Is the Biosphere Going to the Dogs?

I learned this one night camping in Monument Valley: Dogs in the desert fight about food even when there is enough to go around. The first dog gets a scrap. A second arrives, and a third; each gets a scrap. A fourth and fifth, too. But though they each have something to gnaw on, they chase around desperately. Finally, I toss an extra scrap and instantaneously they settle down to eat. They observe the existing resources, but fight over the chance of a future food shortage.

Recent news reminds me of this lesson: Under the headline, "A Gold Rush in the Abyss," the New York Times reports that undersea prospecting for minerals is expanding around the globe. Nations and companies vie to stake claims to seabed sources of copper, silver, gold, and other substances. The stated motivation is "dwindling resources on land" and "predictions of metal shortages ahead."

As if to underscore the similarity between industrial humans and dogs, the Times describes the process this way: "Ships…send down sharp drills that gnaw into the rocky seabed." Dogs gnaw bones and humans use drills to gnaw the earth.

People sometimes say industriousness is a characteristic that sets humans above other animals, and that industrial civilization is the highest stage of history. But if the behavior of industrialized humans is the same as desert dogs, where is the supposed superiority?

Moreover, if industrial humans are supposed to be rational, why do they gnaw deeper into the earth in the face of finite resources? Ever-increasing extraction of materials from a finite planet seems insane, not rational. Industrial civilization is like cancer, consuming the basis of life in the name of life: Individual cells reproducing themselves wildly out of balance with the body of which they are a part.

In his 1987 book, Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk indicts "the fundamental sciences of industrial technology" as "a war of exploitation and annihilation…against the biosphere." He asks "whether the world's centers of action can at all still muster enough rational energy to overcome the irrationality that is active within them."

If ecology is the ability to see the natural context for our activity—to understand there is a biosphere, a nature to which we are integral—then it seems we can understand the limits of our actions.

The Times reports that Deep Sea Mining Campaign, an international group of environmentalists, has expressed "growing alarm, saying too little research has been done on the risks of seabed mining." The industry has responded with "studies, reassurance and upbeat conferences." One industry leader told the Times that his company is working closely with oceanographers and that its operations are "advancing the science."

Industrial science is engaged in fighting and gnawing at the biosphere. It markets this as all for our own good, for our self-preservation. But, as Sloterdijk wrote, "What today is called rationality…reveals itself to be the form of thinking of the principle of self-preservation gone wild."

Industrial leaders regard the globalization of industrial civilization as a good thing. They regard indigenous societies, with economies based on balance and sustainability, as retrograde. They insist that reality is only a matter of the financial bottom line: The Times quotes one of the prospectors: "There’s a lot at stake. If metal prices go up, a billion-dollar deposit can turn into a hundred billion."

Packs of dogs may consume enough to eat themselves out of balance with their food sources. Humans can do the same thing. The difference is that humans pride themselves on being better than dogs. Humans may prattle about their superiority, but when they gnaw at the bottom of the abyss, the planet is going to the dogs.

One observer told the Times that undersea mining is "the last redivision of the world." Perhaps the first redivision was the Papal Bulls announcing the Doctrine of Christian Discovery in the colonial rush to extract mineral wealth from the "New World."

It remains to be seen which is happening faster: destruction of the biosphere in the name of "scientific advancement," or awareness of the need for ecological balance among all life forms. Indigenous peoples may be among the ones who can lead us away from destruction and toward balance. It all depends on whether they remember the ancient teachings and can apply them in the modern world, or whether they, too, have become more concerned about their "economic wealth" than about the environment.

The fundamental question, asked by Sloterdijk as well as by Vine Deloria, Phillip Deere, and others, is whether our spiritual strength will suffice to bring forth a renewed understanding that humans are part of a Creation that is not simply a set of material "resources."

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. Staff attorney in Dinébe'iiná Náhii?na be Aga'diit'ahii Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970. Taught Legal Studies at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. Consulting attorney on indigenous issues.