Someone in my family gave me Jon Stewart’s new book, Earth (The Book), for Christmas. It is subtitled A Visitor’s Guide to the Human Race. Having read a few pages of Earth, I have found it lives up to my expectations in that it deals with a serious issue, the extinction of the human race, in a chuckle-provoking manner. In the introduction, Stewart first addresses the alien readers, those who have come from outer space to a planet now devoid of human beings. He then addresses the human readers of the book, starting with the line, “It’s perfectly clear that we as a species are not long for this world.”
The world is what this book is about. Not just the geographical world, but the world we human beings inhabit, everything from the religious, (rituals, beliefs, holy wars) to the physical (physiology, bathroom habits, sex—well, everything). He even throws in Barbie and Ken dolls. This book is nothing if not comprehensive.
What strikes me most about Earth (The Book) is its wealth of good, solid information. As I read through the opening pages that pictured and described the planetary system and earth’s topography, I was transported back to a college geography class I took in the summer of 1969. It was a basic freshman class designed for non-science major students who had to fulfill a science requirement to graduate. The class met at 7 a.m. Monday through Thursday in a huge lecture hall filled with sleepy students. The professor, a young man, seemed way more excited about his subject matter than anyone had a right to be so early in the morning.
I had the advantage of being an older student who quite likely went to bed much earlier than the average college freshman in the class. I also am a natural-born early riser and once I have a cup of coffee in me, I’m ready for anything. So I would get up in the early hours, drink some coffee, throw down a little breakfast, get in my VW Beetle, and take off down the freeway to the campus thirty-five miles away. We lived in Michigan at the time and I loved that early morning drive. Hardly anyone was out on the road and the summer countryside was gorgeous.
My husband and I had a year or so before taken a trip through the Southwest to California and through the northern part of Mexico, driving over mountains and down the Pacific coast. Also, in Michigan we often drove over the terminal moraines, areas where the glaciers pushed everything in their path to a point where they stopped, the accumulated debris forming the rolling hills in the northern part of the United States. So when the professor talked about the geographical features of different parts of the world, I could picture some of those places that I had seen first hand.
We also learned about weather patterns and how cultures developed in response to them as well as to the topography in which people lived. Nowadays, we live in a connected universe, so culture in many instances becomes flattened and indistinguishable from one place to another.
I loved the class because it opened my eyes to the wonderfully rich diversity that makes up the world in which we live. Reading Stewart’s book does the same. It’s disorienting at first to think of our Mother Earth as extraterritorial visitors might see it. It’s even more disorienting to think of it as a place devoid of human beings. It seems that Stewart, using his own brand of humor, wants us to be disoriented. He wants to jar us out of our complacency toward this place we call home.
I’m no radical environmentalist. I started driving a car when I was 13 years old and I never thought much about what my driving was doing to the environment until it was brought to my attention. I also never thought about the impact of trash building up at landfills or keeping our drinking water safe or our air breathable. I should have thought of this, having grown up near the lead mines of southeastern Kansas and witnessing the results of pollution from those mines. It took years for my awareness to kick in to the point that I now recycle. I refuse to buy bottled water and I drive a car that gets reasonably good mileage.
However, my puny efforts will do little but make me feel good about myself. We human beings are killing the earth. Overpopulation has been a problem for decades and it’s getting worse. Every one of those human beings needs food, water, land to live on, and all the other amenities of modern-day life. I can’t watch nature shows on TV anymore because they always end up with the message that wild animals are being driven out of their habitats and will eventually become extinct. The rain forests that provide most of the oxygen that we breathe are being cut down to provide grazing lands for cattle so we meat eaters can continue eating meat and McDonald’s can continue to serve hamburgers.There’s no stopping this onslaught.
In the King James Bible, Genesis 1:28 says, “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” Some believers have interpreted this verse to mean that we are free to do as we please with the earth and all that is within it. In fact, in new translations of the Bible, the word “dominion” has been replaced with the word “rule,” a minor, but significant change, not just in vocabulary, but also in attitude.
At one time in my religious journey, I joined the Episcopal Church. I joined for a variety of reasons, but one reason was that the denomination has a liberal take on most issues, including the issue of human beings’ responsibility for the earth. Episcopalians interpret “dominion” to mean that our authority over the earth means that we have a responsibility to take care of it, not use it up. I’m no longer an Episcopalian, but I still hold to that concept.
Back to Earth (The Book). Stewart’s take on our future, while humorous, is also grim. It seems he has cataloged everything that we hold dear or even not so dear in our world to remind us of what we’ll miss when we’re gone. At one time, I would have been panic-stricken at the idea that human beings will disappear. And to tell the truth, I don’t think we will. But I do think Mother Earth will have her revenge on us. We will soon find ourselves being thinned as a result of natural forces beyond our control. We’ll be lucky if this process doesn’t kill all the animals first. In his book, Fraser's Penguins: A Journey to the Future in Antarctica., Fen Montaigne writes about Bill Fraser’s study of Adelie penguins and the effects of global warming on their population. Montaigne says the saga of the Adelies is a "cautionary tale" and calls Fraser a "sentinel, working in a part of the planet that most of us will never visit and bearing witness to rapid changes that foreshadow our own futures."
In the Afterword to his book, Jon Stewart says, speaking for the human race, “Yes, in the end we were unable to rein in our worse impulses.” I suppose we have to live with that because I think it’s too late to turn this big ship we call home around to find smoother sailing. The ocean is fast filling up with our plastic water bottles and there’s no place left to go.