Homo Sapien-itis

22 Jun

Re-reading C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, I was vaguely horrified to discover the second novel, Perelandra, become a rather explicit polemic against space travel.  The vast distances between stars, planets, or galaxies in space, he wrote, are simply: “God’s quarantine regulations.”

Or in other words, humankind is a disease.

From C.S. Lewis’s viewpoint, this makes a lot of sense—a devout Christian, he believed that the Fall of Adam and Eve tainted all men and women with Original Sin.  We’ve got the mark of Cain, brothers and sisters, and we will necessarily export that propensity to sin anywhere we travel.

What I find interesting is that this argument, today, isn’t even limited to the deeply religious.  The most fervent proponents of the depravity of mankind are probably the ones we’d least expect: the environmental movement.

Keeping our rivers clean or our air pure seem like goals intended to benefit human beings (or at least in terms of human health).  “Pollution,” after all, is defined as “the presence in or introduction into the environment of a substance which has poisonous effects.”  Poison’s bad, sure.  We don’t want children playing in the waves at the beach and going home with a rash.  But “going green” means more now than making the environment safe for humans—it’s a decidedly anti-human attitude.

Pollution isn’t what’s sinful, but production—incandescent lightbulbs, running your dishwasher at “peak hours,” carrying your groceries home in a disposable bag.  These are the little things, the little comfort that modern technology allows us, but it’s not the little things the environmental movement targets: it’s the biggest thing of all, the human mind.

We don’t have claws or fangs or fur to help us survive—only the mind.  And from the earliest days of human evolution (or the earliest days after the Fall, if you’d like), humans have had to use that mind to shape the environment if they wanted to survive.  The means of shaping the environment to human needs is technology, whether it’s the wheel or the automobile.  Technology might not be “in harmony with nature,” and it might not always be “green,” but it has improved the quality of life of billions of people over thousands of years.

But it’s not the human standard of living the environmental movement hopes to improve: it’s nature for nature’s sake.  Plants, animals, and rock formations have the right to exist without interference—but human beings don’t.  It’s not Styrofoam cups in a landfill which poisons the environment, but the very fact that people use and want Styrofoam.  Filthy rivers pollute our water sources, but billboards “pollute” the landscape.

“And just think,” a classmate told me.  “If we go out into space, we’re just going to do the same thing to some other planet.”

Human beings themselves are the pollutants.

But if “doing the same thing” means making use of the natural resources of both the planet (whatever planet) and the natural resources of human mind, and if that’s the disease, then I very much hope we’re all infected.

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3 Responses to “Homo Sapien-itis”

  1. Preceptor, Thraxis V June 24, 2009 at 7:47 am #

    It’s interesting, I did not get a sense that Lewis’ worried so much about humans carrying diseases around (physical and psychological), but rather it seemed to me that he was concerned that of the diseases man did carry, hopefully the “right” ones would win out. However, I will have to give your observations some more thought.
    Regarding the common perspective that mankind might ‘bring pollution’ to any other planets that we visit, the fundamental problem with this attitude is that it leads inexorably to the conclusion that the best thing that mankind can do is to simply “die out”. The fundamental flaw in this perspective is that it utterly fails to account for all the good things that humans create and and promote. These misanthropes would probably agree that art and music are good, yet this elements would not exist without us. Human contributions to goodness makes for a long list, maybe longer than the list of contributions to badness. But I take some comfort in the fact that people that believe that people are the problem, tend to be self-extinguishing.

    • thescattering June 24, 2009 at 8:50 am #

      I wish I could be more optimistic about C.S. Lewis here, but I don’t think his main concern is “right” versus “wrong” diseases (metaphorically). In Out of the Silent Planet, the Hrossa have art/music, the Seroni have science, and the Pfifiltriggi have a kind of industry (mining)– but while these things in the Malacandrians are “good,” they’re not credited in human beings (one of the pfifiltriggi expresses horror that a human might do any of this work for a wage). Even what we might see as “good” becomes a disease simply when it’s done by humans. The impression I received was that Lewis saw humans as innately depraved, which is consistent with a traditionally religious outlook. What I worry about is not the people who think people are the problem, but the idea itself; the “green” movement is only growing, and I think it’s propelled not by people but by the philosophy of this non-religious “Original Sin.”

  2. Preceptor, Thraxis V June 24, 2009 at 10:43 am #

    I think the Exvironmentalism Conference could benefit greatly from further discourse on this subject. I will look forward to your presentation.

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