You are on page 1of 6

....

You see, I need to confess


that when I began by asking you about the climate,
somewhat light-heartedly and without attaching too
much importance to it, I already had the feeling that
things were going from bad to worse. It’s a feeling
which has constantly been with me in recent years.
Once, I even joked, with obvious black humour, that
with the way things were going I would still have time
to witness in person the end of the universe.
I thought, before talking with you, that the Earth was
bent on committing suicide, but didn’t quite know how
to do it: poisoning by an over-dose of barbiturates;
becoming defenceless by the total loss of the ozone
layer; having its resources exhausted; bleeding dry
with its veins cut by the absence of water in its rivers;
or self-immolation through global warming. They all
seemed possible to me. Now, I have the impression
that it could die, but I don’t believe that the method of
suicide has yet been decided. In other words, it seems
to me, from what I have heard from you, that there
are no major or minor causes, or at least that it’s not
easy to differentiate them. What threatens is a general
collapse. Many things are breaking down and they
are all inter-connected. Some disturbances precipitate

114
others, as happens in the body of the terminally ill. I
am even inclined to say, although it’s simply a literary
image, that climate change is no more than the fever
of a sick planet. Will the Earth end up dying? Will it
commit suicide? Will we kill it? Or are we only aiming
to help it to a good death?

Please, don’t put me on the spot. I don’t really want to


be as pessimistic as you, although I do recognise that, in
broad terms, you are right. James Lovelock maintains
that the Earth functions like a super organism which
he calls Gaia, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he has
anticipated you with the metaphor of the fever, because
he has said some very similar things. But, faithful to
his hypothesis, Lovelock thinks the world will not die
because, like every living thing, it knows how to defend
itself, and it will do so, even against our species if we
persist in antagonising it. So, there you have a first
response: the Earth will not take its own life; it’s we
who are killing it. And from there the second response
follows: we will not manage to do it; in the short or
medium term there is no way that life on Earth is going
to disappear. At worst, we humans will disappear, or
we will need to change our way of living, but the Earth
will not die.
Life is stronger than us, and for our own sake it would
be good if we fully understood that. What we humans
need is a cure for humanity. We need all the other living
creatures, whereas, by contrast, they have no need of us.
There has been life on this planet for more than 3,000
million years, but only in the last 200,000 has mankind
existed. Stephen J. Gould, swimming against the tide of

115
opinion, argued that, from the biological point of view,
the true kings of creation are the omnipresent bacteria.
He wrote: “I doubt very much the day will come when
we will manage to influence the diversity of bacteria in
any significant way. We cannot bombard, or irradiate
bacteria, or consign them to oblivion. We cannot
even make a mark on them with any of the many and
malicious devices we are capable of conceiving.” So
then: don’t think about a dead Earth. If worst comes to
worst, the bacteria will always be with us!

But that’s not good enough for me! I cannot imagine


an uninhabited world, a world devoid of people.
When I talk to you about the death of the Earth, I am
referring in some way or another, to the disappearance
of humankind. In A World That Is Dying I myself
cited Frederic Ullman, in order to ask myself what
significance there would be in birds or mountains
if there were nobody capable of naming them and,
thereby, giving them life! The Earth makes no sense
except in relation to mankind!

That’s a controversial assertion, but I think that, deep


down, we are all in agreement. What is the point of
preserving this or that if nobody can appreciate it,
or miss it when it’s gone? In reality, the majority of
conservationists are fighting for a human planet, in the
most immediate sense of that expression: for a planet
on which our species has its place in the Sun.

I once said that progress (in general) tends to warm


man’s stomach, but chill his heart. The American

116
writer, Norman Mailer, has gone further than that.
For him it is very possible that technology (today’s
technology which we use every day) will spell the finish
for humanity. It seems the time has come for us to ask
ourselves whether the twenty-first century won’t be the
last before our presence on Earth comes to an end.
Have you read anywhere an interpretation of progress
which is so utterly bleak as that enunciated by Mailer?
And he is a writer with enormous talent and is highly
influential among intellectuals.

Let me answer you with a story. “A terrestrial suicide”,


similar to what you feel you can sense intuitively,
has already happened, right here, between one and
two thousand million years ago. At that time there
was scarcely any oxygen, either in the water or in the
atmosphere, and therefore there were no living creatures
breathing it. The organisms living without it were what
biologists now call “anaerobic beings”. But it turned
out that certain microscopic algae and some bacteria,
and later some plants, too, learned to use CO2 and water
to leave themselves with carbon and hydrogen and to
free the oxygen as a product of the reaction known as
photosynthesis, which I believe we have spoken about
in relation to ozone.
From our current point of view, that oxygen was,
even for some of the beings that were producing it, a
danger, since they could not live in a world where it
became too abundant. And that is precisely what did
happen. The moment came when there was so much
oxygen in the atmosphere that the anaerobic bacteria,
previously dominant, became pinned down, back to the
117
wall, restricted to secluded places (like the sediment
in the very depths of lakes) where the product of that
contamination never reached.
Imagine for a moment, as a piece of science fiction,
that one of those anaerobic beings had realised what
was happening. In that case, just as Mario Molina did
with CFCs and ozone, it would have warned the others:
“Be careful about continuing to send all that oxygen
into the atmosphere or we’ll end up killing the Earth.”
But it was their Earth they were killing, the Earth of
those who lived without oxygen, not your Earth or my
Earth. Looking at it with the perspective provided by
thousands of millions of years, there is no way that we
can possibly think that that unannounced “death” was
bad for the planet, since it is thanks to it that we are
here today.
For me there are two clear messages from this story.
The first is that the Earth may not have been killed, but
it was most certainly transformed by some organisms
such that it then became difficult for its old population
to continue to occupy it. The second is that those algae
and bacteria, as a consequence of freeing the oxygen
and damaging their world, were not able to realise what
they were doing, nor measure the effects of their actions,
nor make others understand it, nor change it. In other
words, they were in no position to avoid the crisis. We,
by contrast, thanks to the very same knowledge which
allows us to make progress, are definitely able to do so.
We start out, therefore, with an enormous advantage.
To contaminate the Earth, and thereby to provoke
an environmental catastrophe of global dimensions

118
doesn’t require progress. That is precisely what those
primitive creatures managed to do two thousand
million years ago. However, to avoid that happening
again, definitely does require progress, although it
necessarily has to be progress of the kind that you
called “human equilibrium”. So, in my opinion, the
issue is not so much that humanity has advanced too
far, but that perhaps it has advanced too little. As León
Felipe wrote, the clay from which we are made “is still
not well fired.”

But if we know what is happening, if we are measuring


it, calculating it, why aren’t we getting a little closer
to avoiding it? What is it that is stopping us behaving
like Homo sapiens, which apparently is what we are?
Perhaps we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of
your anaerobic bacteria, with the further aggravation
that now we are fully aware of just what we are doing....

119