Earth Day is on 22 April 2020.
The Earth is shared by all life, including humans, and its health is part of our continued survival. Humans are part of nature and the COVID-19 pandemic is a tragic reminder of that fact. We can try to control nature but it can still get the better of us. We build cities, factories, supertankers, skyscrapers, robots and rockets but we get shut down by a microscopic organism that evolved naturally.
E. F. Schumacher admonished our industrial-scale follies by saying we are clever but we are not wise. In his book, A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher (who was quite wise) made a distinction between science for manipulation (cleverness) and science for understanding (wisdom).
Cleverness or wisdom?
Cleverness does not care about limits, systems or consequences. Cleverness doesn’t care about right and wrong. It has no regulating valve. Cleverness is certain of itself. Our scientific, and subsequently technological, prowess has far outstripped any human moral or emotional progress. Humans evolved to be aggressive, manipulative and domineering animals. We are uber-predators and all of nature has become our prey. Our innate drives haven’t changed much, if at all, but our technological ability to manipulate and dominate has literally exploded. It was clever to create nuclear weapons, combustion engines and wild animal wet markets* but was it right?
As opposed to cleverness, wisdom does understand right and wrong. It understands relationships, systems and consequences. It understands limits. Wisdom understands there is no certitude so there must be caution and humility. We might have instinctual drives that are destructive but we also have the self-awareness to curb those drives. The earth is a system and as such, it takes wisdom for us to understand that everything we do has consequences because everything is related. The word ‘understand’ literally means to ‘stand with’ or ‘stand in the midst of’. In this sense, nature is saturated with understanding and wisdom.
The earth and nature are quite resilient because they are adaptable and diverse. This is wisdom. However, the more that humans reduce biodiversity the less resilient nature becomes. Viruses, a very primitive form of life can mutate and adapt very quickly. More complex forms of life can’t adapt this quickly. Once their habitats are removed or degraded, they can’t adapt fast enough and will become extinct, forever. This is happening throughout the world at an alarming rate because of our reckless drive to control and manipulate the earth.
On Earth Day 2020, amidst the tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must remind ourselves of our frailties, and of our connection to nature and also of the folly of taking the course of cleverness. In Lockdown, we can reflect on what is most important in our lives – and what isn’t. We can ponder on whether wisdom is a more worthy pursuit than the exploitation of Earth’s natural resources. I’m quite sure that if we don’t take the path of pursuing wisdom, the Earth will reject us, not out of any malice, because that’s a purely human trait, but because humans are like a virus that makes the earth sick.
We must all ‘stand with’ the Earth otherwise we will end up making it sicker with our cleverness.
* The origin of the Sars-CoV-2 virus is thought to be a wet market in Wuhan, China, that sells live and dead wild animals, along with other fresh produce, however, this has not been confirmed. In any case, wild animal wet markets seem imprudent.