What Is the Purpose of Our Planet?

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Pop star Miley Cyrus told Elle magazine that she and her husband Liam Hemsworth did not intend to have children. Like many millennials, “We don’t want to reproduce because we know the earth can’t handle it.”

Cyrus, who declares she’s “such an over-thinker,” doesn’t want to bring children into the world because “[w]e’re getting handed a piece-of-sh*t planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child. Until I feel that my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing another person to deal with that.”

As a homesick New Jerseyan, I’d suggest Cyrus invest in some riverfront property on the Delaware where she might fulfill her ichthyological fetish to her heart’s content. Indeed, even the Hudson has been repopulating with perch and bass.

But Cyrus’s anti-natalist views are not out of sync with others of her generation. The Australian bioethics blog Mercatornet reports that New Zealanders in their “prime childbearing years” are not reproducing.  “[C]limate change, overpopulation of the planet, scarcity of resources, and climate-induced migration” are all cited as reasons. One respondent said he “didn’t know if he wanted to bring a child into the world where humanity would be ‘treading on each other.’ Although they still wish to have children, the couple have decided to make the sacrifice for the sake of the planet.” (Emphasis added.)

 

At 131 among 200 countries on the 2019 World Population Review’s chart, New Zealand, with a sub-replacement rate of 1.9 and a population of four and a half million, hardly seems poised on the precipice of demographic Armageddon. New Zealand is more of a typical Western society, slipping gently into the “good” night of an aging and shrinking population that will probably have to rely on immigrants to pick the kiwis and care for the elderly.

The retreat from parenthood in order “to do their bit for the planet” is, however, in full swing in much of the Western world.

I could argue that population alarmists have been at it since Thomas Malthus published his Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, with dubious results. I could note that they got a new lease on life with Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, whose vision of global famines in the 1970s and 1980s never materialized. I could add that the only reason the United States is not fully spiraling into the demographic black hole where most developed countries seem headed is that immigrants either haven’t bought Ehrlich at their neighborhood Goodwill store or decided not to do their bit for the planet.

But I want to ask a deeper question: “who’s a planet for?”

I have long maintained that what I call the West’s “Genesis Heritage” is under full-fledged contemporary assault. The classical account of creation in Genesis 1, which has formed and informed our culture, was a polemic against the cultures amidst which Israel found itself.

In its refrain “it was good,” the sacred author intended to push back against a dualistic world in which matter was evil. By acknowledging “God said—and there was …,” that author sought to affirm that the God of Israel, unlike the gods of Israel’s neighbors, was sovereign and good, not just bigger and stronger with as many moral warts as humans. In mentioning specific things that are created, the sacred writer cut down to size what Israel’s neighbors had apotheosized: the sun (in Egypt), the moon (in Babylon), and animals of all kinds.

Where the West’s Genesis Heritage is most directly under attack is in three areas, all of which have a directly anthropological relevance:

  • That God created man “in his image, male and female He created them,”—so that sexual differentiation and complementarity is willed by God and not the outcome of some discriminatory “gender binary.”
  • That God blessed humanity with the gift of fertility as his first gift—“be fruitful and multiply”—so that fertility is not indifferent, inconvenient, or even pathological, but good.
  • That God gave man dominion over the world—“have dominion over the birds of the air, the beasts of the field”—not to abuse it but to use it in the service of humanity as creation’s crown.

All three of these areas are of lively controversy, but I want to underscore the last one: human dominion over the world.

The Genesis vision of humanity sees the human person as qualitatively different, made in the divine image and likeness, and given dominion over the world to tend and care for it (in Genesis 2, God creates man to work the Garden). As theological reflection developed over time, that qualitative human difference lay in the fact that man, alone among material creation, is rational and volitional, consciously thinking and choosing. In this, he shares in God’s creatorship by giving form, shape, and intention to the raw material of this world. Man’s charge of dominion stewardship is one of use, not abuse.  Environmentalists may charge humanity with fiduciary failure, but abusus non tollit usum.

 Against this vision of the human relationship to the material world competes another, one particularly virulent in strains of deep ecology but with roots in paganism, i.e., a worship of the earth and nature. “Over-thinker” Miley Cyrus taps into this Gaia-worship when, in her Elle interview, she insists that “[n]othing’s more powerful than nature. Nothing. And nature’s female.  When she’s angry, don’t f*ck with her.… The earth is angry.”

So, is the earth a conscious subject? Or is man? “And who’s an earth for?”

I go back to an old philosophical controversy. When he began formulating his epistemological idealism, George Berkeley posed the famous question: “If a tree falls in a forest but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a noise?” Well, apart from the fact that the tree is real, tree rot is real, and gravity is real, the tree will fall and make a noise regardless of its listeners. But even if we were to concede Berkeley’s subjective idealism for purposes of argument, the question also becomes: so what? If there was no one around to hear the fall, who cares?

Notice that Berkeley never asked if that sonorous spruce’s collapse was heard by a woodpecker. Even if the “noise” may have caused Woody to flap his wings instinctively out of fear of some imminent danger, no one assumes that the bird knows a tree fell in Brooklyn or reflects on the loss of its carbon-reducing impact. We innately understand that human awareness is different. 

So what kind of nonpersonal world does Gaia (and her “doing their bit” votaries) offer us? A beautiful world of splashing fish that no man sees or tastes? (The sharks, on the other hand, are unlikely to go vegan.) A better-balanced climate enjoyed by orchids? (I hear some like it hot.) A planet of crystal clear babbling brooks—do they babble if there’s nobody to hear them? What perverse kind of future is a future devoid of persons?

The extreme of this thinking is found in a certain wing of environmentalism and despairing philosophy that advocates for human extinction. David Benatar is the consummate (but not the only) example of this extremism. It’s most telling to me that philosophers who deem human extinction even theoretically desirable, rather than being called “sleek barbarians”—i.e., barbarians in academic togas—they are published by presses like Oxford, feted as “innovative” thinkers, and acquire followers who forgo their future and their children’s in the name of their theoretical nonhuman “Edens.” The same was true of the “flower children” of the Ehrlichs’ day as well as those taken in by the “scientific” and “mathematical genius” of Malthus: consider how readily Ebenezer Scrooge was willing to “decrease the surplus population” whose lives raised his taxes.

Just as with Scrooge, who is rebuked by the Ghost of Christmas Present for the temerity to identify “what the surplus population is and where it is,” humans remain generally good at identifying those populations “that we don’t want to have too many of” outside of their own circles.

But our virtue-signaling environmentalist generation has degenerated one step further, having come to believe that good lies in identifying their own flesh and blood—their own offspring—as worth sacrificing for our tired, angry planet.

Robert Browning famously advised that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp//Or what’s a heaven for?” Today’s “spiritual but not religious” generation does “not so much as lift [their] eyes up towards heaven, but strikes [their] breast” in planetary penitence, sacrificing their progeny in exchange for a hillside of pines.

Editor’s note: Pictured above, U.S. singer Miley Cyrus and husband Australian actor Liam Hemsworth arrive for the Saint Laurent Men’s Spring-Summer 2020 runway show in Malibu, California, on June 6, 2019. (Photo credit: KYLE GRILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

John M. Grondelski

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Dr. John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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