Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Human-Centric Mentality

Galileo Galilei was an italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, and is often referred to as the father of modern science.  In the year 1610, his research led him to believe that the Earth revolved around the Sun.  He was warned by the Catholic Church to abandon this view as it was “false and contrary to Scripture”.  In 1632, Galilei was placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life, as he continued to support the heliocentric view.  These primitive minds, which could accept that the world was not flat (after some convincing), were very uncomfortable with the idea that the Universe did not revolve around them.  When it was later discovered that these orbits were elliptical in general, and not circular, the religious leaders of the day objected yet again, because God would only draw perfect shapes (who are we to define what a perfect shape is?).  Mankind has since, to a certain extent, accepted its place in the Universe.  However, its feelings of self-importance in this Universe have not changed all that much.
The clearest example of this human-centric mentality is depicted in the many end-of-the-world scenarios we see in film and CNN discussion panels.  Many people see the end of humanity and the end of the world as the same thing - they are not.  I suppose it does not help that “the World” is a very vague description.  While it used to mean “the Earth”, the definition of “the World” might now extend to our Solar System and beyond.  In either case, when the Earth began burping in the film “2012”, or when a giant meteor was heading towards the Earth in “Armageddon”, the term end of the world was evoked.  Massive cataclysms such as these could represent the extinction of the human race, but let us not confuse that with the end of the world.  That we place a high importance on the survival of our species is good; it is a useful fear mechanism still embedded in our brains from our millennia of evolution.  Still, I think that we, as a species, would gain a lot from the humbling experience of merely existing in the world (not as the world).

It is true that certain events, such as a celestial collision, could cause life on Earth to change drastically.  It would have to be very drastic for all of humanity to be wiped out.  But even so, life would probably still exist.  As a general rule, the more advanced that an organism becomes, the more fragile it becomes.  So, while no humans could survive a temporary temperature shift of one hundred degrees, small bacteria would easily survive.  A closer look at our fragility makes one question where our large egos emanate from.  Perhaps we are compensating for something.  If you put our ability to manipulate our environment aside, human beings are relatively weak creatures (more so today than ever before).  We cannot survive in water, and have trouble on land.  We thrive in a pathetic temperature range from say 18 to 30 degrees Celsius (and don’t get us started on humidity).  We require a fair bit of energy to power us, and need to sleep one third of the time.  Fortunately, our impressive mental abilities more than make up for our physical shortcomings.  I guess it is our large brains that cause us to have big heads.
More and more, mankind relies on ingenuity to compensate for its fragility.  Developments in agriculture allowed billions of people to essentially be fed by thousands.  This shift gave rise to the division of labour, which spawned many technological advances yielding the iphone4 and other important devices to tap on.  Any medical professional will tell you what marvels of biology human beings really are, but let us not forget that without basic oral care, tooth decay would cause us to expire before our fortieth birthdays.  In other words, we would be in big trouble if not for our tools.  The difference in life expectancy with vs. without basic medical care is dramatic.  If we were not smart cookies, we would be toast.
The discussion of our physical limitations and our mental prowess is a useful preface for the issue of global warming that currently plagues our planet.  I want to believe that we are not powerful enough to manipulate our environment on a grand scale, but there is strong evidence that we are doing just that.  Of course, there are many inputs affecting the climate of our biosphere.  It is shocking to learn that our burning of fossil fuels, which releases carbon dioxide into the air, is an input on the same order as the seasonal release of CO2 of all of the trees on the planet.  The difference between our CO2 release and that of the trees is that we are not releasing the gas in a cyclical fashion.  To a certain extent, the temperature fluctuations on Earth were in a state of equilibrium before the industrial revolution.  Now, the equilibrium temperature is shifting upwards, and we are most certainly the cause for this.  We are indeed powerful enough to manipulate our environment on a planetary scale; we are therefore capable of undoing the effects that we have done. 
There will be no end of the world due to global warming.  There will be no extinction of humankind either.  There will very likely be a massive decrease in human population should the current trends for energy production and human population continue.  Humanity has flourished over the past two hundred years, but the energy that was required to do so has come at a cost.  We now must depend on a major technological advance, or several, allowing us to change the way that our energy is produced.  We also require technological advances for effective cleaning of greenhouse gases.  It is a race against time for a large population of the Earth, and we will need lots of nerds to save us – or, maybe we could just send Bruce Willis up in a space ship and hope for the best.
Our large egos are justified by the fact that we can cause major change to our planet.  It is easy to forget that we are not the only life on Earth.  It is a common misconception that the Earth evolves to suit our needs.  We certainly do impact the Earth, but we are not its boss.  We evolved to live on an Earth with properties of air, water, and soil that were different than they are today.  The delicate balance of our biosphere has been set on an altered course because of our presence.  We can react to these changes by cranking up the A/C, or we can change the way we do things.  We can try to consume less energy, and produce it in a cleaner fashion.  We can also try to clean up the mess we’ve made.  With regards to the depletion of the ozone layer, we are no longer contributing to the problem, and it may just fix itself over the next half century.  However, the global warming issue presents a much tougher challenge than that of the ozone layer.
Whatever decisions mankind makes, we must realize two things: (1) we can have profound effects on our environment, and (2) our environment does not revolve around us.      

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