Day Three: High Sierra road trip

I have welcome news: our planet is going to be just fine. We’re the ones in trouble.

In all the hype about “sustainability,” something seems to get forgotten: there are scads of sustainable populations of strange invertebrates living 18,000 feet below sea level. These creatures live in a rough balance with their ecosystem, getting by on whatever scraps that dark world provides. That balance keeps them alive (at least until deep-sea invertebrates are linked to the virility of human males and become a sought-after side dish).

It’s only natural to consider ourselves more important than pine trees and pine beetles. Lions do not lobby for the rights of gazelles. But we are alone among species on this planet in our ability to amass more stuff than we really need to survive. It probably goes back to being obliged to save enough food to get us through those Ice Age winters.

Back when ice covered so much of the planet, the urge to acquire surplus resources made sense. Today that urge has been carried to the realm of absurdity. We admire hedge-fund geniuses for their ability to earn $50 million a year, which is about $49.9 million more than any American needs to live on. It’s not the deficit that’s killing us: It’s all these surpluses. We crave them now the way our ancestors craved havens from leopards on the hunt.

From pole to pole and all points in between, people want more than they need. It’s greed, for want of a better word, and even though 10,000 years of civilization have deemed greed a sin, it still gets the better of us. The instinct is so ingrained that our only response to it is more greed: the intuitive response to one guy having a surplus is other guys rationalizing the most expedient way to steal it.

Extrapolate this urge across the planet and a day comes when the planet defends itself against our desires. We can’t defeat the planet, any more than we can keep living in our house when it’s burning down.

Our challenge is the earth needs all the things that stand in the way of our greed — it needs all the trees we cut down to build our homes; it needs all the wolves we chase away from our cattle herds; it needs all the frogs that are vanishing from Amazonian rain forests; it needs all the sharks we’re killing to put their fins in our favorite soup.

And why does it need all these creatures? Not for its own good; who knows how many species went extinct while the planet prevailed? It needs them only to preserve an ecosystem that sustains human life.

My lesson of Earth Day: If you can’t work up any enthusiasm for saving the planet, how about giving a nod to saving yourself?