Nature will take care of itself – nature doesn’t need people, people need nature to survive. The planet will be OK, there just won’t be any damn people on it.

So said Harrison Ford to Leigh Sales in an interview for ABC’s 7.30 program on Thursday night (10th December).

But does nature need people, and will the planet be ok without us?

I suppose it depends on what we mean by ‘nature’, a question that has occupied me for the past four years as I’ve worked on my PhD in environmental communication.

If by ‘nature’ we mean those nonhuman plants and animals that seem to exist, still, with very limited human intervention, then it may be true that nature does not need people. But does any such ‘pure’ nature exist anywhere in the world anymore? Did it ever? Emma Marris makes a strong case to the contrary. Even if it did, climate change is showing us that the human influence has now extended over virtually every inch of our planet and its atmosphere, and is causing fundamental changes in the Earth’s systems – indeed there is a word for this, the Anthropocene.

Yet what of all the species that have co-evolved with humans over hundreds of thousands of years? What of those species which humans have evolved purposefully – domesticated animals such cats and sheep and cows, and crops such as corn and wheat? Will they survive without humans around to care for them?

As necessary as human extinction can seem to some who despair at the ecological destruction humans have wrought on the Earth, there are morer lives than just human ones at stake.

And of course, the universal species of human which is conjured by the Anthropocene is blind to the inequalities that have produced the problem of climate change – not humanity as a species but the actions of some humans in some parts of the world at particular historical moments in time.

Recently I have been hearing the Anthropocene being analysed quite critically by scholars in the environmental humanities. One of the most interesting of these was at a Environmental Humanities research cluster at the University of Melbourne, where Jeremy Baskin argued that the Anthropocene is a paradigm rather than an epoch – a paradigm that makes possible and thinkable the reality of geoengineering.

But I digress. Along with critiques of the Anthropocene, two words that I have heard alot in Environmental Humanities meetings are hope and care. I think it is in an ethics of care that the hope resides. A future where people know their places and care for them. Where it is possible to say that we have so much to learn from traditional custodians of Country, and not be accused of romanticising the indigene as the noble savage or modern man’s primitive foil. A world where one lives deliberately.

I have always loved this quote from Thoreau, from his essay Civil Disobedience (1849): ‘I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad.’

That’s why, as much as I think any celebrity speaking out on climate change is bound to do more good than harm (or at the least, it will do no harm), there is a need to critically unpack this idea that nature will be fine without us.

There is something attractive (but also horrifyingly depressing) in the idea that we are not so special after all; that there is no teleological revelation, only more life of a different kind. Yet it is also a dangerous idea that risks leading to the abandonment of any attempt to avert the current crisis, as we’re all going to get our just desert and be dead anyway.

This is why the Anthropocene remains useful – for even while we acknowledge that there is a danger of it being co-opted into the kinds of technocratic geoengineered futures described by Jeremy, it also manages to balance a sense of responsibility (we have caused a new geological period) along with a sense of humility (we are part of nature after all). It requires thinking on scales of both the species and the individual, and this is, I think, vitally necessary in our times of current crisis.

If there is hope, it lies in the idea that our planet, our home, (as we know it) does need us – just as we need it.