We are an infrastructure species

This week, The Economist asked why people care about ancient buildings. The sight of Notre Dame going up in flames has attracted so much more attention than floods in southern Africa, and even more controversially, the willingness to rebuild the Cathedral has attracted a lot of donations from wealthy people in France and companies across the world.

The Economist argue that not only the economy but culture is global, and that a visual age has endowed beauty with new power and turned great works of art into superstars. A bit more naive seems to think that because Notre Dame is an expression of humanity at its collective best, people are really concerned and the fire has made us all connect in grief.

That’s all very well, but let me propose an alternative explanation, a simpler one. Maybe the reason is that we are an infrastructures species:

A 2017 study estimated the mass of the global “technosphere,” the material habitat that humans have created in roads, cities, rural housing, the active soil in cropland, and so forth, at 30 trillion tons, some five orders of magnitude greater than the weight of the human beings that it sustains. That is approximately four thousand tons of transformed earth per human being, or twenty-seven tons of technosphere for each pound of a 150-pound person.

Jedediah Purdy, “The World We’ve Built”

Let’s face it. We (the people) are a mere instrument, we are disposable. What’s important is our legacy. We are here to build, and to put a dent in the universe is by no means an easy task.


Image: Notre Dame on fire

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