by Henry Briggs

We all like balance in life. It helps us climb stairs without falling, especially when we’re really young or really old. It keeps us from going too far left or too far right. It keeps boats from keeling over, airplanes flying straight and parents from disowning teenagers.

Oh! And it helps nature provide for us.

But some lack of balance is fun, too. Otherwise why have seesaws? Imagine our form of democracy surviving if we had only two branches of government? Where would we be without men and women, and vice versa?

Actually, although we talk a lot about the balance of nature, nature is usually at least a little out of balance, even as it continually tries to achieve balance. It has always been that way, as different species competed for superiority, as the earth revolved around the sun, as continents grew and shrank.

Some imbalance makes life interesting. Three may be a crowd, but two is boring.

When mankind first arrived on earth, wooly mammoths ruled the world (even as bacteria ruled the netherworld). Humans had a competitive edge no animal or insect, fish or fowl had ever had before: the human brain. Gradually, over time, it proved more powerful than the biggest mammoth or the smallest bacteria.

We’ve harnessed energy, invented bacteria-fighting drugs, made food production predictable and brought heat to cold areas and cold to hot areas. (One of the most significant change agents of the 20th century was the air conditioner.)

We turned useless black rocks into energy. Then we repeated it with all that messy goo and foul-smelling stuff from under earth and ocean. We used them as tools for everything from food to cars to skyscrapers to computers. By the late 20th century, mankind had won the competition with other elements of nature. We were riding high.

But maybe not. Mankind is part of nature. By defeating parts of nature to benefit ourselves, we’ve directly altered the balance of nature. And nature is our ultimate – and only – provider.

A few hundred years after arriving at one of the most bountiful continents in the world, America, we started to cut the tops off of mountains for coal. We filled rivers with chemical pollutants from factories and sewage from animals and humans. We filled the air with fumes from the Midwest, which the wind carried to the rivers of New York and New England, making them less drinkable. And we thrived.

Not to be outdone, emerging countries in the Middle East and Asia did many of the same things. Now, one third of bird species are extinct. Hundreds of animal species are gone. Ditto plant life.

China is the biggest producer and user of coal in the world. People there and in other parts of Asia have to wear masks outside. Water is undrinkable in many parts of the world. There are droughts in places that were once fertile. Qatar is so hot, they are – literally – trying to air condition the outdoors now.

Without burning of coal or oil, climate change would not be occurring. There are now droughts where there was once water, water where there was once ice. There is less clean water, more poisoned soil.

So people are beginning to leave once bountiful lands in the Middle East and Central and South America to become refugees in still fertile countries, where they are treated like invading armies. What’s next, refugees from California’s drought and fires?

We’ve won against wooly mammoths and thousands of other creatures and plants. But in winning we have also destroyed parts of nature that we need for survival. As we stand surrounded by the spoils of what once sustained us, there is now little to prevent us from becoming extinct.

Nature doesn’t need us to survive. It is ever rebalancing and evolving. And there is no rule that says it has to include us. Just as evolved bacteria can now survive mankind’s medicines, nature can rebalance and evolve past mankind altogether. Without massive, major and immediate efforts, mankind’s survival is now in doubt. To the victor belong the spoils.

Henry Briggs, a Malvern resident, is a retired television producer who now writes freelance opinion columns for local newspapers.

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