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General · 16th September 2012
Ray Grigg
Behind the questions that people ask are assumptions that are often more revealing than the questions themselves. One of these revealing questions appeared in “Collected Wisdom”, a weekly newspaper column in which readers ask questions and various experts attempt to answer them (The Globe and Mail, Aug. 25/12). A certain reader named Adam “wonders how much mass the Earth has gained over the past 100 years through increased human population.” The question was answered by Dr. Scott M. Ramsay of the biology department at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

“Assuming the average mass per person is 65 kilograms,” explains Dr. Ramsay, “the total mass of the human population [of seven billion] is about 455 million tonnes.” Since the population 100 years ago was 1.65 billion, their total mass of 107 million tonnes would have to be subtracted from the 455 million tonnes. “So the total mass of people on the planet has gone up about 348 million tonnes” since 1912. (A related but unasked question could be posed about the volume occupied by everyone on the planet. An unconfirmed statistic calculates that every human being in the world could be stacked like cordwood within the Grand Canyon — a troublesome species, when all gathered in one place, doesn't actually occupy a lot of space.)

As for the direct answer to Adam's question concerning the contribution of people to any increase in Earth's mass over the last 100 years, Dr. Ramsay gently reminds him, “The answer to that is zero.”

He patiently explains that “the 348 million tonnes of new people came from an equivalent mass of food, water, oxygen and minerals that were already present on the planet.” The only relevant input from outside Earth has been sunlight. This solar radiation has been “captured by plants to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrate for usable energy and other functions, which together with minerals (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus) combine to build proteins and other necessary components of life. Everything else was already here; it has just been relocated into the bodies of people.”

The revealing assumption underlying Adam's question is the notion that we could have come from someplace other than Earth, that we are materialized here from another realm of existence. The assumption has a religious overtone, a suggestion that we expect ourselves to be different and more important than the ordinary dust and clay that lies beneath our feet. The assumption hints that we are not the same as all the other animals and plants with which we share a planet, and that humans are somehow exceptional, bestowed upon life's living fabric as a special contribution.

Of course, Adam's question could have been a simple mistake of scientific logic. It could have been a thoughtless and ill-considered impulse based on an innocent lapse of judgment. It could also have come from an assumption derived an ordinary ignorance. Except that such a faulty assumption resonates with so many other things we do on the planet that it seems to be more than just an innocuous slip. We often think of ourselves as different from the rest of life on Earth, as superior to nature's ingenuity. And one powerful religious tradition does defines us as the divinely ordained custodians of Creation.

Underlying this elevated self-assessment of ourselves is the more basic attitude of detachment, the view that we are “in this world” but not “of this world”. This is an old argument first posed by early Christian theologians. Each person comes from Jehovah as an eternal soul, is implanted at conception in a temporal body, and lives there in confinement until released to Judgment at death. Arcane as this may seem from some modern perspectives, it is still alive in the subconscious of our culture, expressing itself as attempts to weigh the soul — how much weight does the body lose at the moment of dying — and as the essential theological justification for those opposing abortion and assisted suicide. Human life is controlled by a higher force than mere mortals and their imperfect laws. Adam's mistake — that additional people on Earth actually increase its mass — is a logical extension of the assumptions rooted in this Christian perspective. It is also rooted in classical Greek philosophy, of which most Western thinking is a footnote.

The subterranean currents that move us to think and act in particular ways are actually much deeper and stronger than we usually realize. They reside in the complex, subliminal networks of our theology, philosophy, psychology and sociology. Nothing in human behaviour functions at face value. This is why the faulty assumption about more people increasing the mass of Earth is so revealing. The flawed assumption about the way we occupy Earth suggests that we are quite capable of assaulting our planet's ecologies without noticing, acknowledging or even being capable of arresting our destructive behaviour.

The operative word is detachment. Too many of us think we are “in this world” but not “of this world”— it is also the failing of a wholly intellectual mind. We don't consider that we are extensions of the world and, therefore, it is an extension of us. Instead, we think of the world as a place we visit but not as a place where we belong. Nature, like our physical bodies, is interpreted as inferior compared to the standards of perfection that exist in some theological and philosophical models. Consequently, what we do to the Earth has little moral significance if we are only passing through on our journey from one absolute to another. So we are not compelled to regard the destruction of our surroundings as a violation of something sacred. To think that we have an identity separate from Earth could be a fatal failing.

The historical undercurrents of theology, philosophy and their companion forces move so invisibly within us that they shape our deepest perceptions, our fundamental assumptions and finally our thoughtless behaviour. Sometimes, however, a patiently given scientific answer to a seemingly innocent question can move us to conscious awareness.