And after the Seventh Great Extinction

Somewhere, I forgot where, I remember Bertrand Russell describing a masochistic god. God gave man all kinds of wayward impulses, but gave him an injunction not to follow them. And when, as Russell describes it, man had become perfect in self-renunciation, God caused a huge comet to crash into the earth, destroying His creation.

And God said, “It was a good play. I will have to perform it again sometime.”

With a little changing, that story is apropos of our time. We can dispense with a great deity, substituting instead Nature, the cosmos, whatever. We can also dispense with self-renunciation. In its place, we will allow the dictates and impulses of Nature full scope. Life will follow its own logic.

For life to survive it must procreate; it must hone its feeding techniques. Each species evolves in this fashion; each species is, in a profound, sense competing with all others. Sometimes partnerships are formed, dependencies. Romantics like to think of it as a complex web of interdependencies. In their view, life, collectively, is unitary, an answer to the unthinking, inanimate universe.

We, I suspect, are on the brink of breaking those interdependencies, of leaving the Romantic visionaries behind. We have donned the mantle of gods and stepped forward, embarking upon refashioning the world in our own image. All things must give way as we create a world for our procreation and our stomachs and our pleasure. We have already embarked on projects to re-engineer fish, fowl, plant…all life…to suit our ends. Even the lowly bacterium is not beyond our reach or our interest.

As we slowly move our hand across the world, more and more species are being threatened with extinction. One-quarter of all birds in the U.S.—178 species—are imperiled. And those are just birds…not other life forms. And that is just in the territorial land mass of the U.S.

The earth has already experienced six great extinctions; this may well be the beginning of the seventh. (An interesting Biblical number, if you think about it.)

Our response is already apparent: We will farm those species we need; bio-engineer those we can make more economical. It is all part of the great refashioning of the world.

As for climate change and global warming, that, too, we will re-engineer. Pour iron into the oceans; scatter erosols in the atmosphere.

The latter seems practical, low cost. Already some economists are benignly smiling on this possibility. Our growth must not be impeded. Our stomachs must be fed; our progeny increased; out pleasures multiplied.

There is little doubt in my mind that we are set on a path that will require geo-engineering and bioengineering on a scale that only gods should contemplate.

I am not interested in the moral dilemma of Faust or the hubris in creating our own Tower of Babel. My question simply is: Do we know enough? There may well come a time when we will know enough. I, for one, believe in that time. But are we truly ready now?

Anyone who reads scientific journals as I do must be astounded at the advances in knowledge. Daily we hear of this discovery or that advance. It is dazzling, like some great firework display encompassing the sky. Nothing seems beyond our vision.

And yet…and yet…is this the final act of one more species, our species, upon which, after the final earth-shuddering bang of our last firecracker, the curtain descends in darkness? Only to have someone, somewhere whisper: “It was a good show. I want to see it again sometime. “