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Pinnacle of Evolution?

My fascination with weather started the winter I was eight. One day was so warm that I could go outside in my shirtsleeves, but the next day I had to bundle up against the cold. As I grew up this expanded into an interest in our planets’ chaotic climactic history; in college and graduate school I studied of anthropology, geology and evolution. Over the last several decades I have followed with growing alarm discussions of climate change and its potentially disastrous impact on our biosphere, the delicately balanced ecosystem of the Earth and all the plants and animals living on it.

The birth of my first grandchild six years ago profoundly personalized the dangers. The scientific evidence has convinced me that if we continue on our current course, by 2050, when she’s only 42 years old, my granddaughter’s life will become increasingly difficult, perhaps even impossible. I cannot imagine passively accepting what her and younger brother will have to endure. So I’ve worked even more intensively since 2008 to educate myself on the subject and how to reduce its risks.

When Elli mentioned recently that she’d heard Elizabeth Kolbert interviewed on NPR, and that I might be interested in reading her new book, THE SIXTH EXTINCTION, I was skeptical. I didn’t feel that I’d learn anything new, but Elli bought the book anyway. Reading it, I realize that exploring the impact of climate change on our biosphere provides important new insights into how to combat global warming.

I’ve come to understand how deeply our anthropocentric focus impedes our ability to face the challenge. Kolbert explains that in past extinction events our planet has lost up to 90% of all plant and animal families. This may be about to happen again. Perhaps some insect species, other invertebrates, and many single-celled organisms will survive, but our actions are endangering all or almost all of the “higher” life forms.

Are we justified, however, in seeing evolution as the advance from “lower” to “higher” forms of life, with our own species at the pinnacle of this glorious ascent? There has been an evolutionary trend toward increasing complexity, but are more complex organisms really any higher? Viewing humans as the end point of evolution is the modern-day equivalent of believing the sun revolves around the earth. This is a self-serving delusion. Just as the sun does not revolve around the earth, the earth does not revolve around us. We are merely one manifestation of an almost unimaginably complex web of life that has been evolving on our planet for over a billion years.

Placing ourselves at the center feeds our sense of importance and justifies our efforts to dominate our environment. It is, however, a potentially fatal misreading of our current circumstances. The vibrancy of the biosphere is essential to our survival. If our economic system and personal requirements are shredding it, our system, not it, must change. Human beings with our unprecedented capacity can, for a while, act as nature’s master, but the biosphere as a whole holds the trump cards. The mounting torrent of extinction is a warning which we ignore at our peril.

We must place the health of the biosphere at the center of any plan we develop to combat global warming. Understanding that our efforts must not focus on protecting what we have, but rather accommodate the needs of the earth’s natural systems, may be our biggest challenge. Overcoming our species specific myopia will not be easy, but given what is at stake, it is well worth the effort. Read More 
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