This piece ran as a newspaper op/ed around the end of November, 2021.
In the Bible, in the first real story after those concerning Adam and Eve and their family, God looks down on the earth and “it repented the Lord that he had made man…” He regrets creating man because, observing these human creatures, “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth.” (Gen: 6:5-6) And soon, in consequence, destruction strikes the human in the form of the Great Flood.
Regarding another possible scenario of destruction, in a previous piece I estimated it to be a “toss-up” whether – over the next several centuries — human civilization will get its act together or culminate in some kind of self-inflicted catastrophe (through a nuclear holocaust, or our damaging the biosphere disastrously).
Like the Flood, that possible future self-destruction would be the fruit of what might be called “wickedness.” But whereas the Flood was sent as a punishment for the wickedness (or brokenness) of human beings, the destruction that our civilization may bring down upon humankind would be a natural consequence of the brokenness of the humans and their institutions.
(For example, a civilization without our brokenness – one more morally responsible – would have dealt very differently from ours with the decades of warnings issued by the scientists about the threat posed to the future viability of all the systems of life on earth, including our children and grandchildren, by our disruption earth’s climate. The power of “wickedness” in our world has imperiled the human future.)
And I wonder: If Life-on-Earth could see the dangers arising from humankind, would it repent having given birth to this civilization-creating creature?
Or have human beings added enough to the world to make it worth the risk?
Despite the manifest power of what might be called “wickedness” in the human world, there’s also so much that’s marvelous about what humankind has created, so much of value that would never have adorned Life-on-Earth had our kind never arisen.
True: the systems of Life were already magnificently rich and complex before us.
But with humankind there came a new level of experiential richness, at the level of each individual life—a depth possible only with us creatures that broke through into the business of inventing our own way of life.
With human cultures taking a huge variety of paths, and with there being as a result a huge variety of experiences human beings can have while living their lives in one culture or another, the resultant universe of “human experience” has been mind-bogglingly deep and rich and complex.
True, other creatures have some real intelligence, real feelings, and even real bits of culture. But, with our special level of consciousness, humankind has taken all that to entirely new levels.
Prairie dogs have some of kind useful language, but we have developed a whole universe of languages, each with their different ways of talking about our world.
Even vocabulary represents an accumulated cultural achievement. English, for example, has given us a conceptual tool-kit that enables us to build complex understanding: profound words – like truth and justice, paradox and contradiction, acceleration and light-years, love and respect – without which we’d have a hard time getting very far in our thinking.
And then there is what humankind has added to what Life has achieved on earth by those who have attempted to create meaning, truth, and beauty through their work– Through the creativity of the likes of Shakespeare, or Michelangelo, or Bach, (and their counterparts in other cultural streams).
The richness of human achievement is directly connected with the problem of our destructiveness.
Without the impressive achievement of our accumulated technology and global systems of commerce – by which humankind has organized the planet to produce more and more of what we want, to take care of our more and more people, at higher and higher levels of affluence – human civilization would lack to power to threaten the stability of earth’s climate.
Likewise, the very fact that we’ve developed the atomic weapons that just might end human civilization is itself testimony to the brilliant understanding some human beings have achieved. Before there was the bomb, there was the human achievement of penetrating some of the secrets of the universe.
How much weight should we give to the idea that there’s value in having a creature emerge – even if possible only for a while — who beholds this extraordinary reality of ours with the combination of understanding and awe?
Some theologians have said that God made man “in his own image” not just in the sense that man also would be a “creator” – as the civilization-creating creature essentially is – but also that God wanted there to be some creature capable of appreciating the incredible performance this Creation represents.
How much risk would Life wisely take to bring forth that kind of awareness?
If civilization can gain control of its destructiveness well enough, soon enough, to thrive together with Life-on-Earth for the long run, what a marvelous outcome that would be! A crowning glory.
But if we self-destruct, what then?
Life-on-Earth might “repent” it ever brought forth such a creature as we. But then again, perhaps what we’ve created with our special consciousness will have been worth it, even if the earth does end up needing a few million years to recover from what we end up doing to it.