Flying to our destruction?

I wrote the following on a flight from Montreal to St. John’s this past summer. I was in a rather weird frame of mind and had just finished reading a couple of articles, one on the Mayan civilization and one on Hurricane Katrina. Both were in the National Geographic that I had purchased on my way through Trudeau Airport. I’ve decided to print it as is. Warning, it’s long…


It’s hard to imagine as I stare out from my aircraft window that we are causing the world’s destruction. As the plane makes a steep ascent through the prism of clear blue skies to 30,000 feet the world falls away serenely in a sensation of weightlessness. Clouds rush by with very little care careening into one another with careless abandon. Giant puffy clouds look down their noses at their small ferreting brethren which are absorbed in quick order. Green patches of ground snake in and out between the clouds. Our world is rushing so far away. The plane is so high now that human habitations barely show upon the world’s open face. With such space and distance, it’s hard to imagine that such small creatures as we could possibly be blamed for the destruction of the world’s varied ecosystems.

And yet, it is true. I am not talking about global warming. Rising temperatures may or may not be the fault of humankind. But we are most certainly to blame for other great atrocities of the world, of that I am sure. I wake in the morning and look out at the haze of the city of Montreal and see in it the pollution of a million cars. I walk the world on a carpet of concrete leaving only small holes in the pavement for lone trees to grow by design and not by nature. I travel in the underland through great holes bored underneath our feet. I stare from the belching bus and see people running around consuming, living, breathing, burning and inadvertently, unconsciously killing. I travel in a plane across great distances, streaking through the air in mother Earth’s pristine high atmosphere and I know I’m part of this problem.

I am not going to try and convince anyone that human beings are a detriment to the survival of the Earth as we see it currently. The evidence is around all of us. We’re endangering the survival of increasing number of species. Our pollution renders our cities and waterways toxic to many forms of life, and potentially our own. Vast swathes of countryside are destroyed each year for farming, recreation and through misuse. Increasing numbers of wild animals are forced from their habitats and wander onto our lands: bears, tigers, lions and more. We hunt the narwhal, leave Siberian tiger cubs to perish in the cold winter and depopulate seas of fish. In a world in which we are the supreme beings we have never been benevolent caretakers.

The plane is now straightened out, the world is far beneath us and we are streaking towards a darkening horizon. After all the media attention, after all the media hype you would think that we would learn. Every child now knows to recycle, to reduce and to reuse. In reality, western society is probably best at the first, less on the second and potentially non-existent on the third. Recycling programs work in almost every city. I have a twinge of shame every time I cannot find a recycling bin to throw an empty can. However, we have certainly not learned the arts of reducing and reusing. How can we? Every day we are bombarded with advertisements. Every day there is the temptation to buy more, consume more, and embrace the latest technology, save three minutes where once it took five. We must have the latest computer, the latest book, the latest piece of furniture. Our society and way of life demands and exists on our ability to consume and if we do not consume our economies will collapse.

The horizon outside has caught up to us now. The plane’s lights are blinking in the inky blackness of night and now the effects of human habitation are clear beneath us. A shimmering web of lights stretching through the ground like fairy lights growing like a stain through the darkened void.

The future is not so bright. We have yet to learn the lessons of what past civilizations and countless species learned as they faced extinction. The reality of all this is that we have architected our own demise. Our large brains have conceived of ways to let humanity survive great diseases which once kept our population in check. We have fought and conquered weather and all but the greatest of storms now pass us by. We have swarmed the earth and managed to tame land to produce for multitudes that the world never thought it would see.

When Hurricane Katrina sank much of New Orleans we should have learned lessons. Gilbert F. White claimed that the Levees should never have been built around New Orleans in the twenties on through to the present day. Floods are an ‘act of god’. But flood losses are largely an act of man,” he said. The Levee Effect was the creation of habitable areas out of uninhabitable ones always with the knowledge that should a big hurricane ever come through, nothing that was done by man would be fool proof against the mighty forces of nature. History has shown us the wisdom of that, and the losses were incredible.

Now imagine the world as we stand today. We have solved so many problems and we continue to solve more. This is in our nature. Our species survives and thrives by conquering that which does not want to be. Where conventional wisdom of nature says “not”, human beings say, “why not.” We have created a human empire fuelled by technology that is unparalleled. But what so many of us forget in our daily lives of abundance is that the Earth is finite. Eventually, if a host of other disasters do not get rid or contain our expansion, we must hit that limit. No matter what science fiction has taught us, the ability to create matter out of nothing, food and fuel from the air and so on, is all still the matter of fiction and hardly science. As we create even larger and more massive sculptures to our aggrandizement, like the doomed natives of Easter Island did, we will find ourselves more and more constrained. Our species will contend with each other as they did in ages past for remaining resources, for water, for fuel, for technology. As if from a bad science fiction novel, we will find our empire in decline.

It took the Mayan civilization of several million people a couple centuries to decline. The great and mighty Roman Empire collapsed also in mere centuries. The British Empire gave up the ghost in a mere 50 years, and that to this day was a larger spanning empire than that of the great Mongolian Hordes. Will we collapse faster than that? Or will we see the lingering descent into madness and decay? Will we finally look at ancient ruins and instead of saying “that was then and this is now”, we might look on them and say perhaps this is our future.

Normally in articles such as this, I would end with a thought of happiness and say that perhaps something can be done to avert such disaster. The answers are not there yet. We have not come to a point in our civilization where we can look at the world with eyes greater than what we want for breakfast, how we will spend our money, or which religion or colour to associate with. Perhaps it is a function of our short fleeting lives, or perhaps it is a function of our own inability to comprehend anything larger than what we see around us. Until we can stop religious fighting that has lasted a thousand years, until we can look at what we have done as a whole and exclaim “wait, this is a problem”, until we can elect people whose vision is greater than the short immediate term, the human race is bound to continue to make the same mistakes.

Do not get me wrong, it is not the Earth I am concerned for, it is the very survival of our species. The Earth will be rid of us at some point. For every species that we kill off in our lifetime, new ones will evolve in the environments we create or leave behind. Evolution does not stop for humanity.

The world is rushing towards us now. Our descent has begun. I cannot help but think whether our current empire has perhaps reached its apogee. The greatest heights that this western-led, petroleum-fuelled society will reach might actually just be dawning. Enjoy it while you can, as with all good things, whether it takes ten years or two hundred years, it will end. Only hindsight will ever tell us whether it ended with a whimper or with a bang.

The wheels touch and we screech to a halt.


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