What Good is a Morality That Doesn’t Encompass All Life on Earth?

I woke up the other morning with a conversation going on in my head. This happens often and seems to be both a part of my creative process and my life of prayer. I never know who these conversations are with. Usually I am the one talking. The other mostly listens. But every now and then that voice will say something, invariably no more than a single sentence, and that is what I remember when I wake. That morning it was this: “Fifty years from now, when people look back on the literature of the past century, they will judge it primarily on the basis of one question: Did it prepare us for this?”

By now, a growing number of people have begun to realize what “this” refers to. In my case it was the predictions made in a small book of environmental writing I’d finished reading just the night before.

The End of the Wild was the last book by MIT professor Stephen M. Meyer. Published in 2006, the book takes as its premise the conviction that there is little we can do now to forestall the extinction of one half of our planet’s biodiversity by century’s end. Half of all plant and animal species will either disappear or be reduced to the status of “relic” or “ghost”—species populations too small or too scattered to renew themselves, and will therefore eventually go extinct.

Meyer points out that even the solutions we propose to stem that loss (conservation movements, preserves and sanctuaries, endangered species legislation) are themselves so profoundly out of sync with natural selection that they often only make matters worse. The problem is “human” selection and always has been.

Since the invention of the first stone tool, humanity has pounded the wild into a shape that fits its needs. Forests are transformed to fields. Swamps are drained. Arid landscapes are irrigated. Mountains are flattened and valleys filled. The bounty of nature is converted into commodities: timber, food, luxuries. Coexisting with nature has always meant taming it; consuming it. As the human population jumped into the billions, the rise of human selection as the dominant evolutionary force was inevitable, and so was the end of the wild.

It is a problem of such long standing, and is so deeply ingrained in every aspect of human endeavor, that to suppose we can counteract it reactively in a matter of mere decades is simply naive. There are just too many of us on the planet now… doing what we do.

For all that, The End of the Wild is not the usual doom and gloom we hear from environmental millennialists. The book is sobering, but, strangely, it does not invite despair. Rather, it seems to say, “This is the world you have made, a world in which everything is suited to your purpose. How do you like it?”

Honestly, the answer for many of us (especially those living in developed nations) is that we like it a great deal. But that confidence is starting to wobble and will soon begin to fall. In the final pages of The End of the Wild, Meyer asks a single question, the answer to which (if we choose to attempt one) is as devastating as they come: “What is the essence of our own morality if it fails to encompass most of life on Earth?”

This is, of course, a variation on the question I woke up with the other morning. Being a writer, my still small voice-of-conscience framed it in a somewhat more specific way: If what you are writing does not prepare us to deal with “this,” should you be writing it? But, then, that sort of question also applies to pretty much everything else in life: If what you are buying or consuming does not prepare us for “this,” should you be buying or consuming it? If what you are saying or thinking does not prepare us, should you be saying or thinking it? If your religion does not prepare us, should you believe it? The list goes on and on.

It’s only a matter of time before this truth sets in; fifty years at most. By then it will have become apparent that human selection is an endgame scenario: that one species having its way with the whole ecosystem reduces the world to a park. The only problem with that is, a park has no meaning in itself.

What purpose could there be in diversion when the rest of the world is gone?