Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

The Alpha Experiment

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Post by Dominic Kotas

Imagine that, at some point in the future, we discover another planet (Planet Alpha). It’s perfect for us. Somehow it satisfies all our requirements and renders Earth irrelevant to our survival. So, we leave Earth, and move into our new planet. After a few months, we start to feel at home in Alpha’s abundant environment. Earth, with its annoyingly delicate ecosystems and fragile climate, becomes a distant memory.

We find, though, that we feel a vague unease on Alpha. Didn’t we used to claim that we cared about Earth? In that case, shouldn’t we return and check that everything is going well?

Suppose that we meet with like-minded individuals to consider an intergalactic voyage. We all have a rough sense that our intentions are noble, but we find it hard to explain our project. Why exactly should we return? And what should we do once we arrive?

 Stewards and Police

 When the Voyage Council meets, two possible roles are suggested. Some believe that we can act as stewards, preserving Earth’s ecosystems; others believe that we can act as police, minimizing the amount of suffering on Earth.

Those advocating stewardship say that the Earth was bequeathed to us and that we must not allow any part of it to be destroyed. This is a well-known argument. However, there are two problems with it. First, nature does not need us as stewards. The main threat to its existence came from us, and we have left. Secondly, the composition and climate of Earth have changed throughout history. There is no reason to suppose that the latest version of Earth is a final version that we should attempt to preserve.

If we reject stewardship, we might embrace the idea of policing nature. Surely we should do what we can to reduce the suffering felt by animals, whether we are on Earth or not?

The problem here is that animal suffering, like change, is inherent to nature. In order to eliminate it, we would have to construct some kind of planetary zoo, in which each species is isolated and fed a specially designed food. And such a project, in dismantling the entire network of reciprocity on which life as we understand it is based, is likely to destroy the planet. Nature’s so-called harmony is achieved through cycles of destruction and creation; as such, it requires the suffering caused by predators to their prey.

Valuing Diversity

Neither of these camps, then, has a satisfactory argument for a return to Earth. There may be other, better reasons. But for the purposes of this essay, let’s assume that no one would return from Alpha to Earth. This would suggest that we cared about Earth only insofar as it served our purposes.

Here on Earth today, we might argue that current environmental campaigns prove that we care about Earth regardless of whether it serves our purposes. We try to save endangered species even when they are apparently of no use to humanity. But is our behavior entirely selfless?

Our actions would be selfless if we valued diversity in and of itself. There are, though, at least two more plausible explanations for the value we place on diversity. First, diversity is a key aspect of the beauty of the natural world. And while preserving beauty may seem like a selfless endeavor, we value beauty for its effect on us. Our actions might well be different if we knew for certain that no one would ever see the natural beauty we seek to preserve.

The second explanation for the value we place on diversity is self-preservation. Species and environments are interconnected and interdependent. Because of this, it is difficult to describe anything on Earth as useless to humanity. Destroying one apparently insignificant species or system could have catastrophic consequences. Perhaps environmental campaigns most strongly reflect our fear of nature’s precarious equilibrium.

Talking About Ourselves

Saving “unimportant” species today, then, does not prove that we care for the planet in a selfless fashion. Even if it did, we would still have to consider Planet Alpha. Unless we can say why we would return from Alpha to Earth, it is difficult to argue that we behave selflessly towards the planet. We seem to have our own interests at heart.

Why does this matter? Well, in order to convince others to care for the planet, we need to clarify our motivations. When we say that we care for the planet, we probably understand that, in an indirect fashion, we are attempting to make people’s lives better—our own, those of others around the world, and those of future generations. Many of today’s environmental campaigns are based on this understanding. Yet some continue to assert selflessness or avoid mentioning our vested interest. Greenpeace, for example, says that it exists “because this fragile earth deserves a voice,” while Avaaz recently stated that “the whales and penguins can’t speak for themselves, so it’s up to us to defend them.”

Such a stance may seem noble, but it makes for unconvincing campaigns. As Planet Alpha demonstrates, and as people will at some level recognize, claims of selflessness are disingenuous. What’s more, they are unnecessary. While our short-term self-interest as individuals or factions has been disastrous for the planet, we can, by following our long-term self-interest as a species, ensure both our own survival and the survival of Earth. This is a happy alignment and is cause for hope. Instead of obscuring a coherent argument for environmentalism, we should, if we are serious about caring for the planet, talk more clearly and more consistently about ourselves.

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Would you return from Alpha to Earth? If so, why, and for what purpose? Join the debate in the comments!

Dominic Kotas is an editor at the Rachel Carson Center.

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6 thoughts on “The Alpha Experiment

  1. the planet is relevant to us but are we irrelevant to the planet? all we are talking about is “our” survival as species. we would be wise to talk about our “needs” & promote & share them as much as possible. in the process we can steward the planet best for “our” (and so many other species) future. so a new dialogue is required. the planet does not need saving. we need a re-examination of ourselves & vital connection to the planet.

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  2. This piece sums up my frustrations with so many environmental movements perfectly. How arrogant we are to say – “Save the planet” – when in fact we mean “Save our species” the earth and life on it will long outlast homo sapiens.

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  3. Hi Alexander, thanks for you response. I wouldn’t want to criticise environmental movements for their intentions – trying to care selflessly is commendable even if it is impossible. But the claim is unnecessary. Saving our species involves saving the planet. I think that talking about “saving the planet” is not entirely arrogrant. You say that life on Earth will outlast homo sapiens. Perhaps. But homo sapiens could at some point have the power to destroy all life on Earth.

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  4. Hi Matt. I like Jenny’s piece – it’s really thought-provoking. I think it chimes with my argument, particularly when she writes that “we have to stop saving the planet and start inhabiting it. We have to start using and altering and transforming and preserving it, with each other, sustainably and equitably, for the health of people, communities, and ecosystems.” But I would say that we need to save the planet precisely because we inhabit it. I’m not sure that saving and inhabiting are mutually exclusive, exactly. Jenny raises many interesting questions in relation to the shift she describes. I wonder in particular to what extent collective action is related to individual virtue.

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  5. This is an interesting ‘thought experiment’ but, for me, it seems too disconnected from the reality of our species’ true condition. Humans evolved on Earth. It is our deep and natural home. Our genes, our senses, our aesthetic values, our moral values all evolved here and are rooted here. So while we might move elsewhere for any number of reasons including exhaustion of resources (physical, aesthetic, or moral) and curiosity — that seeking behavior that is part of our evolved emotional makeup — Earth will always be our ancestral home — as it is home for all other life forms here.

    So, why would we return? It seems to me there are three obvious possibilities:
    • The same reason that many of us seek to revisit our ancestral homelands — to (re)connect with the home place of our relatives, whether they are human or more-than-human relatives.
    • Curiosity. Especially scientific curiosity. What happens when humans remove themselves from the ‘natural’ processes of Earth?
    • Seeking beauty — which might well be a combination of the two previous motivations.

    These motivations seem far more healthy to me than either of the rather high-handed motivations posited in the post. Maintaining that Earth was ‘bequeathed to us’ seems to be an unsupportable, anthropogenic mythology. Earth managed fine for a few billion years, thank you, without human ‘stewardship.’ And, as for reducing suffering, ‘suffering’ seems to be a uniquely human-defined concept. But, even if we accept the human definition, our presence on Earth seems to have caused at least as much ‘suffering’ as it’s prevented — so I’d have little faith in a human-staffed anti-suffering brigade.

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