We aren't uniquely self-destructive, just inexcusably so

Natural History is an accretion of catastrophic side effects resulting from blind self-interest, each ecosystem an apocalyptic landscape to the previous generations and a paradise to the survivors' thriving and well-adapted descendants. There was no subtle balance when the first photosynthetic organisms filled the atmosphere with the toxic waste of their metabolism. The dance of predator and prey takes its rhythm from the chaotic beat of famine, and its melody from an unreliable climate. Each biological innovation changes the shape of entire ecosystems, giving place to a new fleeting pattern than will only survive until the next one.

We think Nature harmonious and wise because our memories are short and our fearful worship recent. But we are among the first generations of the first species for which famine is no accident, but negligence and crime.

No, our destruction of the ecosystems we were part of when we first learned the tools of fire, farm, and physics is not unique in the history of our planet, it's not a sin uniquely upon us.

It is, however, a blunder, because we know better, and if we have the right to prefer to a silent meadow the thousands fed by the farms replacing it, we have no right to ignore how much water it's safe to draw, how much nitrogen we will have to use and where it'll come from, how to preserve the genes we might need and the disease resistance we already do. We made no promise to our descendants to leave them pandas and tigers, but we will indeed be judged poorly if we leave them a world changed by the unintended and uncorrected side effects of our own activities in ways that will make it harder for them to survive.

We aren't destroying the planet, couldn't destroy the planet (short of, in an ecological sense, sterilizing it with enough nuclear bombs). What we are doing is changing its ecosystems, and in some senses its very geology and chemistry, in ways that make it less habitable for us. Organisms that love heat and carbon in the air, acidic seas and flooded coasts... for them we aren't scourges but benefactors. Biodiversity falls as we change the environment with a speed, in an evolutionary scale, little slower than a volcano's, but the survivors will thrive and then radiate in new astounding forms. We may not.

Let us not, then, think survival a matter of preserving ecosystems, or at least not beyond what an aesthetic or historical sense might drive us to. We have changed the world in ways that make it worse for us, and we continue to do so far beyond the feeble excuses of ignorance. Our long term survival as a civilization, if not as a species, demands from us to change the world again, this time in ways that will make it better for us. We don't need biodiversity because we inherited it: we need it because it makes ecosystems more robust, and hence our own societies less fragile. We don't need to both stop and mitigate climate change because there's something sacred about the previous global climate: we need to do it because anything much worse than what we've already signed for might be too much for our civilization to adapt to, and runaway warming might even be too much for the species itself to survive. We need to understand, manage, and increase sustainable cycles of water, soil, nitrogen, and phosphorus because that's how we feed ourselves. We can survive without India's tigers. But collapse the monsoon or the subcontinent's irrigation infrastructure and at least half a billion people will die.

We wouldn't be the first species killed by our own blind success, nor the first civilization destroyed by a combination of power and ignorance, empty cities the only reminders of better architectural than ecological insight. We know better, and should act in a way befitting what we know. Our problem is no larger than our tools, our reach no further than our grasp.

The only question is how hard we'll make things for us before we start working on earnest to build a better world, one less harsh to our civilization, or at least not untenably more so. The question is how many people will unnecessarily die, and what long-term price we'll pay for our delay.

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