Carl Sagan Discusses Man’s Arrogance About Nature

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  • Mankind cannot live without Nature but Nature can live without mankind.
  • Mankind has compelled his nature upon Nature.
  • Charles Darwin has famously said that “Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity. More humble, and I believe truer, to consider him created from animals.”
  • A quote  from Gozilla that holds a lot of truth is “The arrogance of man is in thinking that Nature is in our control and not the other way around.”
  • Joanna Macy defines the “Great Turning” as “a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the Industrial Growth Society to a life-sustaining civilization “.


All of these comments imply that the solution to the environmental ills of mankind is a change in worldview from an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions. We call this arrogance, ownership, and control. A new and very positive worldview by human culture that will assure our future on this Planet is a consciousness of our connection with everything coupled with a sense of our interdependence with everything our Planet.


One of my favorite people is the late Carl Sagan who is famous for his in-depth talks on many subjects. Here is one review of Sagan’s work.


“Sagan’s ability to convey his ideas allowed many people to understand the cosmos better—simultaneously emphasizing the value and worthiness of the human race, and the relative insignificance of the Earth in comparison to the Universe. He delivered the 1977 series of Royal Institution Christmas Lectures in London. He hosted and, with Ann Druyan, co-wrote and co-produced the highly popular thirteen-part Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.”


One of my Carl Sagan favorites is his discussion of man’s arrogance. The definition of arrogance is when a person believes he or she is better than others, knows more than everyone else, and acts out these beliefs. An example of arrogance is when a person believes that he is never wrong and is “entitled to do certain things that prove destructive. The title of Sagan’s talk  “Man And His Arrogance”. You can view his talk by way of a Youtube video.

If you prefer to read the text of Carl Sagan’s speech, I provide it below:


“See that star?

“You mean that bright red one?” his daughter asks in return

“Yes, it might not be there anymore. It might be gone by now, exploded or something. Its light is still crossing space, just reaching our eyes now. But we don’t see it as it is, we see it as it was.”

Many people experience a stirring sense of wonder when they first confront this simple truth. Why? why should it be so compelling. The immense distances to the stars and the galaxies means we see everything in the past. Some as they were before the earth came to be. Telescopes are time machines.

Long ago, when an early galaxy began to pour light out in to the surrounding darkness no witness could have known that billions of years later. Some remote clumps of rock and metal, ice and organic molecules would fall together to form a place that we call earth. And surely nobody could have imagined that life would arise, and thinking beings evolve who would one day capture a fraction of that light and would try to puzzle out what sent it on its way.

We can recognize here a shortcoming, in some circumstances serious, in our ability to understand the world. Characteristically, willie-nilly we seem compelled to project our own nature onto nature. Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work worthy of the interposition of a deity. Darwin wrote in his notebook, more humble, and I think truer to consider himself created from animals.

We’re johnny-come-latelys; we live in the cosmic boondocks; we emerged from microbes in muck; Apes are our cousins; our thoughts are not entirely our own, and on top of that we’re making a mess of our planet and becoming a danger to ourselves.

The trapdoor beneath our feet swings open. We find ourselves in bottomless free fall. We are lost in a great darkness and there is nobody to send out a search party. Given so harsh a reality, of course we are inclined to shut our eyes and pretend that we are safe and snug at home, that the fall is only a bad dream. If it takes a little myth and ritual to get us through a night that seems endless, who among us cannot sympathize and understand?

We long to be here for a purpose. Even though, despite much self-deception, none is evident. The significance of our lives and our fragile planet is then determined by our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We long for parents to care for us, to forgive us of our errors, to save us from our childish mistakes. But knowledge of preferable to ignorance. Better, by far, to embrace the harsh reality than a reassuring fable.

Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Our common sense intuitions can be mistaken. Our preferences don’t count. We do not live in a privileged reference frame. If we crave some cosmic purpose, then let us find ourselves a worthy goal.”


For Your Further Consideration


This essay, and other essays in this web site, present ideas to environmental educators and all stewards of Nature about ecoliteracy and legacy.   The emphasis is on two key ideas:

  • Our earth is a living system that transports and transforms energy. The key to an active ecoliteracy that results in a healthy environment for all life on earth is the building of a systems view of life into the minds and hearts of humanity, This worldview includes the fact that all of Nature is interconnected and interdependent.
  • Environmental education is not simply offering facts. Environmental education must be hands-on and place-based if ideas, facts, and effective conservation strategies are to become a consciousness in the minds and hearts of our youth. Environmental education must include the the passing of this consciousness to future generation.


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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

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