Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion Talking Point

John Launer: Saving the planet—hubris and humility

BMJ 2023; 383 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.p2909 (Published 08 December 2023) Cite this as: BMJ 2023;383:p2909
  1. John Launer, GP educator and writer
  1. London
  1. johnlauner{at}aol.com
    Follow John on Twitter: @johnlauner

“Save the planet!” Most of us sympathise with the slogan. Unwittingly, however, it symbolises a great deal about our scientific ignorance and collective state of mind regarding climate breakdown, the destruction of our current environment, and the extermination of other species.

The planet itself, of course, doesn’t need saving. It’s a lump of largely inanimate material that circles our sun along with a number of similar lumps. There’s no reason to imagine that it will stop doing so for a very long time. And life on the planet almost certainly doesn’t need saving either. It emerged in the absence of any breathable atmosphere, probably in undersea volcanic vents. It continued to evolve in a vast range of geological and climatic environments totally unlike our own.

To quote Darwin, life is likely to carry on evolving in “endless forms most beautiful and wonderful” long after our own species has done its worst. Many creatures have already become extinct as a result of human actions, and far more are likely to go down together with us. But some will prevail and thrive, while others will emerge, as they did after previous global mass extinctions. Just as birds and mammals were the beneficiaries after the dinosaurs vanished, other life forms will no doubt take our place too.

What “save the planet” means, of course, is that we want to save our own species. Essentially, we’re predators who once lived in reasonable balance with the physical and biological resources around us but then developed the skills, in a short space of time, to exploit everything that sustains us—to the point where it cannot. This exploitation underlies many aspects of how we nearly all live now, especially how we eat, travel, and vote.

Another impediment to saving ourselves is that we mostly find it impossible to understand our true place in evolution. If you imagine the Earth as a 46 year old woman, Homo sapiens has been around for only two or three days in her life. Recorded human civilisation began only two hours ago. Judged by everything we know about the emergence and adaptation of tens of millions of other species, and the periodic extinction of nearly all, our chances of longevity were never very good. Probably the only intelligent question to ask is whether we might find the collective will to prolong things.

We’re gradually, or not so gradually, coming to realise that we may not. If we have any remaining chance of doing so, education about our true position in the overall historical and evolutionary picture might play a part. Along with scientists, doctors can point out the benefits of humility over hubris in understanding the realities of our situation. One day human beings will inevitably die out, but this may happen sooner if we continue to believe and talk as though we and the planet are one and the same.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Commissioned; not externally peer reviewed.