If we Do Not Play God we Play the Devil

godandthedevil
We can only be one or the other

The Anthropocene[1] has arrived and with it have come warming temperatures, rising and acidifying seas, and numerous species extinctions. There is no doubt that our species created this new epoch, but there is certainly a question of what to do now that it is here. I do not claim to know what the answer is, but I do feel pretty confident saying that the answer is not to use the excuse of “not wanting to play God” as an all-powerful thunderbolt to smite down any and all proposed conservation, restoration, and adaptation measures. At this point if we refuse to “play God” we choose to play the devil by default.

 

It is certainly valid to criticize ecosystem management and climate change mitigation plans based on their perceived likelihood of success or their risk to benefit ratio. For example attempting to imitate the temporary cooling effects of large volcanic eruptions by injecting sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere is a terrible idea, because it is likely to increase drought risk by weakening the Asian monsoons (Oman et al. 2005) and will do nothing to remedy the problem of ocean acidification. In the case of other attempts at large-scale ecosystem restoration, however, the benefits outweigh the risks. One famous example is the re-building of the formerly severely degraded ecosystems on Southern California’s Channel Islands. This heroic effort involved eradicating all of the introducedrats, pigs, sheep, and turkeys; re-introducing bald eagles after DDT led to their disappearance from the islands in the 1950s; trapping and relocating the golden eagles that moved into the islands to feed on piglets and island foxes in the bald eagle’s absence; and capturing large numbers of island foxes for captive-breeding and later reintroduction once they were no longer in danger from death from above[2].

urocyon_littoralis_full_figure
Channel Island fox and native vegetation. Image from Wikipedia.

Those involved in this monumental feat of ecosystem restoration were accused of “playing God” by their detractors, but ultimately these “deity wannabes” succeeded. Today on the Channel Islands birds are safe from predation by rats, plants are recovering from decades of overgrazing, and island foxes have become sufficiently abundant to be removed from the endangered species list. Had decisions been guided by a fear of playing God rather than the hope for healthier ecosystems, island foxes would likely be extinct by now and the islands would be increasingly barren. Clearly Edmund Burke was right when he said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Furthermore it is fundamentally hypocritical on the part of humanity to claim that aggressive steps to save ecosystems are trespassing on God’s domain, but that aggressively, but perhaps ignorantly, destroying ecosystems is perfectly kosher. Humans have drained wetlands, leveled forests, dammed rivers, blasted coral reefs, and otherwise altered ecosystems to suit our own needs at the expense of the rest of creation. If these acts have not inspired God to set the (literal) horsemen of the apocalypse on us I am sure (s)he can forgive or even bless us for using our current scientific and technological might to repair some of the damage our species has done in the past. I am no scholar of religion, but the Bible seems to place a lot of importance on restitution for past sins. Let us not use a foolish principle as an excuse to not clean up the mess we have made.

Unfortunately, however, humans do have some distinct disadvantages when compared to deities. We are neither all-knowing nor all-powerful. Some of our efforts to restore ecosystems may backfire and end up causing further damage instead. To compensate for our fallibility we must carefully consider the impacts of any restoration or mitigation plan prior to putting it into practice. Once a plan is in practice we must carefully monitor its effects and be ready to make changes if necessary. There also may also be a certain upcoming environmental catastrophes that humans, clever as we are, cannot invent our way out of. Recognizing these to avoid fighting unwinnable battles will also be critical. Just because some battles are unwinnable, however, does not mean that other environmental triumphs cannot be won through determination, creativity, and hard work. It is better to “play God” than to do nothing and allow the diabolical consequences of degradation to prevail on our planet.

Sources:

Oman, L., Robock, A., Stenchikov, G., Schmidt, G. A., & Ruedy, R. (2005). Climatic response to high‐latitude volcanic eruptions. Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres, 110(D)

[1] The geological era in which human activity is the dominant influence on the climate and environment.

[2] Golden eagles eat foxes, but bald eagles do not and the presence of bald eagles and the absence of lambs and piglets have prevented golden eagles from returning to the Channel Islands.

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