Around the time of Earth Day in 2006, Bill Nye was the guest on CFI’s flagship podcast Point of Inquiry, at the time hosted by DJ Grothe. Before the interview, the show aired an essay written and read by Lauren Becker (now of course our director of marketing), “Have You Been Saved?”
As a special treat for Earth Day 2014, we wanted to share it with you. Click below to listen to Lauren consider what Earth Day is really about. (Spoiler: it’s less about a planet and more about us wee humans that live on it.) The full original Point of Inquiry episode with Bill Nye is available here.
April 21, 2006
“Have you been saved?”
As an atheist, I’m never really quite sure how to respond to this. “From what?” is the answer that usually comes to mind. As an environmentalist, however, I’ve learned this question takes on an entirely different meaning.
This Saturday, April 22nd, is the 36th anniversary of Earth Day. This worldwide event – along with Monday Night Football, Apollo 13, and me, it turns out – was born in 1970. A U.S. Senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson decided to organize a kind of environmental protest, an attempt, in his own words, “to shake up the political establishment and force the issue onto the national agenda.” Earth Day became the first in a new series of campaigns to “Save the Whales,” “Save the Trees,” or just plain “Save the Earth.”
Since then, we’ve made some good progress, but after three decades of hard work, we seem to have reached an impasse. In many areas, we’re actually losing ground. The problem, I think, isn’t the movement. I think it’s the message. All this time, we haven’t really been honest with ourselves or the public and it’s allowed us to make some bad decisions. Now, if we hope to succeed, we have to admit the truth: the environmental movement is not about saving the Earth.
First of all, just listen to that phrase: Save the Earth. Who are we kidding? The Earth is an enormous mass of inorganic material eight thousand miles thick with just the thinnest margin of life clinging to its surface. It’s a giant rock. It’s been here for 5 billion years and it will be hereanother 5 billion years – whether we recycle those bottles or not. The Earth doesn’t need our saving. It doesn’t even know we exist. It’s a rock! Far from saving it, we could do everything in our power to try to destroy it and 10 million years later, it would still be here, a big rock orbiting a much bigger star – with no evidence that we ever existed.
No, the environmental movement isn’t about saving the Earth. It’s not about saving the whales, the trees, the baby seals, the coral reefs, the wild salmon, the spotted owl, or even the air and water. What we so desperately need to understand, what we must internalize until it is part of our very being, part of our every action and decision, is this: the environmental movement is about saving the humans. It’s about saving us – you, me, and our kids.
We humans like to think that we are special and unique, set apart from the world and in charge of its stewardship, but we can no longer afford such fantastic dreams. It might be fun to feel like some sort of magnanimous benefactor – doing our part to save the poor little planet – but this is a disastrous “misunderestimating” of the situation.
In truth, we aren’t special creations and we most certainly are not set apart. We are animals, barely different from the other mammals of the world. We are made of the earth, of the same elements that make the trees, the whales, the spotted owl, and we rely on that same air and water that they do. Like them, we do the best we can to make due with our surroundings to survive long enough to produce offspring. Problem is, we’ve gotten so good at producing those offspring, we’ve accidentally created the perfect conditions to kill them.
There are over six billion people on the planet right now. If present trends continue, that will double to 12 billion in the next 40 years. How old are you? Will you still be around in 40 years? Try to imagine 12 billion people. Now, of course you’re thinking, “that could never happen,” and you’re right. There is no way the living systems of the Earth can support 12 billion human beings. Phew! But if it’s nice to think we won’t have to share the world with 12 billion of our cousins, we would be better served if we remember exactly what, ultimately, will save us from such overcrowding: it’s called famine, drought, disease, pestilence, and war.
It’s a veritable hell of biblical proportions, but these disasters would not be the result of a jealous god. They would be the result of ignorant animals, too consumed with consumption to realize they were killing their own children.
It’s more pleasant to think we’re being generous and giving of ourselves to save the earth – that thing separate from us – but it entirely misses the point and dooms us to failure. The earth is not dependent on our generosity. Have you forgotten? It’s a rock. It needs nothing from us. Without it, however, we are nothing.
We need to save the earth. We need to save the forests and the oceans and the air, but it’s time to stop messin’ around. Earth Day isn’t about philanthropy. We don’t save these things for their sake, we save them for ours. We must work to save ourselves.
So the next time someone asks you, “Have you been saved?”, think a little deeper. Think like an environmentalist and respond,
“I’m doing everything I can.” Then get to work.
Happy Human Day, everyone.
Image via Shutterstock