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Can the Human Being Be Fixed?
By Leonardo Boff
The South Asian cataclysm raises to many people apparitions of the end of the world, or at least of the possible end of the human species. And for good reason, because these are not apparitions, but disturbing signs. Nobel Laureate Christian De Duve (1974 Biology), in his fascinating book, Vital Dust: Life as a Cosmic Imperative ( Polvo Vital, origen y evolución de la vida en la Tierra , Grupo Editorial, Buenos Aires, 1995 y Norma, Bogotá 1999) affirms that “. . .biological evolution is fast moving towards a grave instability. In a way, our time resembles one of those important ruptures in evolution, marked by massive extinctions.”
The source of this instability derives from a terrible asteroid: the human species. Since its appearance as homo habilis more than two million years ago, its relationship with nature has destabilized. Until 40,000 years ago, the ecological damage was insignificant, but at that point the systematic assault on the biosphere began, with the development of instruments capable of dominating nature. In a few thousand years, the hunters finished off the mammoths, the giant sloth and other prehistoric mammals. This process has worsened in the present, to the point that thousands of life forms are extinguished every year due to human actions.
There is a basic rate of extinction that is considered normal, namely, about 200 species per year. E.O. Wilson, the leading expert in biodiversity, estimates the number of species between ten million and one hundred million, even though the catalogued ones include only 1,400,000. Of these, one species disappears every 13 minutes as a result of the systematic aggression of our predatory and consumerist lifestyle. Scientist Norman Myers calculated that in the last 35 years, in Brazil alone, four species per day were extinguished.
We have been in the Ice Age for two million years. The present warm interglacial phase began 18,000 years ago, and is still going on. According to past patterns, we should be entering a new cooling period. However, our species has altered the nature of the atmosphere. . .
We have been in the Ice Age for two million years. The present warm interglacial phase began 18,000 years ago, and is still going on. According to past patterns, we should be entering a new cooling period. However, our species has altered the nature of the atmosphere and two important gasses are causing disequilibrium: ozone and carbon dioxide.
Carbon dioxide, necessary for the photosynthesis of the plants that liberate oxygen for the atmosphere, has increased excessively due to industry and burning. This causes global warming, the greenhouse effect, thaws and hurricanes. If in the coming decades the temperature increases by 10 degrees, the oceans could rise 73 meters, and an unprecedented catastrophe would occur.
The other gas is ozone. The holes in the ozone layer allow the penetration of the ultraviolet rays that cause cancer, affect the genetic code and extinguishes species.
We must add to these problems the lack of drinking water and the overpopulation by the human species, which has already occupied and ransacked 83% of the planet. Can we human beings live together in a single Common House? We are not passive, but extremely aggressive beings, who lack the will to care for and to cooperate. Royal British astronomer, Martin Rees, expressed his belief in his recent book, Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning (Nuestra Hora final , Drakontos, Madrid 2004), that, if everything continues as it is going now, we could liquidate ourselves in this century.
Catastrophes such as the one in South Asia make us think, and stimulate us to change our behavior, evoking more care and responsibility. If we do not find a collective and rational solution, natural selection will do it to us, irrationally. That is the lesson that the history of life offers us.
Leonardo Boff is a renowned liberation theologian, teacher, and writer living in Petrópolis, Brazil. The author of more than 60 books, recent work is collected on his website at www.leonardoboff.com . Many articles originally written in Portuguese have been translated into Spanish and English, in the latter case courtesy of Refugio del Rio Grande.