PROSPERO’S LESSONS: Adaptation and reinvention is required to leapfrog environmental destruction.

26 May 2016
by Cormac Cullinan

Once upon a time, long, long ago the activities of Earthlings began to alter the composition of Earth’s atmosphere to such an extent that they began to burn up.  The Earthlings that had previously flourished and multiplied across the face of the plant began to die in their billions...

This probably sounds like how someone might begin telling the story of humanity in a few thousand years time. However the story that I am referring happened about two billion years ago. In those times volcanoes roared ash and magma into the skies and the atmosphere was a burnt orange haze of nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane.

The earliest cells that fed off the Archean chemical soup had mutated into blue-green bacteria that got the energy they needed by cleaving hydrogen from marine water molecules, causing oxygen to be released.   

The concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere increased until it began to dismember carbohydrate, cell membranes, enzymes and nucleic acids - destroying cell-life.

The bacteria that had so successfully occupied the planet were heading for extinction – until something amazing happened. A cyno-bacterium appeared that used a new process, respiration, to power itself using oxygen.  This gave it ten times more energy than other cells and it proliferated rapidly. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, authors of The Universe Story, refer to this ingenious creature as “Prospero”. They describe Prospero as “the complete cell got its energy from the Sun, its hydrogen from the water and its carbon from the atmosphere.”

Prospero’s descendants continued to increase oxygen concentrations in the atmosphere but it took the Earth system as a whole to stabilise atmospheric concentrations of oxygen at below 21 percent, beyond which cells would begin to combust spontaneously.  Even Prospero needed the mediation of the community of life to avoid becoming a victim of its own success.

In a world imperilled by rising concentrations of greenhouse gasses (GHGs), pollutants and wastes we too need to evolve so that we can transform toxic pollution into fertility, food and energy. Here are some lessons we can learn from the story of Prospero.

1) Context is fundamental. An activity that is brilliantly successful at a particular time and place may be disastrous in another. A thousand years ago burning down a forest to cultivate land did not cause significant problems. Today the same action is profoundly anti-social and threatens our future.

2) Beware of becoming a victim of one’s own success. The blue-green bacteria became imperilled precisely because they were so successful at extracting hydrogen from water molecules. This strategy worked too well for them; a bit like burning coal, oil and gas has worked for humanity.

3) Systemic problems require systemic solutions. The blue green algae weren’t going to stop extracting hydrogen and generating the oxygen that was driving them to extinction. It required another being to find a way of using oxygen to build life – to create a new driver of change. Climate change is moving too fast for human beings to evolve physically to adapt to it. So if we are going to make it through the eye of the 21st Century needle into a new era in which we live in ways that contribute to the health of the Earth community instead of assaulting and undermining it, we are going to have to evolve in different ways.

Technology might help a bit but it won’t solve the problem because it doesn’t change the fundamental forces that are driving human consumption. What we are going to need are new forms of social organisation and legal, political and economic systems that promote ecologically and socially responsible behaviour instead of incentivising the extraction of as much as possible from the Earth and legitimising extractivism.

As the coal and oil fuelled, ethically-illiterate and ecologically damaging organisations and institutions drive us towards extinction, what is really important right now is working together to birth the new Prosperos. That is why we need to talk about Earth jurisprudence, wild laws and entities like benefit corporations.

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