We are human beings, who live as part of a planet. These might sound like painfully obvious statements, but it behooves us not to gloss over either of these facts or the relationship between them.
The ﬁrst fact, that we are human beings—homo sapiens—is essential to understanding every other fact, feeling or experience we might discuss. Our brains are particular organs, evolved over millions of years to facilitate our survival as wild beings, and then accelerated through further evolution by at least three millennia of cultural adaptation. They let us engage with the world through a sentience that, as far as we know, is unique on Earth, and perhaps in the Universe.
And while it is true that these brains let us see and comprehend things far beyond the range of our immediate experiences—the joys and sorrows of a friend on another continent, the trends of history, the workings of our genetic codes, the existence of other, far-distant planets—it is also true that we can have no experience that is not mediated by our brains. The world is as we think it and our brains are hard-wired to think in some ways and not in others. There are no doubt vast realms of possible cognition of which our brains are simply not capable, while other, incredibly difficult tasks—say, reading the expression on a lover’s face—our brains tackle with ease and blinding speed.
The world as we experience it is the world experienced by humans: For us, there is nothing outside this system.
Nor should there be, given the nature of our selves. Much discussion has been had in some circles about the need to think in non-anthropocentric ways. I think the idea we can the do so is an illusion: Even in science, all but a little of our understanding is not just tinged by anthropomorphism, but awash in it; artistic and philosophical and spiritual our understandings of nature are usually nothing but the animistic inhabitation of nature with human characteristics, values and intentions. We see ourselves in nature. When we look through human eyes, no one else is there. Even in a world teeming with life.
Which brings us to the second fact, that we are part of a living planet. Note that I speciﬁcally don’t say, “We live on a planet.” To say we live on a planet is to imply the planet is a habitation—that we live on a planet the same way we live in a house, and may soon change addresses. This is not the case.
As our understanding of our evolutionary origins and biology has evolved, we’ve come to realize the degree to which our health demands something much like the conditions into which we evolved (even if radically reworked by modernization). Our bodies themselves are not isolated and discrete, but enmeshed with the world around us at microbial, chemical and hormonal levels. We are tied to the seasons and the rotation of the Earth, utterly dependent on the web of life for the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe.
Indeed, these connections within the web of life may be the most important insight of our day. The idea that there is a human economy separate from or above the rest of the planet, apart from nature, is simply wrong; it has also been incredibly destructive. Humans have made from the elements and energy around us many wonderful new things (and some horriﬁc ones as well); but, even so, the entirety of the human economy is contained within, and is contingent upon, the natural world. All of the attempts I know of to act as if the economy were separate from the world in which it operates have led to ecological and human disasters (though some proceed so slowly that we perceive them not as ruin but simply we as history).
We’re not in charge, however powerful we may be (we are not, contrary to the saying, “as gods”). For one thing, the stability of nearly all the systems humans have created depends on the ﬂows of natural systems which we still at best incompletely understand, and which are all much too large for us to control (inﬂuence, yes: control, no). A host of ideas have been put forward about how humanity might change this basic fact—the fact that we are, entirely, a subset of nature; that we are planetary in the sense that part of this planet, not just on it—but all of them remain, at this point, in the realm of handwaving; if history is our guide, attempts to pursue them will mostly result in catastrophic failures of hubris.
There is no doubt, of course, that humanity’s actions are transforming the planet. We can see that in cleared forests, melting ice caps, packed highways, teeming slums, and the millions of small signs of change unfolding around us. However—and this is a critical however—the degree of destruction and instability we’re unleashing on the planet is not a sign of our mastery, but the truest tell of our interdependence with its systems and the limits we face, the ﬁrst of which is the stark limit of our actual capacities.
We are changing the world. But to say that shows our power over the world is like saying a monkey smashing teacups is a master potter. We know how we’re breaking planetary systems; we still have nothing but the most tenuous understanding of how one might go about making a planet, or repairing the one we have. The largest truth we possess is that we need to stop breaking, hold on to what is unbroken and learn to work with the systems around us to repair those parts that are not yet completely lost: sustainability, preservation and restoration, in short.
And yet, and yet… our situation affords us nothing so clean as a simple answer. We must reforge our human economy and living patterns in a new mold. We must protect and restore living systems. We must likely perform triage on some human-natural systems to prevent their collapse.
And all of this must be done while we learn to do it; all of it will require constant recalibration and reassessment, and all of it will happen while we are in the very throes of a global crisis whose scope, scale and speed exceed anything in humanity’s remembered experience. We must work with the Earth, at all the scales of the Earth.
But to learn to work on planet-wide problems, we must become planetary thinkers. We must learn how to be humans aware of our natures, our Earthly context and the systems which make up the planet of which we are a part.
Essentially no one, yet, does this or is fully capable of doing it; indeed, proper planetary thinking is an activity not for a single mind, but instead a description of the changes cultures around the world will need to absorb in order to ensure the future of the human-planetary entity we call the Earth.
The question for each of us, then, becomes “How do I help create the conditions for the ﬂourishing of planetary thinking in my community, my culture, my nation, my species?” I suspect that, for all of us, learning to think clearly in basic planetary terms is the ﬁrst step.
How do we do that, though? How do we think in terms big enough to at least apprehend the shape of the whole, but concrete enough to inform our own work?
And that, of course, is what we’re here to try to ﬁnd out, together.