We all have seen them: natural history documentaries that begin with a wonderfully pristine ecosystem, first on stage as a fragile, unstable thing of beauty. Complex habitats and rare animals mesmerize viewers with delicate, spellbinding behavior.
Then, the story takes a dark turn as nature collides with the forces of mass production. The global economy, with its ruthless incentive structures and unrelenting search for growth, is the powerful nemesis to the fragile environment in need of a savior. The narrator urges us: Will we be, after all, the heroes of this story? Act, before it is too late.
There is truth to this story. There is no doubt humanity has inflicted untold damage on the world’s ecosystems. Our footprint is everywhere. As modernity chips away at the last great wild places, cutting down forests, polluting rivers, and spreading invasive species, the fossil fuels that power its march burn up the sky, altering the chemistry of the atmosphere, shifting the energy balance of the planet.
When atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen baptized this human era as “the Anthropocene,” he crystallized into geological nomenclature a simple fact: Homo sapiens is the only species in Earth’s long history to have been able to fundamentally alter the geochemical cycles that regulate the planet in a mere few decades.
But who is the real hero of this story, and who is the victim? The narrative of nature’s fragility misses something important. Nature has agency. Nature acts on the planet on a scale that dwarfs most human processes.
The Earth’s powerful climate system is a case in point. The impact it has on every person in the world makes clear one basic fact : We are small, we are fragile, we are the ones at risk. One of its principal components, the hydrological cycle of the planet, for example, is a system of extraordinary complexity and power. The energy released over the course of a few days by a single hurricane is equivalent to that used by the entire world economy in a year. And that is a single storm.
For all of our ingenuity and power, recent human actions are a perturbation on the vast and complicated machine that is the Earth. A perturbation that has been able to throw this big machine off balance, for sure, but one whose perpetrators are also a primary victim.