“Anyone who believes in indefinite growth on a physically finite planet is either mad, or an economist.”
~ Sir David Attenborough
So far 2020 seems to be throwing everything but the kitchen sink at us… Humanity is lurching from surviving environmental paroxysms to coping with germ warfare!
Since I last posted the Coronavirus has become a serious global health threat, possibly a pandemic, if infection rates continue to grow and the mortality rate increases. Risk of death rises with age, diabetes and heart disease.
The hubris of Homo sapiens
There is no doubt that our species has achieved some truly amazing feats.
But we have made many mistakes too, some with serious ramifications. Man’s innate curiosity led him to explore his surroundings and then spread further afield until he covered the planet in his search for a better life for his ‘tribe’.
But the current hegemony of Homo sapiens will be short lived, in evolutionary terms, if we don’t have the humility and hindsight to take responsibility for how we got here.
“It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a matter of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended against nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down. None of this is true. But let’s begin with the speed of change. The earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a wiping of the fossil record that it functioned as an evolutionary reset, the planet’s phylogenetic tree first expanding, then collapsing, at intervals, like a lung: 86 percent of all species dead, 450 million years ago; 70 million years later, 75 percent; 125 million years later, 96 percent; 50 million years later, 80 percent; 135 million years after that, 75 percent again. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs involved climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 250 million years ago; it began when carbon dioxide warmed the planet by five degrees Celsius, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane, another greenhouse gas, and ended with all but a sliver of life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is one hundred times faster than at any point in human history before the beginning of industrialization. And there is already, right now, fully a third more carbon in the atmosphere than at any point in the last 800,000 years—perhaps in as long as 15 million years. There were no humans then.”
We must now harness the creative and critical thinking edge that the Cognitive Revolution birthed, and that catapulted us into the Anthropocene, to figure out how we can repair much of the destruction left in our wake; now that we have woken up to the fact that it threatens our survival.
One could argue that our rise to the Age of Humans is ‘progress’, a necessary evolution, but such progress comes with responsibilities. We cannot accept a continuing attitude that the end justifies the means. Unless we curb and alter our progress it will prove to be the road to perdition for Homo sapiens.
Homo sapiens means ‘wise man’, but for a species credited with such erudition we have certainly demonstrated ignorance in equal measure…
O, it is excellent
To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous
To use it like a giant.
Isabella (Act 2, Scene 2)
~ William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure
The four horsemen of the apocalypse could prove to be greed, arrogance, apathy and indifference.
As well as conveying the beauty, awe and wonder of Earth in his latest programme, Seven Worlds, One Planet, Sir David Attenborough repeated the ongoing message of habitat destruction and climate change.
Despite the Coronavirus, the fact remains that climate change is the single biggest threat to all life on Earth in the Age of Humans.
Biodiversity and sustainability
At the launch of the spectacular Netflix nature programme Our Planet, Sir David Attenborough gave a clear message: we must find a way to survive that does not entail decimating the natural world, because biodiversity equals stability.
SUSTAINABILITY should be our new watch word, a global standard that helps to protect biodiversity in the interest future generations.
If we managed two mass extinctions as hunter-gatherers, (the decimation of two continent’s mega-fauna with just hand tools), imagine what damage we can inflict now, thousands of years later, with efficient machines in this industrial and technological age?
Rapid, wholesale destruction of rainforests by agribusiness for short term profit over long term ecological stability is crazy, and should not be allowed to continue unabated.
We cannot continue to bludgeon our way through our planet’s natural resources with no regard for the consequences.
Over the last year I have phased out processed food from our diet (apart from the odd treat), and I look carefully at the ingredients and buy brands like Nairn’s that only use sustainable palm oil.
This passage from Sapiens illustrates how Homo sapiens have evolved too quickly, thus creating massive environmental problems for ourselves and the planet:
Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo Sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.
That spectacular leap from the middle to the top had enormous consequences. Other animals at the top of the pyramid, such as lions and sharks, evolved into that position very gradually, over millions of years. This enabled the ecosystem to develop checks and balances that prevent lions and sharks from wreaking too much havoc. As lions became deadlier, so gazelles evolved to run faster, hyenas to co-operate better, and rhinoceroses to be more bad-tempered.
In contrast, humankind ascended to the top so quickly that the ecosystem was not given time to adjust. Moreover, humans themselves failed to adjust. Most top predators of the planet are majestic creatures. Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana-republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous. Many historical calamities, from deadly wars to ecological catastrophes, have resulted from this over-hasty jump.
~ Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens)
On our way to the top of the food chain humans domesticated fire, gaining control of a powerful, obedient and potentially limitless force. Unlike other animals, humans could decide when and where to ignite a flame and use it for numerous tasks. Our use of fire was not limited by our physical form, structure or strength. A child with a fire stick could burn down an entire forest.
Metaphorically, this seems like exactly what our still relatively ‘young’ species has done to the planet!
The Cognitive Revolution
The Cognitive Revolution was probably the defining moment in humanity’s evolution thus far – the ability of our species to communicate, to gossip, to develop ever larger social structures, to organise ourselves, collaborate and plan and imagine outcomes. It was the beginning of creativity and storytelling.
No other creature on Earth has developed this mental capacity.
Creation of Man by Michelangelo
We lived for millennia in a similar fashion to our closest genetic cousins, chimpanzees; who survive still in small hierarchical communities lead by an alpha male, having to intervene in squabbles when necessary, and deal with challenges to his authority from younger males who would usurp him, along with his right to sire many of the infants in his group and continue his blood line.
The atmosphere can be aggressive at times, but it is permeated with playfulness, loving mothers, friendships and sub groups that garner support by giving and receiving favours such as picking out fleas and grooming.
You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours… It’s a well known fact in psychology that people respond in kind.
What is the American president but the alpha male of the United States, if not the world? Or for that matter, the Pope is the alpha male of the Catholic Church.
Current political favours and manoeuvrings aren’t so far removed from our ancestral chimp roots, just more sophisticated.
Image by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
Brutality is cloaked by bullies in suits: corruption, corporate malfeasance and brainwashing in the media and all the machinations of imperfect democracies.
What is democracy but millions of people choosing to believe in certain imagined realities?
Female chimpanzees are not able to look at and study the example of the more balanced and loved-up societies of Bonobos, which are run by their more emancipated female relatives, and translate that learning into more freedom and peace for themselves in their own environments.
But the rise of feminism in human society arose from women’s collective desire for a fairer, more meaningful and egalitarian life. It is, of course, an ongoing challenge in a patriarchal society.
Such dramatic changes in behaviour do not occur in the animal kingdom unless environmental pressures or mutations in DNA initiate them.
But since the Cognitive Revolution humans have been able to change their thoughts and pass on new ideas and behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change.
This ability to transform our social structures, the nature of interpersonal relations and our economic activities is a beacon of hope that we can collectively adapt our social behaviours in relation to conservation, waste management, consumption, future innovation and living more cleanly in respect to climate change.
Environmental pressure is certainly driving our continued evolution!
Our species’ nascent curiosity all those thousands of years ago made us think and ask: what would it be like to sail to another land?
The diverse cultures that we are part of and can experience through travelling could not have grown without a curiosity about the world and our place in it.
The temples and pyramids we have built, the gods we have worshipped, the land we have tilled and shaped, the art and music we have expressed (even from the days of cave men) has all been possible because of the Cognitive Revolution.
The freedom to think and act gave us power, and we’re still learning how to wield it.
Sophisticated language and the ability to create ‘imagined realities’ meant that humans could go from living in small groups to creating cities and empires, religions and ideologies, law and order. We could co-operate on hitherto unknown scales.
Money was, and is, the most universally successful creation that mankind invented. Even two people who are born in different geographical locations, and diametrically opposed in their beliefs, their lifestyles and outlooks will both use money in their everyday lives. It is humanity’s common denominator – as is nature and our home planet, Earth.
How do you get millions of people to act in a certain way? It comes down to common goals and shared beliefs. We are individuals, but still able to work together for perceived mutual benefit.
We may be able to disagree on one or two issues, but have many other overriding positive connections that outweigh any disagreements. That is the beauty of freedom of speech and social interaction. The challenges occur when we can’t overcome our differences or agree on a particular imagined reality.
Brexit springs to mind!
Once Homo sapiens started telling stories we never stopped. We evolved our capacity to craft and learn from stories. Myths and stories are the glue of our social connections.
Our physical evolution may have continued at the normal glacial pace, but our imagination raced ahead, enabling us to build networks of mass co-operation.
Social media amplifies this ability to a truly staggering global level.
All the leaders in history have used stories to their advantage, and the best ones used them for the good of humanity. We still tell and read stories that were written years, decades and centuries ago, because we continue to find value and entertainment in them.
Now it is time to tell the most important story in modern history, the one that’s uncomfortable and sometimes frightening to hear, about how we are destroying our planet.
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” ~ Albert Einstein
Dystopian climate disaster movies that have been portrayed on the silver screen are now becoming an all too frequent reality in different areas of the planet.
A few months ago the ex-governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, issued dire warnings about the consequences of climate change to business and continued investment in fossil fuels.
“Fully half of British emissions, it was recently calculated, come from inefficiencies in construction, discarded and unused food, electronics, and clothing; two-thirds of American energy is wasted; globally, according to one paper, we are subsidizing the fossil fuel business to the tune of $5 trillion each year. None of that has to continue.”
~ David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
It’s one thing to hear that elephants, tigers, lions, bees, dolphins and whales are going extinct, and that the earth is becoming uninhabitable, and quite another to experience an unthinkable reality that moves us emotionally into action.
Big Think on global warming.
Whether driven by love or fear, we need lots of new stories about climate change, biodiversity, mass extinctions, pollution and human disease to be told in different ways to different audiences.
It’s our only chance of making such rapid changes to create a paradigm shift on how we have contributed to the problems facing humanity and how we can solve them. It no longer serves us to be insatiable consumers of natural resources, our fictional realities now need to focus on being the protectors, custodians and lovers of our dwindling abundance.
International co-operation is key. Leaders of nations need to come together and set aside large areas of land and sea as protected from human activity, purely for conservation. Nature has shown she can recover if we give her a helping hand.
Sir David Attenborough used the example of a group of islands in south east Asia as an example. Massive over fishing depleted the waters and the coral reefs significantly declined.
The screen filled with eerie images of thousands of giant jellyfish undulating below the surface – the consequence of there being no fish. This is what awaits us beneath the ocean if we continue in that vein. However, this group of islands was declared a national marine park, and within a decade it had recovered most of its biodiversity.
Sir David stated that a third of coastal seas on our planet should be protected as marine parks in this way, so that they can recover from over fishing.
The wasteland of Chernobyl is another example of nature recovering free from human interference:
Sir David Attenborough with some solutions:
The giant Australian marsupial Diprotodon became extinct because it couldn’t adjust in time to develop a fear of humans, who duly massacred them all.
The irony is, nature is now forcing us to adapt to ourselves…
There is no one single historical antecedent to the Anthropocene.
What we call ‘history’ is us recording and looking back at our fictions and imaginations and the outcomes our actions shaped. This elusive, mysterious quality of mind was the driving force behind our evolution.
To me, the logical next step in our evolution is that of the spirit – the unseen.
Moving from being a person that purely experiences the world through just their five senses, to being multi-sensory beings; developing awareness of our inner motivations, emotions and behaviour, being comfortable with stillness, the oneness of all that is, developing empathy, gratitude, a loving nature and a love for nature, becoming highly intuitive and learning to transcend our evolutionary animal inheritance from our chimpanzee days – the ego.
I feel strongly that healing the planet will be achieved with more insight and awareness, and more rapidly, if we can first take responsibility for ourselves and care for each other.
World domination never succeeded (at least for very long), on an individual level, national or empirical level. Just look at Hitler, Stalin and countless other despots, egomaniacs and repressive regimes.
Collectively we influence each other and the planet, to the extent that the consequences of our actions are magnified and compounded in the Age of Humans.
If we all adopted the attitude of asking what serves all of life, rather than what just serves humanity, or purely what serves me, where could we be?
In today’s world, amid efforts to combat a myriad of crises of climate, politics, medicine, and socioeconomics, we are in a constant state of emergency…
Which leads to forced adaptation rather than evolution.
But in order to evolve to our highest potential, individually and as a species, we must access and cultivate the innate and largely unexplored capabilities already within us.
~ Steve Farrell, Worldwide Executive Director – Humanity’s Team
We don’t have to become monks, saints, or even permanently altruistic beings, we can still follow our dreams and aspirations, enjoy our lives; but with an increased awareness of the impact of our actions.
We each have more power than we think.
A profound solution – Consciousness creates reality:
I heard a beautiful explanation of intuition by Gary Zukav, he said that it is the voice of the non-physical world. Cognition could be exponentially more powerful when we are aligned with a higher purpose and the non physical part of ourselves – the soul.
To give future souls a chance at evolving we must preserve the physical stage upon which they can do so – planet Earth.
All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages.
~ William Shakespeare (from All the World’s a Stage speech) As You Like It