It’s been another one of those months where there seems to be a theme that keeps popping up in my daily life seemingly unintentionally, but consistently. I’ve thought about how technology connects us to the rest of the world in unprecedented ways before, but usually in terms of digital technology (likely because of my generational bias); the internet, computers, cell phones, smart phones, etc. In finishing off the The Sixth Extinction and watching Tiger King on Netflix and in light of this global pandemic, I’ve been thinking more and more about the physical borderlessness of our modernity.
Today a person, animal, or plant (or virus) can be on the other side of the world in less than a day. Animals use to evolve in ways that best suited them to their environment, and now we alter environments to best suit humans. Rivers, mountains, oceans, are mere inconveniences to modern man.
In The Sixth Extinction, Elizabeth Kolbert describes her conversations and experiences with some of the top experts on human history, one of which is trying to complete the Neanderthal genome in order to see what makes us, Homo sapiens, so special. The expert talks about the potential existence of a “madness” gene(s); something that compelled Homo sapiens to look at a mountain range and decide to climb over it, to look at the ocean and try to cross it. And to not only try those things, but to believe something worthwhile would be on the other side. The same “madness” that compels man to explore the depths of the ocean and the endlessness of space–to be borderless.
Countless species, human and non-human, have existed on this planet for lengths of time that make humanity look like the smallest dot of Jackson Pollock painting, and yet none have single-handedly altered this planet as quickly as we have. This impact is largely to our complete disregard for the natural barriers (for whatever reasons) that have controlled the spread of so many species before us. Even now with the world at our fingertips via the internet, during the present shelter-in-place situation, we have this itching to escape the confines of our homes.
This isn’t meant to be an indictment against man or to condemn those idiots who disregard social distancing guidelines, because our “destiny” to change this planet and to explore is etched into our DNA. There’s no “going back” to living with nature because that was never (at least according to current evidence) how humans lived. Plants and animals across the world were going extinct due to human influence (likely unbeknownst to the humans of that time) long before we started burning fossil fuels. The damage is done. The world is now pretty much borderless, a “New Pangea as some like to say, and many of the effects are irreversible for one reason or another.
You can’t really blame us though. Humans, like all living things (and some non-living ones) do what they know. In the absence of limiting forces, all species on this planet would take over the entire world. The only difference is humans were actually able to overcome most of our limits, and as a consequence we have been responsible for the destruction of many unique and irreplaceable organisms that the world may never see the likes of again. In the absence of absolutist morality its hard to say if that’s for better or worse–it just is (as was the case in the previous 5 mass extinction events). In all likelihood, any other species would do the same if given the opportunity. Though unlike any other species, we may be able to actively do something about it (again for better or worse).
Humans are amazing creatures. The command we now have over the physical world is impressive, and at times scary. We have been able to send man into space, to directly engineer new life forms, and uncover secrets about the very fabric of existence. In our infancy we lacked the foresight and knowledge to know how our actions would effect our future and the future of this planet. Now all we lack, generally, is the foresight. Living in a state of equilibrium with our environment is humanity’s oldest problem, and we are finally able to fully recognize that.
We are at turning point in the history of this planet, and I would love to be a historian/ paleontologist equivalent (maybe even extraterrestrial) hundreds of thousands of years from now trying to figure out, based on what humans know at this point in time, what we will choose to do and how that plays out for us in our now borderless world.