful planet, the sight of which makes astronauts weep with awe, is dying. We’re killing it. There are too many of us, and we’ve changed the climate with our greenhouse gas emissions. We’re turning Earth into a trash dump. We’re razing the rain forests and already have contaminated the oceans with plastic, which breaks down into microplastic and is eaten by fish, which we then eat. A recent study estimated that each of us ingests the equivalent of a credit card in microplastic every week. (And don’t think you can get around it by not eating fish. We also breathe microplastic.)
We’re melting the polar caps. In a few decades, experts say, New York, Tokyo, Istanbul, Miami, Dubai, New Orleans, Amsterdam, and Venice will all be underwater. Weather systems have gone rogue, hurling fire and floods at us in deadly, unpredictable sequence. Recently, in a single 24-hour period in Chicago, where I live, temperatures careened from the 50s to the upper 90s, a tornado touched down, and, in nearby Milwaukee, a flash flood drowned a ten-year-old boy and his two would-be rescuers. Last month three people died of heat in Chicago — in May. On the June day I write this, temperatures will hit 100F.
Terry Schoonhoven, “Downtown Los Angeles Underwater,” 1979, oil and acrylic on linen with scrim, 72 x 240’
So, yes, we’ve messed up Earth. Climate change is here and it’s killing people. However, isn’t it a little presumptuous to conflate the fate of our species with that of the whole planet? We can’t assume that our dying means the planet is, too. Maybe we’re not killing the planet. Maybe extreme weather is the planet trying to kill us.
This idea that we’re only part of the picture, that humans are mere energy specks in a cosmos that courses with energy, offends everything we in the West, especially Americans, believe about ourselves and teach our children. We’re number one. You can be anything you want to be. Now, evidence demands we accept that we are not the center of the universe.
The sight of a lone polar bear floating off to a slow and miserable death on a melting ice floe haunts any feeling person. But the planet doesn’t care, any more or less than it cares about desperate people sitting on their roofs in a flood. Hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, extreme heat — all deadly for humans — is just a reshuffling for planet Earth. Maybe it’s trying to shake us off the way a healthy body shakes off a bad flu, the way a dog shakes off an irksome infestation of fleas.
Sonny, “Nanuk,” 2017, mural, Miami, Wynwood Art District, 33 x 85’.
George Carlin came up with that last image. And not recently. He’s been dead for fourteen years, but like many artists (and he was an artist) he saw the future. In his darkest, most prescient routine, delivered in 2008 shortly before his death and now excerpted in Judd Apatow’s 2022 documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” he acted out this shaking off, adding an eerie sound effect, a kind of purring whoosh he imagined Earth would make as it sheds the once-tolerated parasite that is us.
Carlin ridiculed our attempts to “save” the planet. “Saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt on the part of humans to control nature,” he said. “Save the planet? We haven’t learned to care for one another.”
George Carlin, “Saving the Planet,” 2007. Video below
And that’s the even darker, more timely point. While we battle forces of nature that we truly can’t control, going up in impersonal flames — and down in floods, droughts, and earthquakes — we continue to inflict very personal cruelties on each other in ways that are utterly controllable if only we possessed the moral and political acumen.
Of course, I mean guns.
The absurd refusal to enact meaningful gun laws in this country, the recent passage of the Protecting Our Kids Act notwithstanding, belies all claims of caring about the future of anyone or anything. Cynical “right-to-lifers” who defend the rights of the unborn continue to offer up nothing more helpful than thoughts and prayers for massacred schoolchildren.
Recently, in Alabama, elderly congregants at an Episcopal church potluck supper were gunned down by an angry stranger they’d welcomed into their fold. They’d offered him food, a place at their table. If the guy hadn’t had a gun, he might have thrown a punch or waved a knife. Instead, he shot three people to death.
Tripp Derrick Barnes, "Rev. Clementa Pinckney," 2016, mural, Charleston,
South Carolina commemorating the 2015 Charleston, South Carolina
We humans do a lot of bad things. We’re still fighting wars, bombing kindergartens, lining people up and shooting them in the back over territory. We’re still walking past hungry fellow humans lying on the pavement on our way to work, deeming it more important to do whatever it is we do to earn money than it is to stop and talk to someone. Nobody seems to be able to figure out how to solve these problems. By comparison, solving the problem of gun deaths is easy: Make guns harder to get and easier to regulate.
That’s not the only suffering we could abate. We could protect women‘s right to make their own best choices about their bodies in this imperfect world, where being born poor and unwanted almost guarantees a cycle of continuing woe. In another cynical move, “right-to-lifers” are about to criminalize choice with the blessing of a partisan Supreme Court.
Carlin concludes that humans are “just another failed mutation.” In the end, he says, the planet will be fine once it rids itself of us.
George Carlin, "Saving the Planet" comedy routine
In early June I spent a week in the woods in Wisconsin teaching a workshop. It was quieter this summer, due to Covid restrictions, blissful, really, with fewer people. All that silence lured non-human residents out of the forest. Daily, I transported live insects out of my room in puffs of Kleenex and launched them toward the lake. One afternoon, sitting in the sun on a stone patio after a particularly intense class, I sensed motion at my side. In a daze and forgetting where I was for an instant, I thought it was my dog. But no. It was a five-foot fox snake, thick and shiny, making its way toward me in a direct diagonal, intentional and seemingly friendly. He raised his head and flicked his tongue to taste my scent. When I went for my phone to take a picture he slid away. There’s the future, I thought, back in my room. They’re reclaiming this place, and who can blame them.
The jury is out on whether we can repair our friendship with planet Earth in time to have it allow us to stay. It’s not looking good. Species come and species go. Maybe it is simply our nature to be both intelligent enough to run amuck with our own inventions and stupid enough to be selfish about the damage we’ve wrought. We did what our DNA programmed us to do — we survived, we became the fittest. For a while. Meanwhile we trashed the place and inflicted terrible suffering on each other. Now we, or if not our generation then our progeny, may be ushered out of this beautiful home where we’ve squatted for so long, where we took such advantage but didn’t take care. It’s a shame, but it seems only fair to give it back to its owners now, back to the winds, the fires, the waters, the insects, the snakes.
Western Fox Snake, photograph, courtesy of the Racine Zoo, Racine, Wisconsin