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George Carlin’s Saving the Planet: One of the most misunderstood pro-Earth messages ever

George Carlin’s Saving the Planet: One of the most misunderstood pro-Earth messages ever

Carlin in Jammin’ in New York. 1992. IMDB photo

One of my favorite stand up comedians is the late, great George Carlin, and one of his best bits is also among his most misunderstood. In Saving the Planet, Carlin criticizes the early 90’s environmental movement for its efforts to save all sorts of living creatures and endangered species – trees, bees, whales, snails, etc. 

Carlin explains it best, so take a look for yourself – keep in mind there’s strong language in both this video and the text transcript below it.

The text version of the bit is as follows: (Thanks to Scraps from the loft!)

See, I’m not one of these people who’s worried about everything. You got people like this around you? Countries full of them now: people walking around all day long, every minute of the day, worried… about everything! Worried about the air; worried about the water; worried about the soil; worried about insecticides, pesticides, food additives, carcinogens; worried about radon gas; worried about asbestos; worried about saving endangered species. Let me tell you about endangered species all right? Saving endangered species is just one more arrogant attempt by humans to control nature. It’s arrogant meddling; it’s what got us in trouble in the first place. Doesn’t anybody understand that? Interfering with nature. Over 90% – over, WAY over – 90% of all the species that have ever lived on this planet, ever lived, are gone! Pwwt! They’re extinct! We didn’t kill them all, they just disappeared. That’s what nature does. They disappear these days at the rate of 25 a day and I mean regardless of our behavior. Irrespective of how we act on this planet, 25 species that were here today will be gone tomorrow. Let them go gracefully. Leave nature alone. Haven’t we done enough?

We’re so self-important, so self-important. Everybody’s gonna save something now: “Save the trees! Save the bees! Save the whales! Save those snails!” and the greatest arrogance of all: “Save the planet!” What?! Are these fucking people kidding me?! Save the planet?! We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet! We haven’t learned how to care for one another and we’re gonna save the fucking planet?! I’m getting tired of that shit! I’m getting tired of that shit! I’m tired of fucking Earth Day! I’m tired of these self-righteous environmentalists; these white, bourgeois liberals who think the only thing wrong with this country is there aren’t enough bicycle paths! People trying to make the world safe for their Volvo’s! Besides, environmentalists don’t give a shit about the planet. They don’t care about the planet; not in the abstract they don’t. You know what they’re interested in? A clean place to live; their own habitat. They’re worried that someday in the future, they might be personally inconvenienced. Narrow, unenlightened self-interest doesn’t impress me.

Besides, there is nothing wrong with the planet… nothing wrong with the planet. The planet is fine… the people are fucked! The planet is fine! Compared to the people, THE PLANET IS DOING GREAT: Been here four and a half billion years! Do you ever think about the arithmetic? The planet has been here four and a half billion years, we’ve been here what? 100,000? Maybe 200,000? And we’ve only been engaged in heavy industry for a little over 200 years. 200 years versus four and a half billion and we have the conceit to think that somehow, we’re a threat? That somehow, we’re going to put in jeopardy this beautiful little blue-green ball that’s just a-floatin’ around the sun? The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through all kinds of things worse than us: been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drifts, solar flares, sunspots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles, hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages, and we think some plastic bags and aluminum cans are going to make a difference?

The planet isn’t going anywhere… we are! We’re going away! Pack your shit folks! We’re going away and we won’t leave much of a trace either, thank God for that… maybe a little styrofoam… maybe… little styrofoam. The planet will be here, we’ll be long gone; just another failed mutation; just another closed-end biological mistake; an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The planet will shake us off like a bad case of fleas, a surface nuisance. You wanna know how the planet’s doing? Ask those people in Pompeii who are frozen into position from volcanic ash how the planet’s doing. Wanna know if the planet’s all right? Ask those people in Mexico City or Armenia or a hundred other places buried under thousands of tons of earthquake rubble if they feel like a threat to the planet this week. How about those people in Kilauea, Hawaii who build their homes right next to an active volcano and then wonder why they have lava in the living room?

The planet will be here for a long, long, LONG time after we’re gone and it will heal itself, it will cleanse itself cause that’s what it does. It’s a self-correcting system. The air and the water will recover, the earth will be renewed, and if it’s true that plastic is not degradable, well, the planet will simply incorporate plastic into a new paradigm: The Earth plus Plastic. The Earth doesn’t share our prejudice towards plastic. Plastic came out of the Earth! The Earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the Earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself, didn’t know how to make it, needed us. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question: “Why are we here?” PLASTIC!!! ASSHOLES!!!

So the plastic is here, our job is done, we can be phased out now, and I think that’s really started already, don’t you? I mean, to be fair, the planet probably sees us as a mild threat; something to be dealt with, and I’m sure the planet will defend itself in the manner of a large organism. Like a beehive or an ant colony can muster a defense, I’m sure the planet will think of something. What would you do if you were the planet trying to defend against this pesky, troublesome species? Let’s see… what might… hmm… viruses! Viruses might be good. They seem vulnerable to viruses. And uh… viruses are tricky; always mutating and forming new strains whenever a vaccine is developed. Perhaps this first virus could be one that-that compromises the immune system of these creatures. Perhaps a human immunodeficiency virus making them vulnerable to all sorts of other diseases and infections that might come along and maybe it could be spread sexually, making them a little reluctant to engage in the act of reproduction.

At first glance, you would probably say Carlin’s bit is dated, anti-environmentalist, and doesn’t address climate reality, which is all true, especially as climate change isn’t mentioned once in his rant, as this was performed in 1992, before climate change had really entered the public consciousness (although still well over a decade after the Exxon-Mobil research confirming greenhouses gases would warm the planet in the next century unless drastic changes were implemented). He also dismisses the threat of plastic on the planet, including forever chemicals. Carlin is no scientist, policy analyst, or expert, in fact, he’s just a comedian, and this is a performance. 

But if we were to examine beyond the surface level, you would see where Carlin is coming from. It’s not that environmentalism is bad, it’s that it’s addressing a symptom of a much greater issue, consumerism. We do not solve the issue of climate change without solving human welfare issues first, and we do not solve human welfare problems without first addressing the root causes of poverty, disease, malnourishment, access to clean water, infrastructure, etc. The bourgeois rich, white environmentalist doesn’t factor these issues into their analysis, and only wants to save the nature it deems valuable.

While root cause analysis and intersectional thinking about the polycrisis we face as a global society are well understood tools of environmental scientists and climate change researchers today, surface level environmentalism of the past (and sadly present) does nothing to save endangered species, the planet, or its people, and this was what Carlin was trying to get across. He spells it out quite clearly in the special, we don’t even know how to take care of ourselves yet! We haven’t learned how to care for one another and we’re gonna save the fucking planet?! But taking some lines out of context in this bit, it’s easy to see how it can be construed as a criticism of environmental policy at large.

Carlin further explains his stance on the Charlie Rose show:

Neither Carlin nor myself are scientists, but we understand that global problems require global solutions, and the issue of climate change is not a crisis, but rather a symptom of a larger crisis. We face much larger crises that have the potential to significantly disrupt human life and livelihood in this decade, much faster than the threats of climate change or environmental degradation pose. 

The same special showed Carlin had a particular distaste for consumerism and inefficient land use, such as golf courses, and pointed out the rampant injustice that they (and cemeteries) take up abundant land in this country (he mentions two Rhode Islands and a Delaware’s worth of land for golf courses), while there are people who don’t have any place to live. In thirty years since this special aired, unfortunately it has only gotten worse.

The persistent threat of nuclear war, debt and capital crises, pandemics, and societal breakdowns caused or enhanced by social media are some of the most glaring examples of potential catastrophes humanity and especially the global north. That is not to say that a changing climate and warming planet are not threats in themselves, we are already seeing extreme droughts, wildfires, and then floods, and that’s all within California! In the Midwest, during the 2010’s, we experienced both a 500 and 1000 year flood, with more persistent rain and precipitation occurring.

It should also be noted, that in spite of our best efforts, the fight to limit carbon dioxide should be seen as a human fight, as the planet is going to win no matter what. Geologically speaking, the threat of CO2 is a blink of an eye: it lasts for about 300 to 1000 years in the atmosphere, which on a human timeline is more than enough to cause extinction or severe degradation, but the planet will rebuild. Venusification, or the runaway greenhouse effect, will happen on this planet, but it won’t be the result of carbon dioxide in the air, rather it will occur as a result of the sun becoming more luminous over the next billion years, causing our oceans to boil and evaporate away. Humans will be long gone by then.

Give nature enough time, and eventually it always wins.

One of the things that I had criticized the environmental movement for, much earlier in my life, that I now see as completely foolish was the tendency of those individuals to use the climate crisis as a means to uprooting consumerism, changing patriarchal structures, promoting environmental and social justice and many other left leaning causes. It wasn’t that I disagreed with them, but rather I felt that the inertia should be on mitigating climate change first. But the point Carlin is trying to make is that that does not happen without addressing the issues of inequality in our society, boiled down simply to take care of humanity. As long as we keep competing with one another as opposed to cooperating, we humans are going down a path none of us want. 

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