Saving the world

modis_wonderglobe (2)

Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

“You cannot save the world!”

One peril of writing essays about the importance of preserving and conserving the wilderness and wild places of the North Country is occasional reproach from more “progress-minded” readers that my views are out of step with the real world.

In some circles I am regarded, apparently, as a naïve world-saver, a nostalgic tree-hugger, an enemy of free enterprise, an ignoramus regarding the “laws” of economics, a militant against agriculture, a socialist, a dupe of “fake science” that warns we are plunging into the Anthropocene epoch of the Earth’s geological evolution, a pessimist in my opinion of human nature, a nay-sayer to the benefits of capitalism, a romantic about the natural world, and a curmudgeon.

I readily accept the curmudgeon tag. Some of the other criticisms are not entirely off the mark, striking the periphery of the target. Nostalgic and romantic and militant, for example.

Most of the other rebukes I tend to ignore as the denigrating characterizations that one tribal group applies to another, those catch-all negative labels that allow us to build straw men of our opponents so that we can set then afire with our own flaming prejudices. One unjust criticism with which I do take issue, however, is the appellation of “world saver.”

Saving the world, even if I had the well-intentioned desire to do so, is beyond the capability of any man, beyond the capacity of all of humankind for that matter. The Earth has been traveling through its orbit around the Sun for about three billion years, half of its projected lifetime, and in another three billion years it will ultimately be scorched to bare rock and consumed by the ever-expanding Sun. In the infinite time span of the Universe solar systems are born, live, and die. A planet is a speck of dust in the cosmic windstorm.

But within that comparatively short span of six billion years our planet has produced a miraculous abundance of life, has become, in fact, a living thing. To study the Earth’s geologic history is to learn and understand the hypothesis that our planet is “Gaia.”

As postulated by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, Earth-Gaia is a holistic biosphere that shapes, and is shaped by, the myriad life forms that have evolved over its lifespan. Humankind cannot “save” the Earth. Gaia is “self-regulating,” and although we are one of the life forms that influence that self-regulation we have not been nearly so influential as, say, bacteria or any of a million species of amoebas.

Over the past 250 years we have played a greater and greater role in shaping Earth’s environment, and there is much we can do to maintain that environment in a form which can support our species, but there is no “saving the world” in the grand sense. Earth-Gaia will “save” itself through the never-ending (until the ultimate end) evolution of life forms that can exist, take sustenance from the biosphere, and contribute to the collective life of the biosphere.

A billion years ago, not one single species of the multicellular life forms that now populate the Earth existed. A billion years in the future, not one single species of the multicellular life forms that now populate the Earth will still exist. Gaia, however, will live on robustly as a well-regulated and healthy biosphere.

Human beings will not be among the life forms flourishing in the biosphere a billion years hence. The expanding Sun will have made the Earth much too warm for our species – and most other current species – to survive.

Looking down upon Earth from Gaia’s point of view, there is no need for me to save the world. Any effort I invest in preserving the North Country’s woodlands, grassland, streams, lakes, and air will be of little consequence to Gaia. The world will “save” itself on its own terms, with its own evolutions, with its own geological transformations with no help from me.

That does not mean I will cease my efforts to preserve that subset of Gaia’s biosphere that I call “wilderness” and “the wild.” To the contrary, my acceptance of the Earth as Gaia, as a holistic living entity, self-regulating and interdependent and with each individual life form interacting with all others to stabilize the whole, drives me to conserve and protect the natural world. This motivates my actions in virtually every aspect of my life, informs my decision-making and my response to issues environmental, political, social, economic.

Yes, nostalgic and romantic creature that I am, I want to preserve the natural world I have know in my lifetime for as long as this epoch of Gaia’s life will allow. Not because I believe that I can save it, but because I believe that it can save me. Not only physically, but mentally and emotionally and spiritually.

The wild places of the Earth have given me life. Perhaps it is naïve, but I feel that I should return the favor.


More stories about life in the North Country, wild places, the natural world, and outdoor sports are published in my five collections of essays, all available in Kindle and paperback editions at  Jerry Johnson Author Page at, and in paperback edition at Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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