‘It seems to me that man (sic) has engaged in a blind and fearful struggle out of a past he can’t remember, into a future he can’t foresee nor understand. And man has met and defeated every obstacle, every enemy except one. He cannot win over himself.’
- John Steinbeck
‘A small group of thoughtful people could change the world.
Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.’
- Margaret Mead
In common conversational English, the simile ‘like ants at a picnic’ is used to describe a process whereby a group of organisms (in almost all cases it refers to humans) descend upon available resources (usually, but not restricted to, food) and devour what is on offer in its entirety across a very short period of time.
Throughout all cultures, new knowledge and moral guidelines have been conveyed (usually from one generation to the next) through the use of allegory and fable.
In keeping with the theme of ants, let us consider the famous fable credited to Aesop about the ants and the grasshopper which outlines a lesson about idleness and responsibility.
As it is told, the fable details a series of encounters between a grasshopper and a group of ants. The ants are surprised to find that the grasshopper is sitting around idly enjoying the summer months instead of stocking up on food supplies in preparation for the approaching winter. At the end of the fable, winter is upon the region and while the ants have enough food for the winter, the grasshopper discovers that it is starving to death while the ants gloat that they were right about spending their summer months preparing for the winter.
In the famous fable, the underlying moral is that we need to think ahead and conserve (or at least store) resources in preparation for a time when we might not have access to resources or when the resources might not be available.
Although the fable is still relevant and useful in terms of teaching (especially the youth) about responsibility and the consequences of idleness and irresponsibility, the fable has not completely stood the test of time.
We find ourselves at a point in our history in which even though the ants stand on a moral high ground with regard to being responsible and ensuring the survival of their species, they fail to consider the consequences of their actions.
By ensuring the survival of their species, the ants have done something they probably intended to do without thinking of how it might have an unexpectedly negative effect on their future and, rather ironically, the survival of the ant species.
Most likely, being better prepared for winter has increased the survival rate amongst ants, increasing the local ant population. This most certainly leads to the need for more space in order to accommodate the larger number of ants, and in utilizing more space, the ants have proceeded to consume more and more resources with every passing season as their numbers continue to multiply.
Let us consider that the time in which the fable was first told and for many centuries since, the moral underlying the tale was relevant and harmless as it served to motivate the individual to try to be more like the ants and prepare for the future and not be found wanting when it is far too late.
In the time since the fable was first popularized, the world has changed beyond our expectation. To this end, the moral of idleness vs. responsibility has become a little more complex than it is outlined in the original fable.
In this sense, the fable has been rendered short-sighted and even misleading, as the belief that the Earth will continue to exist for all eternity as a self-sustaining entity has slowly eroded as we have noticed, more and more in recent decades, the effects of the advancement and growth of the human species on the sustainability and ultimate fate of the only inhabitable planet in our solar system.
We, the human species, have swarmed across the planet over a (relatively speaking) brief period of time like large ants at a global picnic. To illustrate this point, consider the fact that in the last 260 years alone, the human population is estimated to have increased from 791 million to 6.7 billion people. The population of the planet as it stands today is roughly triple what it was in 1950.
We should also consider the fact that 260 years is a miniscule drop in the ocean of time that is the history of Planet Earth. Let us not fool ourselves into believing that the Earth’s history only truly begins when human history begins. We need to consider that all of this was already here for billions of years before humans outsmarted themselves by discovering ways to communicate and record history in order to help future generations to learn, communicate, and develop at an accelerated rate.
Advancement and enlightenment are not necessarily bad, but we must consider the unintended consequences of intended action, to borrow a concept from the field of Sociology. We need to consider the effects of our actions today on the lives of organisms (all species are included) in the future.
Be like the ants by all means, and take responsibility by avoiding idleness and preparing for your future. Advance as much as you would like to, but do so responsibly and with all other examples of life in mind, ensuring as you go along that there is an actual future to sustain all living species.
Much can be achieved if we resolve to use our exceptional communication skills (the foundation upon which our accelerated advancement is built) to share the concerns that we have about the future of our planet (something that directly impacts the future of our species) and ensure that all of our efforts in terms of survival, discovery, and advancement can still be acknowledged and appreciated by those who live in a time when our generation and even the next hundred generations are long gone.
In doing so, we need to adopt a World Citizen Ethic, and accept responsibility for not only our own actions, but for influencing the actions of others who are citizens of the world we live in just like we are.
We have reached a point where information is the key to our survival and we need to share information about the future of our world in order to ensure that nobody is left behind as we try to reverse the effect that our presence here has had on a world that can never truly belong to any of us.
We cannot be remembered for our efforts to improve our world following the short-sightedness and irresponsibility of our predecessors if we don’t ensure that there will be others (whose very existence depends on our ability to respond to and repair the damage now) in the distant future to learn from our mistakes and benefit from what we have discovered about the world we live in.
To put it simply, a winter of sorts of our species’ existence is approaching, even though those of us who can see it coming, will probably not be around anymore to see it actually happen.
We need to conserve our resources and respect the lives of all who share this planet with us or resign ourselves to the knowledge that the future ahead is going be as desolate as winter, if it even happens at all.
This planet is the only object floating through space, as far as we are aware at this point in time, that a species like ours can survive on.
Without it, we have nothing.