(This essay was a finalist for a 2013 National Magazine Award in the Essay category.)
THE PROBLEM WITH environmentalists, Lynn Margulis used to say, is that they think conservation has something to do with biological reality. A researcher who specialized in cells and microorganisms, Margulis was one of the most important biologists in the last half century—she literally helped to reorder the tree of life, convincing her colleagues that it did not consist of two kingdoms (plants and animals), but five or even six (plants, animals, fungi, protists, and two types of bacteria).
Until Margulis’s death last year, she lived in my town, and I would bump into her on the street from time to time. She knew I was interested in ecology, and she liked to needle me. Hey, Charles, she would call out, are you still all worked up about protecting endangered species?
Margulis was no apologist for unthinking destruction. Still, she couldn’t help regarding conservationists’ preoccupation with the fate of birds, mammals, and plants as evidence of their ignorance about the greatest source of evolutionary creativity: the microworld of bacteria, fungi, and protists. More than 90 percent of the living matter on earth consists of microorganisms and viruses, she liked to point out. Heck, the number of bacterial cells in our body is ten times more than the number of human cells!
Bacteria and protists can do things undreamed of by clumsy mammals like us: form giant supercolonies, reproduce either asexually or by swapping genes with others, routinely incorporate DNA from entirely unrelated species, merge into symbiotic beings—the list is as endless as it is amazing. Microorganisms have changed the face of the earth, crumbling stone and even giving rise to the oxygen we breathe. Compared to this power and diversity, Margulis liked to tell me, pandas and polar bears were biological epiphenomena—interesting and fun, perhaps, but not actually significant.
Does that apply to human beings, too? I once asked her, feeling like someone whining to Copernicus about why he couldn’t move the earth a little closer to the center of the universe. Aren’t we special at all?
This was just chitchat on the street, so I didn’t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interesting—for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, we’re unusually successful.
Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.
OF LICE AND MEN
Why and how did humankind become “unusually successful”? And what, to an evolutionary biologist, does “success” mean, if self-destruction is part of the definition? Does that self-destruction include the rest of the biosphere? What are human beings in the grand scheme of things anyway, and where are we headed? What is human nature, if there is such a thing, and how did we acquire it? What does that nature portend for our interactions with the environment? With 7 billion of us crowding the planet, it’s hard to imagine more vital questions.
One way to begin answering them came to Mark Stoneking in 1999, when he received a notice from his son’s school warning of a potential lice outbreak in the classroom. Stoneking is a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology in Leipzig, Germany. He didn’t know much about lice. As a biologist, it was natural for him to noodle around for information about them. The most common louse found on human bodies, he discovered, is Pediculus humanus. P. humanus has two subspecies: P. humanus capitis—head lice, which feed and live on the scalp—and P. humanus corporis—body lice, which feed on skin but live in clothing. In fact, Stoneking learned, body lice are so dependent on the protection of clothing that they cannot survive more than a few hours away from it.
It occurred to him that the two louse subspecies could be used as an evolutionary probe. P. humanus capitis, the head louse, could be an ancient annoyance, because human beings have always had hair for it to infest. But P. humanus corporis, the body louse, must not be especially old, because its need for clothing meant that it could not have existed while humans went naked. Humankind’s great coverup had created a new ecological niche, and some head lice had rushed to fill it. Evolution then worked its magic; a new subspecies, P. humanus corporis, arose. Stoneking couldn’t be sure that this scenario had taken place, though it seemed likely. But if his idea were correct, discovering when the body louse diverged from the head louse would provide a rough date for when people first invented and wore clothing.
The subject was anything but frivolous: donning a garment is a complicated act. Clothing has practical uses—warming the body in cold places, shielding it from the sun in hot places—but it also transforms the appearance of the wearer, something that has proven to be of inescapable interest to Homo sapiens. Clothing is ornament and emblem; it separates human beings from their earlier, un-self-conscious state. (Animals run, swim, and fly without clothing, but only people can be naked.) The invention of clothing was a sign that a mental shift had occurred. The human world had become a realm of complex, symbolic artifacts.
With two colleagues, Stoneking measured the difference between snippets of DNA in the two louse subspecies. Because DNA is thought to pick up small, random mutations at a roughly constant rate, scientists use the number of differences between two populations to tell how long ago they diverged from a common ancestor—the greater the number of differences, the longer the separation. In this case, the body louse had separated from the head louse about 70,000 years ago. Which meant, Stoneking hypothesized, that clothing also dated from about 70,000 years ago.
And not just clothing. As scientists have established, a host of remarkable things occurred to our species at about that time. It marked a dividing line in our history, one that made us who we are, and pointed us, for better and worse, toward the world we now have created for ourselves.
Homo sapiens emerged on the planet about 200,000 years ago, researchers believe. From the beginning, our species looked much as it does today. If some of those long-ago people walked by us on the street now, we would think they looked and acted somewhat oddly, but not that they weren’t people. But those anatomically modern humans were not, as anthropologists say, behaviorally modern. Those first people had no language, no clothing, no art, no religion, nothing but the simplest, unspecialized tools. They were little more advanced, technologically speaking, than their predecessors—or, for that matter, modern chimpanzees. (The big exception was fire, but that was first controlled by Homo erectus, one of our ancestors, a million years ago or more.) Our species had so little capacity for innovation that archaeologists have found almost no evidence of cultural or social change during our first 100,000 years of existence. Equally important, for almost all that time these early humans were confined to a single, small area in the hot, dry savanna of East Africa (and possibly a second, still smaller area in southern Africa).
But now jump forward 50,000 years. East Africa looks much the same. So do the humans in it—but suddenly they are drawing and carving images, weaving ropes and baskets, shaping and wielding specialized tools, burying the dead in formal ceremonies, and perhaps worshipping supernatural beings. They are wearing clothes—lice-filled clothes, to be sure, but clothes nonetheless. Momentously, they are using language. And they are dramatically increasing their range. Homo sapiens is exploding across the planet.
What caused this remarkable change? By geologists’ standards, 50,000 years is an instant, a finger snap, a rounding error. Nonetheless, most researchers believe that in that flicker of time, favorable mutations swept through our species, transforming anatomically modern humans into behaviorally modern humans. The idea is not absurd: in the last 400 years, dog breeders converted village dogs into creatures that act as differently as foxhounds, border collies, and Labrador retrievers. Fifty millennia, researchers say, is more than enough to make over a species.
Homo sapiens lacks claws, fangs, or exoskeletal plates. Rather, our unique survival skill is our ability to innovate, which originates with our species’ singular brain—a three-pound universe of hyperconnected neural tissue, constantly aswirl with schemes and notions. Hence every hypothesized cause for the transformation of humankind from anatomically modern to behaviorally modern involves a physical alteration of the wet gray matter within our skulls. One candidate explanation is that in this period people developed hybrid mental abilities by interbreeding with Neanderthals. (Some Neanderthal genes indeed appear to be in our genome, though nobody is yet certain of their function.) Another putative cause is symbolic language—an invention that may have tapped latent creativity and aggressiveness in our species. A third is that a mutation might have enabled our brains to alternate between spacing out on imaginative chains of association and focusing our attention narrowly on the physical world around us. The former, in this view, allows us to come up with creative new strategies to achieve a goal, whereas the latter enables us to execute the concrete tactics required by those strategies.
Each of these ideas is fervently advocated by some researchers and fervently attacked by others. What is clear is that something made over our species between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago—and right in the middle of that period was Toba.
CHILDREN OF TOBA
About 75,000 years ago, a huge volcano exploded on the island of Sumatra. The biggest blast for several million years, the eruption created Lake Toba, the world’s biggest crater lake, and ejected the equivalent of as much as 3,000 cubic kilometers of rock, enough to cover the District of Columbia in a layer of magma and ash that would reach to the stratosphere. A gigantic plume spread west, enveloping southern Asia in tephra (rock, ash, and dust). Drifts in Pakistan and India reached as high as six meters. Smaller tephra beds blanketed the Middle East and East Africa. Great rafts of pumice filled the sea and drifted almost to Antarctica.
In the long run, the eruption raised Asian soil fertility. In the short term, it was catastrophic. Dust hid the sun for as much as a decade, plunging the earth into a years-long winter accompanied by widespread drought. A vegetation collapse was followed by a collapse in the species that depended on vegetation, followed by a collapse in the species that depended on the species that depended on vegetation. Temperatures may have remained colder than normal for a thousand years. Orangutans, tigers, chimpanzees, cheetahs—all were pushed to the verge of extinction.
At about this time, many geneticists believe, Homo sapiens’ numbers shrank dramatically, perhaps to a few thousand people—the size of a big urban high school. The clearest evidence of this bottleneck is also its main legacy: humankind’s remarkable genetic uniformity. Countless people have viewed the differences between races as worth killing for, but compared to other primates—even compared to most other mammals—human beings are almost indistinguishable, genetically speaking. DNA is made from exceedingly long chains of “bases.” Typically, about one out of every 2,000 of these “bases” differs between one person and the next. The equivalent figure from two E. coli (human gut bacteria) might be about one out of twenty. The bacteria in our intestines, that is, have a hundredfold more innate variability than their hosts—evidence, researchers say, that our species is descended from a small group of founders.
Uniformity is hardly the only effect of a bottleneck. When a species shrinks in number, mutations can spread through the entire population with astonishing rapidity. Or genetic variants that may have already been in existence—arrays of genes that confer better planning skills, for example—can suddenly become more common, effectively reshaping the species within a few generations as once-unusual traits become widespread.
Did Toba, as theorists like Richard Dawkins have argued, cause an evolutionary bottleneck that set off the creation of behaviorally modern people, perhaps by helping previously rare genes—Neanderthal DNA or an opportune mutation—spread through our species? Or did the volcanic blast simply clear away other human species that had previously blocked H. sapiens’ expansion? Or was the volcano irrelevant to the deeper story of human change?
For now, the answers are the subject of careful back-and-forth in refereed journals and heated argument in faculty lounges. All that is clear is that about the time of Toba, new, behaviorally modern people charged so fast into the tephra that human footprints appeared in Australia within as few as 10,000 years, perhaps within 4,000 or 5,000. Stay-at-home Homo sapiens 1.0, a wallflower that would never have interested Lynn Margulis, had been replaced by aggressively expansive Homo sapiens 2.0. Something happened, for better and worse, and we were born.
One way to illustrate what this upgrade looked like is to consider Solenopsis invicta, the red imported fire ant. Geneticists believe that S. invicta originated in northern Argentina, an area with many rivers and frequent floods. The floods wipe out ant nests. Over the millennia, these small, furiously active creatures have acquired the ability to respond to rising water by coalescing into huge, floating, pullulating balls—workers on the outside, queen in the center—that drift to the edge of the flood. Once the waters recede, colonies swarm back into previously flooded land so rapidly that S. invicta actually can use the devastation to increase its range.
In the 1930s, Solenopsis invicta was transported to the United States, probably in ship ballast, which often consists of haphazardly loaded soil and gravel. As a teenaged bug enthusiast, Edward O. Wilson, the famed biologist, spotted the first colonies in the port of Mobile, Alabama. He saw some very happy fire ants. From the ant’s point of view, it had been dumped into an empty, recently flooded expanse. S. invicta took off, never looking back.
The initial incursion watched by Wilson was likely just a few thousand individuals—a number small enough to suggest that random, bottleneck-style genetic change played a role in the species’ subsequent history in this country. In their Argentine birthplace, fire-ant colonies constantly fight each other, reducing their numbers and creating space for other types of ant. In the United States, by contrast, the species forms cooperative supercolonies, linked clusters of nests that can spread for hundreds of miles. Systematically exploiting the landscape, these supercolonies monopolize every useful resource, wiping out other ant species along the way—models of zeal and rapacity. Transformed by chance and opportunity, new-model S. invictus needed just a few decades to conquer most of the southern United States.
Homo sapiens did something similar in the wake of Toba. For hundreds of thousands of years, our species had been restricted to East Africa (and, possibly, a similar area in the south). Now, abruptly, new-model Homo sapiens were racing across the continents like so many imported fire ants. The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitats—but we do the disturbing.
THE WORLD IS A PETRI DISH
As a student at the University of Moscow in the 1920s, Georgii Gause spent years trying—and failing—to drum up support from the Rockefeller Foundation, then the most prominent funding source for non-American scientists who wished to work in the United States. Hoping to dazzle the foundation, Gause decided to perform some nifty experiments and describe the results in his grant application.
By today’s standards, his methodology was simplicity itself. Gause placed half a gram of oatmeal in one hundred cubic centimeters of water, boiled the results for ten minutes to create a broth, strained the liquid portion of the broth into a container, diluted the mixture by adding water, and then decanted the contents into small, flat-bottomed test tubes. Into each he dripped five Paramecium caudatum or Stylonychia mytilus, both single-celled protozoans, one species per tube. Each of Gause’s test tubes was a pocket ecosystem, a food web with a single node. He stored the tubes in warm places for a week and observed the results. He set down his conclusions in a 163-page book, The Struggle for Existence, published in 1934.
Today The Struggle for Existence is recognized as a scientific landmark, one of the first successful marriages of theory and experiment in ecology. But the book was not enough to get Gause a fellowship; the Rockefeller Foundation turned down the twenty-four-year-old Soviet student as insufficiently eminent. Gause could not visit the United States for another twenty years, by which time he had indeed become eminent, but as an antibiotics researcher.
What Gause saw in his test tubes is often depicted in a graph, time on the horizontal axis, the number of protozoa on the vertical. The line on the graph is a distorted bell curve, with its left side twisted and stretched into a kind of flattened S. At first the number of protozoans grows slowly, and the graph line slowly ascends to the right. But then the line hits an inflection point, and suddenly rockets upward—a frenzy of exponential growth. The mad rise continues until the organism begins to run out of food, at which point there is a second inflection point, and the growth curve levels off again as bacteria begin to die. Eventually the line descends, and the population falls toward zero.
Years ago I watched Lynn Margulis, one of Gause’s successors, demonstrate these conclusions to a class at the University of Massachusetts with a time-lapse video of Proteus vulgaris, a bacterium that lives in the gastrointestinal tract. To humans, she said, P. vulgaris is mainly notable as a cause of urinary-tract infections. Left alone, it divides about every fifteen minutes. Margulis switched on the projector. Onscreen was a small, wobbly bubble—P. vulgaris—in a shallow, circular glass container: a petri dish. The class gasped. The cells in the time-lapse video seemed to shiver and boil, doubling in number every few seconds, colonies exploding out until the mass of bacteria filled the screen. In just thirty-six hours, she said, this single bacterium could cover the entire planet in a foot-deep layer of single-celled ooze. Twelve hours after that, it would create a living ball of bacteria the size of the earth.
Such a calamity never happens, because competing organisms and lack of resources prevent the overwhelming majority of P. vulgaris from reproducing. This, Margulis said, is natural selection, Darwin’s great insight. All living creatures have the same purpose: to make more of themselves, ensuring their biological future by the only means available. Natural selection stands in the way of this goal. It prunes back almost all species, restricting their numbers and confining their range. In the human body, P. vulgaris is checked by the size of its habitat (portions of the human gut), the limits to its supply of nourishment (food proteins), and other, competing organisms. Thus constrained, its population remains roughly steady.
In the petri dish, by contrast, competition is absent; nutrients and habitat seem limitless, at least at first. The bacterium hits the first inflection point and rockets up the left side of the curve, swamping the petri dish in a reproductive frenzy. But then its colonies slam into the second inflection point: the edge of the dish. When the dish’s nutrient supply is exhausted, P. vulgaris experiences a miniapocalypse.
By luck or superior adaptation, a few species manage to escape their limits, at least for a while. Nature’s success stories, they are like Gause’s protozoans; the world is their petri dish. Their populations grow exponentially; they take over large areas, overwhelming their environment as if no force opposed them. Then they annihilate themselves, drowning in their own wastes or starving from lack of food.
To someone like Margulis, Homo sapiens looks like one of these briefly fortunate species.
THE WHIP HAND
No more than a few hundred people initially migrated from Africa, if geneticists are correct. But they emerged into landscapes that by today’s standards were as rich as Eden. Cool mountains, tropical wetlands, lush forests—all were teeming with food. Fish in the sea, birds in the air, fruit on the trees: breakfast was everywhere. People moved in.
Despite our territorial expansion, though, humans were still only in the initial stages of Gause’s oddly shaped curve. Ten thousand years ago, most demographers believe, we numbered barely 5 million, about one human being for every hundred square kilometers of the earth’s land surface. Homo sapiens was a scarcely noticeable dusting on the surface of a planet dominated by microbes. Nevertheless, at about this time—10,000 years ago, give or take a millennium—humankind finally began to approach the first inflection point. Our species was inventing agriculture.
The wild ancestors of cereal crops like wheat, barley, rice, and sorghum have been part of the human diet for almost as long as there have been humans to eat them. (The earliest evidence comes from Mozambique, where researchers found tiny bits of 105,000-year-old sorghum on ancient scrapers and grinders.) In some cases people may have watched over patches of wild grain, returning to them year after year. Yet despite the effort and care the plants were not domesticated. As botanists say, wild cereals “shatter”—individual grain kernels fall off as they ripen, scattering grain haphazardly, making it impossible to harvest the plants systematically. Only when unknown geniuses discovered naturally mutated grain plants that did not shatter—and purposefully selected, protected, and cultivated them—did true agriculture begin. Planting great expanses of those mutated crops, first in southern Turkey, later in half a dozen other places, early farmers created landscapes that, so to speak, waited for hands to harvest them.
Farming converted most of the habitable world into a petri dish. Foragers manipulated their environment with fire, burning areas to kill insects and encourage the growth of useful species—plants we liked to eat, plants that attracted the other creatures we liked to eat. Nonetheless, their diets were largely restricted to what nature happened to provide in any given time and season. Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.
Before agriculture, the Ukraine, American Midwest, and lower Yangzi were barely hospitable food deserts, sparsely inhabited landscapes of insects and grass; they became breadbaskets as people scythed away suites of species that used soil and water we wanted to dominate and replaced them with wheat, rice, and maize (corn). To one of Margulis’s beloved bacteria, a petri dish is a uniform expanse of nutrients, all of which it can seize and consume. For Homo sapiens, agriculture transformed the planet into something similar.
As in a time-lapse movie, we divided and multiplied across the newly opened land. It had taken Homo sapiens 2.0, behaviorally modern humans, not even 50,000 years to reach the farthest corners of the globe. Homo sapiens 2.0.A—A for agriculture—took a tenth of that time to conquer the planet.
As any biologist would predict, success led to an increase in human numbers. Homo sapiens rocketed around the elbow of the first inflection point in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when American crops like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and maize were introduced to the rest of the world. Traditional Eurasian and African cereals—wheat, rice, millet, and sorghum, for example—produce their grain atop thin stalks. Basic physics suggests that plants with this design will fatally topple if the grain gets too heavy, which means that farmers can actually be punished if they have an extra-bounteous harvest. By contrast, potatoes and sweet potatoes grow underground, which means that yields are not limited by the plant’s architecture. Wheat farmers in Edinburgh and rice farmers in Edo alike discovered they could harvest four times as much dry food matter from an acre of tubers than they could from an acre of cereals. Maize, too, was a winner. Compared to other cereals, it has an extra-thick stalk and a different, more productive type of photosynthesis. Taken together, these immigrant crops vastly increased the food supply in Europe, Asia, and Africa, which in turn helped increase the supply of Europeans, Asians, and Africans. The population boom had begun.
Numbers kept rising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after a German chemist, Justus von Liebig, discovered that plant growth was limited by the supply of nitrogen. Without nitrogen, neither plants nor the mammals that eat plants can create proteins, or for that matter the DNA and RNA that direct their production. Pure nitrogen gas (N2) is plentiful in the air but plants are unable to absorb it, because the two nitrogen atoms in N2 are welded so tightly together that plants cannot split them apart for use. Instead, plants take in nitrogen only when it is combined with hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements. To restore exhausted soil, traditional farmers grew peas, beans, lentils, and other pulses. (They never knew why these “green manures” replenished the land. Today we know that their roots contain special bacteria that convert useless N2 into “bio-available” nitrogen compounds.) After Liebig, European and American growers replaced those crops with high-intensity fertilizer—nitrogen-rich guano from Peru at first, then nitrates from mines in Chile. Yields soared. But supplies were much more limited than farmers liked. So intense was the competition for fertilizer that a guano war erupted in 1879, engulfing much of western South America. Almost 3,000 people died.
Two more German chemists, Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, came to the rescue, discovering the key steps to making synthetic fertilizer from fossil fuels. (The process involves combining nitrogen gas and hydrogen from natural gas into ammonia, which is then used to create nitrogenous compounds usable by plants.) Haber and Bosch are not nearly as well known as they should be; their discovery, the Haber-Bosch process, has literally changed the chemical composition of the earth, a feat previously reserved for microorganisms. Farmers have injected so much synthetic fertilizer into the soil that soil and groundwater nitrogen levels have risen worldwide. Today, roughly a third of all the protein (animal and vegetable) consumed by humankind is derived from synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Another way of putting this is to say that Haber and Bosch enabled Homo sapiens to extract about 2 billion people’s worth of food from the same amount of available land.
The improved wheat, rice, and (to a lesser extent) maize varieties developed by plant breeders in the 1950s and 1960s are often said to have prevented another billion deaths. Antibiotics, vaccines, and water-treatment plants also saved lives by pushing back humankind’s bacterial, viral, and fungal enemies. With almost no surviving biological competition, humankind had ever more unhindered access to the planetary petri dish: in the past two hundred years, the number of humans walking the planet ballooned from 1 to 7 billion, with a few billion more expected in coming decades.
Rocketing up the growth curve, human beings “now appropriate nearly 40% . . . of potential terrestrial productivity.” This figure dates from 1986—a famous estimate by a team of Stanford biologists. Ten years later, a second Stanford team calculated that the “fraction of the land’s biological production that is used or dominated” by our species had risen to as much as 50 percent. In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.
Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.
If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.
It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.
AS PLASTIC AS CANBY
In The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster’s classic, pun-filled adventure tale, the young Milo and his faithful companions unexpectedly find themselves transported to a bleak, mysterious island. Encountering a man in a tweed jacket and beanie, Milo asks him where they are. The man replies by asking if they know who he is—the man is, apparently, confused on the subject. Milo and his friends confer, then ask if he can describe himself.
“Yes, indeed,” the man replied happily. “I’m as tall as can be”—and he grew straight up until all that could be seen of him were his shoes and stockings—“and I’m as short as can be”—and he shrank down to the size of a pebble. “I’m as generous as can be,” he said, handing each of them a large red apple, “and I’m as selfish as can be,” he snarled, grabbing them back again.
In short order, the companions learn that the man is as strong as can be, weak as can be, smart as can be, stupid as can be, graceful as can be, clumsy as—you get the picture. “Is that any help to you?” he asks. Again, Milo and his friends confer, and realize that the answer is actually quite simple:
“Without a doubt,” Milo concluded brightly, “you must be Canby.”
“Of course, yes, of course,” the man shouted. “Why didn’t I think of that? I’m as happy as can be.”
With Canby, Juster presumably meant to mock a certain kind of babyish, uncommitted man-child. But I can’t help thinking of poor old Canby as exemplifying one of humankind’s greatest attributes: behavioral plasticity. The term was coined in 1890 by the pioneering psychologist William James, who defined it as “the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Behavioral plasticity, a defining feature of Homo sapiens’ big brain, means that humans can change their habits; almost as a matter of course, people change careers, quit smoking or take up vegetarianism, convert to new religions, and migrate to distant lands where they must learn strange languages. This plasticity, this Canby-hood, is the hallmark of our transformation from anatomically modern Homo sapiens to behaviorally modern Homo sapiens—and the reason, perhaps, we were able to survive when Toba reconfigured the landscape.
Other creatures are much less flexible. Like apartment-dwelling cats that compulsively hide in the closet when visitors arrive, they have limited capacity to welcome new phenomena and change in response. Human beings, by contrast, are so exceptionally plastic that vast swaths of neuroscience are devoted to trying to explain how this could come about. (Nobody knows for certain, but some researchers now think that particular genes give their possessors a heightened, inborn awareness of their environment, which can lead both to useless, neurotic sensitivity and greater ability to detect and adapt to new situations.)
Plasticity in individuals is mirrored by plasticity on a societal level. The caste system in social species like honeybees is elaborate and finely tuned but fixed, as if in amber, in the loops of their DNA. Some leafcutter ants are said to have, next to human beings, the biggest and most complex societies on earth, with elaborately coded behavior that reaches from disposal of the dead to complex agricultural systems. Housing millions of individuals in inconceivably ramose subterranean networks, leafcutter colonies are “Earth’s ultimate superorganisms,” Edward O. Wilson has written. But they are incapable of fundamental change. The centrality and authority of the queen cannot be challenged; the tiny minority of males, used only to inseminate queens, will never acquire new responsibilities.
Human societies are far more varied than their insect cousins, of course. But the true difference is their plasticity. It is why humankind, a species of Canbys, has been able to move into every corner of the earth, and to control what we find there. Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.
Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.
By 2050, demographers predict, as many as 10 billion human beings will walk the earth, 3 billion more than today. Not only will more people exist than ever before, they will be richer than ever before. In the last three decades hundreds of millions in China, India, and other formerly poor places have lifted themselves from destitution—arguably the most important, and certainly the most heartening, accomplishment of our time. Yet, like all human enterprises, this great success will pose great difficulties.
In the past, rising incomes have invariably prompted rising demand for goods and services. Billions more jobs, homes, cars, fancy electronics—these are things the newly prosperous will want. (Why shouldn’t they?) But the greatest challenge may be the most basic of all: feeding these extra mouths. To agronomists, the prospect is sobering. The newly affluent will not want their ancestors’ gruel. Instead they will ask for pork and beef and lamb. Salmon will sizzle on their outdoor grills. In winter, they will want strawberries, like people in New York and London, and clean bibb lettuce from hydroponic gardens.
All of these, each and every one, require vastly more resources to produce than simple peasant agriculture. Already 35 percent of the world’s grain harvest is used to feed livestock. The process is terribly inefficient: between seven and ten kilograms of grain are required to produce one kilogram of beef. Not only will the world’s farmers have to produce enough wheat and maize to feed 3 billion more people, they will have to produce enough to give them all hamburgers and steaks. Given present patterns of food consumption, economists believe, we will need to produce about 40 percent more grain in 2050 than we do today.
How can we provide these things for all these new people? That is only part of the question. The full question is: How can we provide them without wrecking the natural systems on which all depend?
Scientists, activists, and politicians have proposed many solutions, each from a different ideological and moral perspective. Some argue that we must drastically throttle industrial civilization. (Stop energy-intensive, chemical-based farming today! Eliminate fossil fuels to halt climate change!) Others claim that only intense exploitation of scientific knowledge can save us. (Plant super-productive, genetically modified crops now! Switch to nuclear power to halt climate change!) No matter which course is chosen, though, it will require radical, large-scale transformations in the human enterprise—a daunting, hideously expensive task.
Worse, the ship is too large to turn quickly. The world’s food supply cannot be decoupled rapidly from industrial agriculture, if that is seen as the answer. Aquifers cannot be recharged with a snap of the fingers. If the high-tech route is chosen, genetically modified crops cannot be bred and tested overnight. Similarly, carbon-sequestration techniques and nuclear power plants cannot be deployed instantly. Changes must be planned and executed decades in advance of the usual signals of crisis, but that’s like asking healthy, happy sixteen-year-olds to write living wills.
Not only is the task daunting, it’s strange. In the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Florida—all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gause’s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.
What a peculiar thing to ask! Economists like to talk about the “discount rate,” which is their term for preferring a bird in hand today over two in the bush tomorrow. The term sums up part of our human nature as well. Evolving in small, constantly moving bands, we are as hard-wired to focus on the immediate and local over the long-term and faraway as we are to prefer parklike savannas to deep dark forests. Thus, we care more about the broken stoplight up the street today than conditions next year in Croatia, Cambodia, or the Congo. Rightly so, evolutionists point out: Americans are far more likely to be killed at that stoplight today than in the Congo next year. Yet here we are asking governments to focus on potential planetary boundaries that may not be reached for decades. Given the discount rate, nothing could be more understandable than the U.S. Congress’s failure to grapple with, say, climate change. From this perspective, is there any reason to imagine that Homo sapiens, unlike mussels, snakes, and moths, can exempt itself from the natural fate of all successful species?
To biologists like Margulis, who spend their careers arguing that humans are simply part of the natural order, the answer should be clear. All life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselves—that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.
From this vantage, the answer to the question whether we are doomed to destroy ourselves is yes. It should be obvious.
Should be—but perhaps is not.
HARA HACHI BU
When I imagine the profound social transformation necessary to avoid calamity, I think about Robinson Crusoe, hero of Daniel Defoe’s famous novel. Defoe clearly intended his hero to be an exemplary man. Shipwrecked on an uninhabited island off Venezuela in 1659, Crusoe is an impressive example of behavioral plasticity. During his twenty-seven-year exile he learns to catch fish, hunt rabbits and turtles, tame and pasture island goats, prune and support local citrus trees, and create “plantations” of barley and rice from seeds that he salvaged from the wreck. (Defoe apparently didn’t know that citrus and goats were not native to the Americas and thus Crusoe probably wouldn’t have found them there.) Rescue comes at last in the form of a shipful of ragged mutineers, who plan to maroon their captain on the supposedly empty island. Crusoe helps the captain recapture his ship and offers the defeated mutineers a choice: trial in England or permanent banishment to the island. All choose the latter. Crusoe has harnessed so much of the island’s productive power to human use that even a gaggle of inept seamen can survive there in comfort.
To get Crusoe on his unlucky voyage, Defoe made him an officer on a slave ship, transporting captured Africans to South America. Today, no writer would make a slave seller the admirable hero of a novel. But in 1720, when Defoe published Robinson Crusoe, no readers said boo about Crusoe’s occupation, because slavery was the norm from one end of the world to another. Rules and names differed from place to place, but coerced labor was everywhere, building roads, serving aristocrats, and fighting wars. Slaves teemed in the Ottoman Empire, Mughal India, and Ming China. Unfree hands were less common in continental Europe, but Portugal, Spain, France, England, and the Netherlands happily exploited slaves by the million in their American colonies. Few protests were heard; slavery had been part of the fabric of life since the code of Hammurabi.
Then, in the space of a few decades in the nineteenth century, slavery, one of humankind’s most enduring institutions, almost vanished.
The sheer implausibility of this change is staggering. In 1860, slaves were, collectively, the single most valuable economic asset in the United States, worth an estimated $3 billion, a vast sum in those days (and about $10 trillion in today’s money). Rather than investing in factories like northern entrepreneurs, southern businessmen had sunk their capital into slaves. And from their perspective, correctly so—masses of enchained men and women had made the region politically powerful, and gave social status to an entire class of poor whites. Slavery was the foundation of the social order. It was, thundered John C. Calhoun, a former senator, secretary of state, and vice president, “instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” Yet just a few years after Calhoun spoke, part of the United States set out to destroy this institution, wrecking much of the national economy and killing half a million citizens along the way.
Incredibly, the turn against slavery was as universal as slavery itself. Great Britain, the world’s biggest human trafficker, closed down its slave operations in 1808, though they were among the nation’s most profitable industries. The Netherlands, France, Spain, and Portugal soon followed. Like stars winking out at the approach of dawn, cultures across the globe removed themselves from the previously universal exchange of human cargo. Slavery still exists here and there, but in no society anywhere is it formally accepted as part of the social fabric.
Historians have provided many reasons for this extraordinary transition. But one of the most important is that abolitionists had convinced huge numbers of ordinary people around the world that slavery was a moral disaster. An institution fundamental to human society for millennia was swiftly dismantled by ideas and a call to action, loudly repeated.
In the last few centuries, such profound changes have occurred repeatedly. Since the beginning of our species, for instance, every known society has been based on the domination of women by men. (Rumors of past matriarchal societies abound, but few archaeologists believe them.) In the long view, women’s lack of liberty has been as central to the human enterprise as gravitation is to the celestial order. The degree of suppression varied from time to time and place to place, but women never had an equal voice; indeed, some evidence exists that the penalty for possession of two X chromosomes increased with technological progress. Even as the industrial North and agricultural South warred over the treatment of Africans, they regarded women identically: in neither half of the nation could they attend college, have a bank account, or own property. Equally confining were women’s lives in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Nowadays women are the majority of U.S. college students, the majority of the workforce, and the majority of voters. Again, historians assign multiple causes to this shift in the human condition, rapid in time, staggering in scope. But one of the most important was the power of ideas—the voices, actions, and examples of suffragists, who through decades of ridicule and harassment pressed their case. In recent years something similar seems to have occurred with gay rights: first a few lonely advocates, censured and mocked; then victories in the social and legal sphere; finally, perhaps, a slow movement to equality.
Less well known, but equally profound: the decline in violence. Foraging societies waged war less brutally than industrial societies, but more frequently. Typically, archaeologists believe, about a quarter of all hunters and gatherers were killed by their fellows. Violence declined somewhat as humans gathered themselves into states and empires, but was still a constant presence. When Athens was at its height in the fourth and fifth centuries BC, it was ever at war: against Sparta (First and Second Peloponnesian Wars, Corinthian War); against Persia (Greco-Persian Wars, Wars of the Delian League); against Aegina (Aeginetan War); against Macedon (Olynthian War); against Samos (Samian War); against Chios, Rhodes, and Cos (Social War).
In this respect, classical Greece was nothing special—look at the ghastly histories of China, sub-Saharan Africa, or Mesoamerica. Similarly, early modern Europe’s wars were so fast and furious that historians simply gather them into catchall titles like the Hundred Years’ War, followed by the shorter but even more destructive Thirty Years’ War. And even as Europeans and their descendants paved the way toward today’s concept of universal human rights by creating documents like the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Europe remained so mired in combat that it fought two conflicts of such massive scale and reach they became known as “world” wars.
Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever before—an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article. As the political scientist Joshua Goldstein has written, “we are winning the war on war.” Again, there are multiple causes. But Goldstein, probably the leading scholar in this field, argues that the most important is the emergence of the United Nations and other transnational bodies, an expression of the ideas of peace activists earlier in the last century.
As a relatively young species, we have an adolescent propensity to make a mess: we pollute the air we breathe and the water we drink, and appear stalled in an age of carbon dumping and nuclear experimentation that is putting countless species at risk including our own. But we are making undeniable progress nonetheless. No European in 1800 could have imagined that in 2000 Europe would have no legal slavery, women would be able to vote, and gay people would be able to marry. No one could have guessed a continent that had been tearing itself apart for centuries would be free of armed conflict, even amid terrible economic times. Given this record, even Lynn Margulis might pause (maybe).
Preventing Homo sapiens from destroying itself à la Gause would require a still greater transformation—behavioral plasticity of the highest order—because we would be pushing against biological nature itself. The Japanese have an expression, hara hachi bu, which means, roughly speaking, “belly 80 percent full.” Hara hachi bu is shorthand for an ancient injunction to stop eating before feeling full. Nutritionally, the command makes a great deal of sense. When people eat, their stomachs produce peptides that signal fullness to the nervous system. Unfortunately, the mechanism is so slow that eaters frequently perceive satiety only after they have consumed too much—hence the all-too-common condition of feeling bloated or sick from overeating. Japan—actually, the Japanese island of Okinawa—is the only place on earth where large numbers of people are known to restrict their own calorie intake systematically and routinely. Some researchers claim that hara hachi bu is responsible for Okinawans’ notoriously long life spans. But I think of it as a metaphor for stopping before the second inflection point, voluntarily forswearing short-term consumption to obtain a long-term benefit.
Evolutionarily speaking, a species-wide adoption of hara hachi bu would be unprecedented. Thinking about it, I can picture Lynn Margulis rolling her eyes. But is it so unlikely that our species, Canbys one and all, would be able to do exactly that before we round that fateful curve of the second inflection point and nature does it for us?
I can imagine Margulis’s response: You’re imagining our species as some sort of big-brained, hyperrational, benefit-cost-calculating computer! A better analogy is the bacteria at our feet! Still, Margulis would be the first to agree that removing the shackles from women and slaves has begun to unleash the suppressed talents of two-thirds of the human race. Drastically reducing violence has prevented the waste of countless lives and staggering amounts of resources. Is it really impossible to believe that we wouldn’t use those talents and those resources to draw back before the abyss?
Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use it—to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulis’s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species. O
A terrific read. The part on human beings as invasive species is worth the price alone. This is classic.
“The difference between humans and fire ants is that fire ants specialize in disturbed habitats. Humans, too, specialize in disturbed habitatsâ€”but we do the disturbing.”
There are so many nice goodies written with punch like this.
“Agriculture gave humanity the whip hand. Instead of natural ecosystems with their haphazard mix of species (so many useless organisms guzzling up resources!), farms are taut, disciplined communities conceived and dedicated to the maintenance of a single species: us.”
I’ll add one more.
“Our ability to change ourselves to extract resources from our surroundings with ever-increasing efficiency is what has made Homo sapiens a successful species. It is our greatest blessing.
Or was our greatest blessing, anyway.”
I have a few downsize thoughts on some of the analysis but I’ll save that for later.
Excellent piece. I don’t have much faith in our collective ability to adjust in time to the impending collapse of civilization. Individually and in pockets there are those who see the need to adjust, but unfortunately we’re not all on board and the Sarah Palins and the James Inhofes seem to hold sway over policy in this world.
A great and masterful essay, brilliant and needing to be read – but then it falls off the rails, as is typical of even the best of our social critics.
Mann is dead-on and eloquent in his depiction of our state of inter-locking crises, but then he goes all hope and change and look at how far we have come. Sure, there are identity politics achievements, and nice safer lives for the boomers and the Prius-drivers, but there are so many real, freely available, undeniable markers of a immovable and fully corrupt supersystem.
Look at the graph of CO2 in the atmosphere – notice a trend? Look at the Gini coefficient for the US- see the direction? Has Mann seen the official, growing, shameful wealth disparity between white and black Americans, let alone the global disparities? Can he appreciate the graph of the ruined lives of the global poor, even before the states of our interdependent ecosystems start really to seize?
Where is there a single indication that any of the insitutions governing human lives have even the capacity to shift course from the extraction of resources anywhere in the globe to feed the energy needs of the well-to-do?
Why be so top-notch in drawing the outlines our common predicament, and then proffer some pie-in-the-sky endpiece that flies in the face of all that we can observe?
Still, Mann’s essay is a treasure, a lasting way to look at our lives with new artistic metaphors, and it deserves a medal or two – but only the bravest can really see where the data lie.
This is fine and interesting read that but I think the scientific objectivity of the piece is slowly lost as the story gets closer to the present era. For example, the comment is made that slavery has been almost eliminated. I agree that old style slavery has more or less been stopped but I maintain that slavery is still very much alive and well under a change of name in which it is now called “employment”. This “employment” form of slavery is much more sophisticated than the old style of slavery and, if anything, it has increased slavery and made it into a kind of invisible social situation. It seems to me that Mr. Mann tries to put an optimistic spin on homo sapiens society at the end of the piece that I don’t believe is justified.
Commit ‘hara hachi bu’ rather than ‘hara kiri’ for a better world ahead, the author seems to suggest. The article brings various threads of thought together well. Yet, the author does not mention early ecologists and conservationists who arrived at similar conclusions on driving social and ecological change on a moral and ethical basis, such as Aldo Leopold and Arne Naess and Rachel Carson. Unfortunately, it is widely, but perhaps wrongly, believed that the power of economics will trump ethics anyday. A shift in perception is first required?
Wow! A powerful compilation of information describing the homo path then and forward…We are, of course, preoccupied by our own species’ adventures. I can appreciate this as a member of the group…but I also appreciate Lynn Margulis’ focus, a Gaia description that takes into consideration all life on the planet. Will there be another more advanced species in the future when/if we bring on our own destruction? Gaia will remain. I personally work to enjoy as much of the ride as I am able, despite politics!
I have to agree with Martin’s comment. However clear-thinking when it comes to the past, Mr Mann is still unable to stop outside the dominant narrative which says that our society is the best and most moral ever and things are only getting better.
“Since the Second World War, however, rates of violent death have fallen to the lowest levels in known history. Today, the average person is far less likely to be slain by another member of the species than ever beforeâ€”an extraordinary transformation that has occurred, almost unheralded, in the lifetime of many of the people reading this article.”
I’ve heard this claim before. Does that include deaths in car accidents? Deaths due to industrial pollution? Deaths due to political despotism? All are forms of violent death caused by human beings, albeit not in war.
Still, it is nice to think that the human race is flexible enough to snatch survival from the jaws of extinction. I guess some of us alive today will find out the answer.
A truly remarkable, thought-provoking, and complete, essay on life and humankind that should make us pause and reflect on what the author has said in the last para.
A very good, engaging piece. I was all with him, particularly on the changes wrought by symbolic culture and agriculture, until the end, when he makes entirely dubious assertions. (A similar analysis, but better conclusion is to be found in Kirkpatrick Sale’s After Eden.)
For example, plenty of anthropological evidence contradicts what Mann says about gender inequality being the case since the beginnings of our species.
Also, his liberal championing of Progress is somewhat nauseating. The figures on declining violence are dubious at best, relying on relative rather than absolute statistics (Does Mann not count human lives as having equal worth? Lets not forget how bloody the 20th century was), and completely externalising violence on the natural world.
Just read the other comments too. Totally agree with the commenters above – Martin and Ron Hofbauer
we’re definitely as plastic as canby..
so more of us have to ‘learn’ and communicate our learning on how to put grace over power..
Great, thought provoking article. Makes me think of two things:
1. The Matrix’s Agent Smith to Morpheus: “Humans are a virus”
2. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond’s discusses several societies throughout history that have gone to the brink of overwhelming their ecosystem and then pulled back and imposed limits on themselves. Wolves will also limit their reproduction – in most years only the alpha pair will reproduce. So we have examples from science of species limiting themselves. I won’t argue that the degree of difficulty is exponentially larger today.
A good while back, the .001% Elite, the 400 families that own almost everything in the U.S., some 93,000 people worldwide, concluded that there were too many people and far too many poor people. Now they have environmental toxins, and most notably, infertility inducing GMO foods. They have tried war and disease to control our numbers, but not everyone is affected by war and disease. Everyone has to eat.Their aim is to reduce the population by 93%, and GMOs are their best course of action yet. It sounds far fetched and extreme, and inconceivable that our ‘government’ would not protect us from it. And yet, ‘government’ sits on it’s thumbs, fails to regulate toxins and approves GMOs. Perhaps the Elite’s Depopulation Agenda is mankind’s hope for a continued future.
Martin believes that being employed is slavery? Really? What would he suggest, that we all just sit around and have people give us things?
It’s completely absurd. Slaves can’t quit being slaves. Employee’s can. Slaves can’t complain to the government about working conditions. Slaves (as the US did it) don’t get to complain about missing hours on their paycheck. SLAVES DON’T GET PAID.
The only other option is to go back to hunter-gatherer lifestyle, where you spend all your day searching for food, then starve during the winter. Remember, just a few short centuries ago most people worked all day long, every day. That was to get hardly enough food and a roof over your head.
Now westerners work a third of the day, five seventh of the week with a few weeks off plus holidays. The average westerner today lives better then royalty or nobles did 200 years ago. We live three times longer and have access to every type of food from around the world. We can jump on a plane and see Australia, or take a train across the continent. You can spend your evenings watching movies, or bad TV, or go out drinking, watch football in person, play rugby, or do one of thousands of hobbies.
On the weekends you can go boating, or fly your own microplane. You can talk to almost anyone in the world from your living room. You can walk around the city with a computer that talks to you and responds to your voice, science fiction just 30 years ago.
If you live in almost any developed country other then the US you can be sure that if you break your arm while out walking you can get state of the art healthcare without going bankrupt or depleting your savings. You can get antibiotics that an infection that 100 years ago would have killed you.
Finally, a slave can be killed or maimed at any time by his owner. That is the definition of being property. Your comparing being an employee to slavery is not just offensive but also ignorant. Ignorant of the difference between being able to do and go where you want, and living life as the property of another, life in a cage with your death hanging in the balance of your owners whim.
It must be the natural human condition to whine.
And Lawrence M Neal, where exactly do you get this nonsense about 93% depopulation? This is moronic. This would leave the world with a population unable to support modern life. Don’t just believe the crap you hear and read. Actually give it some thought.
“And where exactly, do you get this nonsense about 93% depopulation?”
Noted author G. Edward Griffin, amongst many others.
“This would leave the world with a population unable to support modern life.”
Modern Life as we know it, yes. But with enough workers to produce the needs and wants of the Elite, which is what the Elite envision. A world cleared of excessive humanity, returned to natural balance, with the Elite firmly in control of authority and reproduction.
“Actually give it some thought”
Try researching a different point of view.
“It must be the natural human condition to whine”
And demean the opinions of others.
A word like “slave” can be defined any number of ways, and you should see many references to “wage-slaves” if you root around blogs and websites.
To make a statement like “employee’s (sic) can quit” is just Republican talk – most employees cannot quit, not if they want any semblence of their life to continue.
Of course all humans want to work productively, but where in this service-misery-financialization economy do you suggest there is kind of ideal servitude going on?
Then you get nonsensical and stupid – many, many workers get hurt on the job, and without the protections of health insurance or disability insurance, they become mired in chronic pain and financial worry.
“Whining” is always the epithet from the snob, from the absurdly advantaged, who deign never to look at social reality but from their own imagined superior status-yet their own lives are characterized by rage, familial dissolution, chronic mental ill health.
You can urge the unemployed to “go boating” with you and your friends Mitt and Ann Coulter, but don’t worry, that kind of disdain for the social ills supporting the profligate lives of the boating class usually means rough seas ahead.
A person who is the legal property of another and is forced to obey them.
Sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder.
Well I guess the “elite” don’t want things like helicopters, cars, vaccines, modern medicine and almost everything else everyone takes for granted because with a population of 300 million none of them would exist.
It takes a LOT of people to make a modern world work, and it simply would not work.
Oooooh, the elite are going to enslave us! Nevermind we could simply over run them. Or stop working. Or rebel. Like has happened time and time and time again.
Of course, I’m sure all the elite are in their club right now planning to put a chip in your skull. I wonder if Obama is a member? What about Brad Pitt? Or Warren Buffett? You know Warren? Lives in a inexpensive house? I wonder how many slaves he has?
Buddy, the ELITE can’t control much of anything. The largest governments in communist countries couldn’t control the population, with hundreds of thousands of armed forces and secret police. In China people get around the laws all the time.
Just because others share in a silly idea doesn’t make it any less silly. Again, your simply not thinking. Not thinking at all. Not at all. Not even a tiny bit. Not an iota. Not a scootch. Not a teaspoon of thought. Not a single
Again: sometimes you just have to shake your head and wonder.
â€œIt must be the natural human condition to whineâ€
“And demean the opinions of others.”
Only when their talking complete nonsense. Next you’ll be regaling us with warnings of the upcoming zombie apocalypse.
“Next youâ€™ll be regaling us with warnings of the upcoming zombie apocalypse.”
Well, since you mention it… ZOMBIES!
Clinical studies have shown that lab rats fed GMO soy have litters that are 50% still born, 25% infertile, and 25% fertile, generation after generation. Farmers are having still birth and infertility problems with pigs and cattle fed GMO grain. Humans eating GMOs are going to have the same results.
Producing necessities and luxuries for 250,000 people is going to take a lot less workers than are required for today’s population that want those things. Medicine is already developed, as is much of modern advancements. The .001% Elite don’t want a modern world, they want a feudal system with themselves firmly in control. Their depopulation Agenda is already 16 years in progress.
Comparing being a slave with being a “wage slave” is moronic.
Don’t be moronic. Don’t get cable. And don’t be moronic. Don’t compare being owned by another person to “wage slaves”. Because that’s just moronic.
Do you know why that is moronic? Because your employer can’t walk up to you, kick you in the balls and cut off your legs because his wife wouldn’t screw him last night.
But this can happen to a slave.
So stop being moronic and trying to save face by suddenly adding “wage” to “slave” and change the entire point of the conversation. It demeans you. Not both of us. Not me. Just you. Lets make that clear. It demeans you, and only you. Because you compared being a slave to being employed. Which is moronic. Completely moronic. As moronic as you can get. Then you compound it by pretending to mean wage slave. Which, again, demeans you.
It’s sad really, just how much you demeaned yourself by making the comparison of slavery equaling being an employee. Very very sad. Because is shows a lack of empathy that you then try to put on me. But of course, I never compared being a slave to being an employee. You did. As foolish and as moronic as it was, you need to face that fact. Face it and live with it until your dying day, when, hopefully, you will be able to forgive yourself for demeaning yourself and the millions of people who died in slavery, whipped and tortured to death, told where to live and where to die, who to marry, or screw. Tortured and killed just for sport because they were owned as property. As apposed to the simple transaction of working for a person for wages with the ability to walk away if your boss talks to you in a way that you disapprove of and then seek new employment, like so many people do.
No, you simply don’t seem to understand the complete moral failure of the comparison you made, then the tragic way in which you tried to hide your moral failure.
Your failure makes me sad.
But thankfully I can soldier on, even though I and my wife are disabled. But I had the foresight to purchase disability insurance, and the foresight to keep my spending within my means, not buying silly toys, but instead putting that money away for future problems, like being unemployed, like I was so many times. But again, with planning and foresight we purchased a home well within our budget, so we could afford it even if it was small, so that if one or both of us were unemployed we could still make our commitments and support our growing family.
I can’t tell you the satisfaction I get when I look around my small house and know it’s paid off, even though I was disabled and unemployed, and worked in jobs where I was nearly killed, and once nearly burned to death by burning exploding oil. But luckily, again, my foresight saved my as I had a fire extinguisher. But my boss did get surly so I simply looked for another job then quit when I found it. It wasn’t hard. Even a simpleton could do it. Of course, slaves don’t get that choice, do they? They don’t get to walk away if their owner speaks roughly. Or rapes their wife. But then slaves can’t be raped. Because they are just property. So we get back to the point of comparing slavery to being employed is simply moronic. Don’t get cable. And don’t be simply moronic.
That’s what I tell my children. “Don’t quit until you have another job.” “Don’t spend what you don’t have.” “Buy disability insurance. It’s cheap, and worth it!”
In fact, I told my children about a man who compared slavery, or owning a person, with being an employee. My daughter said “You demean yourself with such sillyness”. Well, I guess you can tell she’s my daughter. I told her not to be too hard on you Martin, after all, we don’t know you, we don’t know what trouble you’ve seen or the kind of life you lived. Maybe one of your employers beat you bloody, or took your girl for his own. Or perhaps Martin had an employer take his children and sell them in the market square like cattle. After all, we don’t know where Martin lives or if his first language is English. He could be mistaking the word ‘slave’ with the word ’employee’, or perhaps, in his land, employee’s are slaves, and they sleep on the floor of the workplace, forced to eat gruel and leavings, tied to the machine they are forced to tend without breaks and without thirty minutes for lunch. Perhaps this poor Martin has had his feet broken to prevent him from running away at night, and his employer prevented him from learning to read and write.
My Daughter looked at me and said “Oh Dad, don’t be silly!” I laughed and said I know, I know. Of course this hasn’t happened to him. Because he is an employee, not a slave.
My son just shook his head. He had a sad look on his face. He looked thoughtful for a while and then he said “Dad, doesn’t he understand that being someones property turns you into an object? Strips you of every right, every dignity, why, rips their very soul from them?”
And I said “I’m not sure what he understands son, he seems to be trying to take it back now, and say he was talking about ‘other kinds of slavery'”
And my son said “Well gee willickers Dad, that just seems to be gosh darned intellectual dishonesty.”
I said “I know son, I know. And son? Please watch your language around your sister.” He nodded, suitably chastened. I sure hope I wasn’t too hard on him. He’s such a good young man. He’s going to grow up to be a great man, with solid ethics and a moral compass to guide him through life.
Then my daughter said “He must understand that he demeans himself. Not you dad, no, not you, but himself. He MUST understand at least that?”
I said I hope so. I surely do. Then I told them, for the thousandth time, “Remember kids, don’t quit your job until you get another, buy disability insurance, drive carefully, and save your money so you can live within the ethics you set for yourself. If you have no money your ethics are not your own.”
They both said “Sure will Pops!” in unison, and I chuckled like I always do. Gosh, darn, I sure do love those kids!
Then I said I’d see them later, and I quoted my favourite quote:
“The world is not fair, and often fools, cowards, liars and the selfish hide in high places.”
God bless you Martin. And stop trying to compare slavery with being an employee. It demeans you.
That study has been condemned by just about every respectable scientist in the world.
I don’t care for GMO’s, or the way those companies do business, but I do expect people who do studies to keep to their ethics. This didn’t happen in this case.
Lawrence cites “noted author G. Edward Griffin” as a source for his claim that there is a global conspiracy by the rich to reduce the world’s population by 93%. Here are some quotes from the Wikipedia page on G. Edward Griffin that will give you a better sense of how “noted” he is.
1. Griffin has been a member of the Josh Birch Society for most of his life, and a writer for JBS publications.
2. Griffin is a promoter of the quack cancer cure laetrile since the 1970s.
3. Griffin was a writer in 1968 for George Wallace’s vice-presidential candidate, former Air Force general Curtis LeMay, running on the thoroughly racist American Independent Party ticket.
There’s lots more, including Noak’s Ark and damning the Federal Reserve.
These associations do not necessarily mean Griffin is wrong about everything, but I would have very little confidence in him as an authority about anything. There is no point in wasting time replying to anyone who relies on such sources, other than to make sure that readers know the background of such characters.
Mike, I want to try a different way with you – you are going off the rails, and you can’t be feeling that good with all that clickign ending nowhere.
All of us use words for effect, borrowing terms from history and tradition, and we should keep things rational here. Today’s workers, if they indeed have work, are severely constrained, as you seem to know somewhat, though you keep insisting on the lie that they can just quit at any time.
That might have been the case in the 1950s, but that is not the case now. Your life’s experiences are just that of one person, and were as dependent on social conditions for your alleged frugality allowing you a house to pay off. Your fellow Americans were baited by new social conditions to acquire homes, debt, and more debt, but you seem to think yourself separate from them. Your children are inheriting that world, and cannot escape those conditions, as these economic truths stagger the lives of those around them. America has collapsed as a functional society, scattering trillions towards war, middle class debt, and removing supports from the poor.
I am sorry to hear you are disabled, but that does not give you the right to condemn your fellow human beings as profligate, lazy whiners. You are doing well, though, to learn about social reality from commenters here at this site, many of whom are working hard to understand the nature of the threats to humanity as outlined by Mann in the article.
This article is nothing but incredibly hubristic bullshit. Fact. This is the same arrogant bullshit every colonized people has always had to listen to from the colonizers. It’s the bullshit of the rapist who tries to force those he raped say how they liked it. I’m sick of it and I’m not putting up with it anymore.
PS. It somewhat saddens me that I’m the first to say the obvious, but hey, this is the ‘nets where, well, you know how it goes and the kind that usually bother to voice their opinions.
You have forgotten the face of your father.
PS: I am not an American. Please do not assume Martin. You know what they say about that? It makes an ASS out of U but not ME.
Yes, America is a pretty screwed up place in many ways. It was even worse when they had SLAVERY. Where people could be owned like cattle and treated exactly the same way.
Stop trying to talk your way past the fact that you compared being a slave with being employed.
BTW, I kind of alluded to the fact that I am not an American, but since you seem to have missed it I guess your not really reading my posts.
You want to talk about how life is difficult for many people? Sure. Go do that with someone. But its incomparably awesome compared to a being a SLAVE. In fact, the vast majority of people in the modern world have it pretty damned good. But so many wanted more and more and more in the US until their system collapsed. Now they are a nation of whiners to stupid to know better then to vote for the party that caused most of the problem. But none of that is really the issue. The issue is you saying being a slave is comparable to being an employee. Which is one of the dumbest things I have read in quite a while. Right up there with real zombie apocalypse and a secret cable of elites wanted to kill 93% of the worlds population.
Just stop it. You look foolish. Go talk to a woman or girl who is a sex slave somewhere, her life owned by others, kept like a laying chicken. You do that then come back and talk about this. Until then your spouting nonsense because your trying to compare slavery to being an employee. And I’m not talking about a prostitute, I’m talking about a girl, a person, who is kept in a cage, a locked room when she isn’t being screwed by her owners customers. A person with no laws, no regulations, no pay, no limited working hours. She has only what her owner deems to allow her to have. Her literal LIFE is not her own. She can’t move to where the employment is better because she isn’t an employee. Shes a freakin SLAVE. You go talk to her then talk to me comparing slavery to being employed. Perhaps then you will see how ridiculous your position is.
I don’t care to talk about how life is for employees because that isn’t what you said. And you can’t take it back and pretend you didn’t. It’s written on this website for the world to see.
Nowhere in this article does it talk about being an employee. It does talk about slavery. So stop your jibberjabber, man up, get a spine grow some cajones and say you screwed up by comparing slavery to being an employee.
Because you did. Big time.
“…not give you the right to condemn your fellow human beings as profligate, lazy whiners”
PPS: I have every right to call whoever I want a lazy whiner. Even though I am not an American my country has freedom of speech.
Boo hoo. Life is so hard. I have to go to work! Boo hoo. I want everyone else to pay me to stay at home and do nothing but be a sponge on society because working is sooo hard. Boo hoo. I might be hurt. Boo hoo. Whine. Whine. Whine. Boo hoo. Cry snivel whine.
BTW, I don’t want or need your pity. You talk about how people get disabled at work. I was. So what? What does any of that crap have to do with comparing slavery to being an employee which is the entire point? A person who compares slavery to being an employee is a whiner.
Only a whiner compares being a slave to being an employee. Don’t be a whiner. Don’t buy cable, and don’t be a whiner. Your position is untenable. You have forgotten the face of your father. Take the red pill Martin.
Hmm. Actually, Martin, it is the natural condition for humans to whine. If you think it isn’t, you haven’t been paying attention. Maybe you don’t get out a lot. But in my experience, almost everyone whines. Especially at work. While being employed. Do you know who didn’t whine? Slaves. Because they would be whipped. Sometimes to death. Or sent off to work in mines where they would be worked to death. Like what the Nazi’s did to their slaves. Starved them to death, worked them to death. Experimented on them, like surgical procedures without anesthetic. Because they were slaves. Property.
But you seem to be going off the rails, as you say, because almost the entirety of the first post I made was about you comparing slavery to being an employee.
Only a special kind of person can compare slavery to being an employee and think they are in the right, then try to twist the conversation around and pretend they were saying something else.
Just admit you screwed up, admit that slavery is not comparable to being an employee. Everything else you say is just filler and misdirection Martin. Just admit it. You want to talk about how badly Americans have screwed up their systems, you do that. But our conversation was about you comparing slavery to being employed. Only a complete whiner would do such a thing as to make that comparison. Only a person with no concept of history would compare slavery to a modern democratic labour law system.
Are you a whiner, Martin? Or are you going to fess up and admit that being a slave, someone owning your life with the ability to kill you at whim is not the same as being an employee, who can walk away from a job?
Are you going to be man enough to do that, Martin? Will you remember the face of your father, Martin?
Come on Martin! I know you have it in you to do this. To admit your mistake. It will make you a better person. You’ll feel better. You’ll have a spring in your step. You’ll be able to smile at the world. Fess up. Slavery does not equal being an employee. Say it out loud.
I know that you know that everyone else knows it’s the right thing to do. Even my dog knows it.
Say “I have forgotten the face of my father, and slavery does not equate to being an employee in a modern regulated democratic society with modern labour laws and freedom of movement”.
You know you want to. And more importantly, you know its the truth. Stop the dissembling. Start the healing. I have faith in you. You just need to have faith in yourself. Step up. Stand up. Grab your cajones and say it out loud!
A person who lies to others can’t be trusted. A person who lies to himself can’t trust himself. Take the red pill.
By the way, Marty (mind if I call you Marty? Thanks Marty!)
If you want to compare how bad employees have it (regardless of your absurd comparison of Slavery equaling being an employee) why don’t we compare the modern western employee with one of China’s workers? Who work fourteen hours a day, six or seven days a week for wages you make in a day.
And the millions of Chinese who want those jobs. Want them very badly.
Or, as I said in my first post, in the past work all day everyday and never have an opportunity to buy a house. To live your entire life in small village. To die at 30. To see your wife die in childbirth. To see most of your children die before they turn three. To get a broken leg and be crippled for the rest of your life. To get polio and be crippled for life. To get a cut and die from infection. To be subject to some lords whims. To be the property of some lord. To be hungry almost all the time.
I could go on and on and on. We have it good. We have it great. We have it freaking awesome. I’m thankful for the life I have. It’s great. Life is very good. Especially now, for me and the vast majority of those who live in the western world.
So stick your ipod earbuds in your ears and think about that. And while your thinking about that, think about the millions of Americans, United States soldiers that went all over the world to end the scourge we call fascism and the death, destruction and dismay the third Reich took with them everywhere they went. Death camps. Slavery.
Americans went willingly to fight those Nazi’s, even if it meant their deaths. Often horrible agonizing deaths. And they did this right out of the worst depression that the world had seen in a very, very long time.
And they didn’t whine about it.
It seems to me that sometimes people forget their history, then they make silly comparisons, like slavery is equal to being an employee. Notice how I got that in? Is that going off the rails? Remember how the Chinese worked on the rails? Building railroad tracks across the American continent? They did it for pennies a day. They were happy to do the dangerous jobs, working all day seven days a week.
Because everything is relative. Such as, slavery relatively worse then being an employee. Much, much, much, much worse.
How much vacation pay do slaves get, anyways? How many vacation days? Medical? Dental? How about compensation for driving their own car during work hours? You know, like a tenth of a quid per kilometer. How do you think that works for slaves?
What other benefits do slaves get? Accommodation? Meals? What kind of taxes do they pay? Are they invited to the annual picnic? Well, of course they are. Someone has to serve and clean up, right?
Oh, yeah, they also get bracelets, hand and ankle, neato designer scarring on their back. Sometimes if they had a skill and they tried to runaway they also got the benefit of what they call ‘hobbling’.
Great fun, don’t you think, Martin?
Woo hoo Martin, sounds like you really got somebody’s goat. 🙂 Personally, I think you are right on, this civilization runs on slave labor, always has. There is a reason why there is all this admiration for ancient Athens where the slaves ran almost everything and got no voice. Democracy? Haha, for the top 400 and nobody else…
Of course, there are variations on slavery, both in the extent of the misery, and the various names put on it. But the underlying principle is the same.
In reference to Lynn Margulis
“Arenâ€™t we special at all?
This was just chitchat on the street, so I didnâ€™t write anything down. But as I recall it, she answered that Homo sapiens actually might be interestingâ€”for a mammal, anyway. For one thing, she said, weâ€™re unusually successful.
Seeing my face brighten, she added: Of course, the fate of every successful species is to wipe itself out.”
I’m not necessarily disagreeing with her but it would be nice to get further clarification. Presumably a species survives because it makes a successful adaptation. If conditions change such that it can no longer meet the challenges then presumably it either engineers a successful biological adaptation or it dies off.
That’s pretty mundane stuff. I presume she was trying to make some greater point but I’m not clear what it is.
Looked at in terms of broader related families of species which have been successful, I don’t see in general birds or insects or algae dying off.
It seems to me that some species are happy to just live in a niche that allows them to maintain a culture at some constant level. Question: Is this a successful species or not?
However others, most easily found examples are viruses and insects become what are called a “plague” species. A plague species advances until it kills its host and then it also dies. Some are saying that homo sapiens has become a plague species. I suppose that becoming a plague species could be counted as a kind of success.
Is this a serious article? Prices. They exist. They function to ration resources. Look them up.
What a lovely, eloquent, clear and useful summary. One very small grouse:
Like fire, clothing is technology: people who wear clothes consume significantly fewer calories in cold weather, so the being possessed of a bark robe didn’t need to do as much work as his or her ancestors, and could settle further afield during transhumance (and stay there longer) than naked, chillier people.
While enjoying their leisure, our ancestors had much more time to divert themselves with abstract cultural pursuits (which are also technology, but of a much more sophisticated, weightless, and intangible kind). It is shortly after this period that the first bone flutes appear, fashioned, no doubt, around campfires out of the wings of a tasty, barbecued bird.
Cooking food releases its nutrients and makes it more cost-effective, so the calories required to build fat and nerve cells were provided by the invention of cooked cuisine and our brains were able to become exponentially bigger.
Given the productivity of our successes, symbolic abstractions proliferated until the internal structures of our brain (the organizing ego, for example) became more fully developed, and we were able to separate ourselves from the pack for significant periods of time to pursue abstract goals and systems of thought.
I think this happens about 35,000 years ago when the artist-with-the-broken-finger splashes images of his hand in red ochre on the cave walls at Lascaux. These walls also depict the first known images of ‘squares,’ a shape that haunts the history of humanity, but that has no natural correlate. Squares probably derive from another human technology, basket weaving, since the warp and woff of basketry provide a basic quadrangular shape.
Anyway, thank you, I loved this piece!
Thanks to everyone who wrote about their reactions to my piece. For writers, one of the most amazing things about the Internet is being able to discover, almost in real time, readers’ thoughts about their work.
A few thoughts. Martin wrote:
“Sure, there are identity politics achievements, and nice safer lives for the boomers and the Prius-drivers, but there are so many real, freely available, undeniable markers of a immovable and fully corrupt supersystem.”
I don’t view this as contradicting what I wrote. From Margulis’s arguments, the expected thing would be for us to simply expand until we poison ourselves and/or consume all our resources. This seems to be what you think that we are doing. Then I said, well, is there any reason at all to think we might do something else? For me, that hope, in so far as it exists, can be found in other wrenching social changes in the recent past. Nowhere does the article say these will prevail.
Ron Hofbauer says that “slavery is still very much alive and well under a change of name in which it is now called ’employment.'” Heaven knows that wage employment has plenty of problems. But I think you do a disservice to the struggles of the past if you compare it to actual chattel slavery. Just read some histories of slavery to see what I mean — KÃ¡tia M. de QueirÃ³s Mattoso’s “To Be a Slave in Brazil”, for instance. As many as half of the slaves in Brazil died in 4-5 years. More still died on the brutal journey within Africa to the slave port, and on the way over. Really, this is worse than being a poorly paid functionary.
Robert does not believe the claims about the rates of war and violent death: “Does that include deaths in car accidents? Deaths due to industrial pollution? Deaths due to political despotism? All are forms of violent death caused by human beings, albeit not in war.”
The answer is no, the figures are for death by direct violence. Violence, in the dictionary, is “behavior involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something.” Car accidents and industrial pollution are not generally INTENDED to kill people, though they do. (As it happens, though, deaths from both car accidents and industrial pollution are down, at least in countries developed enough to release statistics. In the US, for example, highway fatalities fell from ~50k/yr in 1965 to ~35k/yr in 2010. “Industrial pollution” is harder to measure, but there are plenty of studies showing increases in longevity from reduced pollution, e.g., http://bit.ly/TqGN7R) “Deaths due to violent despotism” aren’t counted in statistics as such, but it is worth noting that both the number and percentage of people living in places under democratic rule, which tend to be less likely to beat and kill the citizenry, has greatly increased since, say, 1900. Given the number of wars in the last century, it is hard to accept that warfare is going down, but that is what the evidence clearly indicates. For the larger case, read Joshua Goldstein’s “Winning the War on War” or Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of our Nature,” both of which came out last year.
An interesting and well-written piece, thanks for it. (That neither of those modifiers apply to the heavily-adolescent comments posted here is, sadly, entirely predictable.) While none of the facts recited in this essay were entirely new to me, their combination and perspective in relation to each other was novel and thought-provoking.
Charles Mann himself! What a pleasure. I absolutely adored 1491! One of the major books of my life. 🙂
As for slavery, nobody here said it is *exactly* like chattel slavery. Do we do disservice to the plight of the new world chattel slaves by calling ancient Greek slaves slaves, even though their status was in many cases far different and better, and their slavery was not “chattel slavery” per se?
The reason I see extending the word into modern lives is this: we have a system where most of the commons has been stolen and privatized, and the rest of us have to toil to get a few crumbs of it back: bread on the table, water, a place to sleep, clothes. That to me is the principle that enslaves people, even though there are many flavors of it.
As for the violence of war, I disagree. There is the direct war when people die by sword or gun, and then there is the indirect war, usually economic, where people die by hunger, squalor and disease and toxins that have been caused by the economic machinations of those who would rather wage a sneaky war than a direct one.
When millions were dispossessed (and subsequently perished) as a result of the Enclosure Acts, were they not destroyed by economic war on their lives? Of course the lords and the ladies who profited would argue they did not *intend* those deaths, but I think that most of us would recognize that as weasel words. Same with Bhopal. Same with the destruction of the Amazonian peoples by desperate loggers and farmers abetted by government policies. Same with bringing a nation to its knees via economic hit men, so that the lower strata are again nothing but slaves, toiling away to pay off a debt that is a nothing but another version of a Roman tribute, and dying at a young age amidst the slums.
You wanna talk war? Add up the victims of both the direct and the sneaky ones, and then we can compare.
Charles Mann deserves credit for coming here to respond: while I usually have felt this is obligatory on the part of an author to respond to direct criticism, I do see how the Internet brings out the crazies, and the exchanges tend to be mutually enraging.
The debate about these issues rages around hinterlands, especially about Pinker’s book.
Goldstein’s book makes an essential point, which I accept, about the numbers of war dead having plunged dramtically in the last 50 years, but then the book becomes a turgid slog through the UN’s alleged successes – perhaps it will get better in the last half.
As Robert states, there is a much greater dimension to the issue than these accepted statistics, that to claim some Age of Peace in the face of criminal US imperial wars and an apartheid regime in Israel seems perverse. To see humanity as “Winning the war on war” or having reached some exalted plane of “our better angels” becomes an obtuse vision when so many lives are wasted thorugh economic oppression, ecoystem destruction, all in our Information Age, when the facts of social reality are just about evident to everyone.
To say there is “hope” in prior social campaigns for social justice has been a cheap rallying cry for the liberal reformer, but it is very important to see if current social conditions augur well for these examples to be reborn – or else why even bring up the basic historical claim?
Even in a world devoid of corporatist bad actors I don’t see how poverty and squalor is avoidable if we are continuing to push population beyond the biosphere’s carrying capacity.
In anticipation of the inevitable response let’s get rid of the 20% who are using up 80% of the resources. What follows from that? Members of the 80% rapidly move into their shoes. Being poor doesn’t necessarily endow you with great character.
You are correct, David; the problem of power cannot be solved by killing the elite and stepping into their shoes.
And thank you for putting it so eloaquently white Pinker’s propaganda for late industrial civilization seems so… icky.
Geez. My spastic!
Meant to say “eloquently why”.
From the article
“Our record of success is not that long. In any case, past successes are no guarantee of the future. But it is terrible to suppose that we could get so many other things right and get this one wrong. To have the imagination to see our potential end, but not have the imagination to avoid it. To send humankind to the moon but fail to pay attention to the earth. To have the potential but to be unable to use itâ€”to be, in the end, no different from the protozoa in the petri dish. It would be evidence that Lynn Margulisâ€™s most dismissive beliefs had been right after all. For all our speed and voraciousness, our changeable sparkle and flash, we would be, at last count, not an especially interesting species.”
Those concluding remarks nicely define the issue. As I read it it means either we get population growth under control and limit per capita resource use, particularly our fossil fuel foot print, or we exhaust our particular petri dish whose nutrient support systems we are additionally degrading and go into population collapse.
What’s not clear is whether there is an environmental line that we could cross where a positive change in our behavior won’t make any difference. I tie this to the possibility of our inducing a 6th extinction event.
Here’s a guy with an informed and relevant perspective. Both short and long videos by the same guy are worth checking out.
In the positive trends you mention, please add the fact that developed world is greatly limiting its population growth.
You have mentioned the extra 3 billion people, but surely you are aware enough that you should have said “extra 3 billion and that is it”.
If humanity get through this other bottleneck where we can provide the resources so that 10 billion or so people can live good lives, then that can be as permanent a solution as possible. Because, it is seen that as people develop, they reduce their birth rates.
Better coordination can ensure that this remains the state in the future.
The richest country in the world is increasing by 3 million people a year. The idea that wealth equates necessarily with less children is way too simplistic, even if it means the wealthy are bringing in outsiders to service them. When the Russians went into rapid economic decline during their breakup their population dropped fairly substantially.
The fact is any tradition anywhere of large families, like say the Mormons, eventually increases the world population. It’s an exponential thing.
Thanks for taking the time to respond, Charles!
It seems to me that a lack of direct intention is not enough to mitigate violent death.
If I were maimed in a car accident or developed cancer due to pollution, I wouldn’t be inclined to forgive the companies who could have designed safer vehicles or cleaner factories, because they weren’t actually out to kill me, but merely trying to make a profit without regard to my safety. (It has been proven that companies do make such judgements based on the likely cost of being sued versus the cost of safety measures. If that isn’t intention, I don’t know what is.)
I would have serious doubts that either cause of death has decreased worldwide since WWII, given the rise in industrial production and car use.
Of course Pinker and Goldstein may be right anyway, on a per-capita basis, because of the spectacular growth in global population since 1945 which dilutes the death toll.
All I can say is, when I look at events like the Iraq war, I don’t feel like our leaders are getting wiser or better; and when I look at climate change and biodiversity loss, I don’t feel optimistic about the future.
I very much enjoyed the article and the thoughts it provoked. The main issue that I think has been neglected that is central to where humanity currently is, relates to fossil fuel energy. Coal and Oil in particular. Everyone knows how coal led to the industrial revolution and all of the “progress” it brought. Oil continued this progress but at an even greater rate. Humans first commercially extracted oil in 1856. A guy by the name of Edwin Drake used a water drill to drill for oil. He actually saved the whales which were being aggressively hunted as their blubber oil was used for lamps. This was no longer necessary as kerosene was far cheaper and easier to get. Hell, it spurted out of the ground!
I believe that slavery was ended not by human compassion (it may have contributed) or conscious decision but because humans had a new slave, an easier and cheaper slave… fossil fuel energy. That was barely 150yrs ago now and many well respected geologists believe we are halfway through our endowment of oil. The global production rate of oil peaked in 2005 and since then it has plateaued which led to a separation in supply and demand hence the price of oil went from $20 per barrel in 2000 to $100 in January 2008 to $147 in July 2008. During this time the price of everything was going up. This was seen as inflation which in “normal” economics is due to excess loans creating too much money into existence thereby devaluing all existing money. However the rise was not due to this it was due to the actual price of the good going up because the cost of making, moving or processing it had increased with the price of oil. The Fed Reserve used their indicator CPI consumer price index to determine that inflation was high and so to curb the inflation they raised the interest rates (17 times in a row!) until the poorest couldnt handle it in the USA and defaulted on loans en-mass. Leading to the Lemhan Bros collapse and the GFC which is still ongoing today. The thing about oil production peaking and plateauing is that the next direction inevitably is decreasing. This is because all individual oil wells follow a bell curve of production rate, starts slow but quickly builds and then peaks with a little plateau before declining. Often quite an evenly distributed bell curve. The USA had peak production of oil in 1970 and since every year the production of oil out of the USA has declined no matter what technology or how many straws – I mean drills they put in! Hence spreading democracy to Iraq (2nd largest oil reserves in the world!) and now talking about WMDs in Iran (3rd largest oil reserves). Oil is everything to modern man. Look around yourself now, there is nothing in your vicinity that is man made that did not involve oil (cheap energy). Anything made of wood, those trees had to be cut with chainsaws, transported with trucks, even once processed it had to be delivered with trucks and painted. All involving oil. Oil is what actually provided us with our agar in our petri dish. Without oil there is no way human development would have arrived at this point. There is no substitute for oil. Oil is stored sunlight, captured by algae in shallow oceans over eons of time. All this sequestering of CO2 into carbohydrate chains caused a very slow form of climate change, cooling our planet over a very long time. We found it 150yrs ago and have burnt half of it already! AND many of us think climate change is a hoax (thats another debate, and not that i agree with the strategies put forward to address it).
Anyway, my point it oil is special to the human story and should not be discounted. An important note is that as we are about to decend down the slippery slope of oil depletion with subsequently higher and higher prices causing untold irreparable damage to the global economy, we are going to find that the edge of our petri dish is energy, more accurately cheap easy energy. Without this modern civilisation as we know it is impossible. We all live in interesting times.
What we call “success” is soon to become patently unsustainable, and that is the problem.
I am surprised that nobody has taken issue with these statements in Mr. Mannâ€™s otherwise well written and engaging article:
â€œIn the name of nature, we are asking human beings to do something deeply unnatural, something no other species has ever done or could ever do: constrain its own growth (at least in some ways). Zebra mussels in the Great Lakes, brown tree snakes in Guam, water hyacinth in African rivers, gypsy moths in the northeastern U.S., rabbits in Australia, Burmese pythons in Floridaâ€”all these successful species have overrun their environments, heedlessly wiping out other creatures. Like Gauseâ€™s protozoans, they are racing to find the edges of their petri dish. Not one has voluntarily turned back. Now we are asking Homo sapiens to fence itself in.â€
â€œAll life is similar at base. All species seek without pause to make more of themselvesâ€”that is their goal. By multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.â€
I think human beings differ significantly from the invasive species cited above. Unlike them we can, completely naturally, choose to have awareness of the damage we are doing, and we can voluntarily change our behavior to avoid disaster. Therefore, I think cultural narrative plays a much larger role in how humans impact the environment than does biological determinism.
I never click on links like that. Perhaps you can describe the picture for me? A visual description service, as it were?
Is it a picture of an Elite planning the 93 percent culling of the human population?
A zombie eating an Elite?
An Elite eating a zombie?
Three zombies eating a monkey that is eating its own poop? While being watched by an Elite?
Lawrence, I’ve really enjoyed this thing we’ve had. You too Martin. You have brought a ray of sunshine to an otherwise dreary day. But I must be moving onto new fields of endeavor and exploration. Somewhere, there is a man comparing something to something else in a silly and completely unreasonable way and I must be there as a representative of the Elite so he may be knocked down and forced to submit so the plan to cull 93 percent of the human race can move forward.
Yes Lawrence, it is true. I am a member of that Elite. (We prefer Elite, rather then elite, thank you Lawrence) I hope you understand that it is just business, nothing personal.
I have so enjoyed our chats that I have reached out using our four dimensional physical holography induction computer monitor, standard since 1953, to place an invisible mark upon your forehead to mark you as one of those to be saved. Oh happy days Lawrence!
When they come in the black UN helicopters, as you know they will, be sure to point to your forehead. Using scanners they will determine those who are to be, ummm, helped along their journey, and those who will be the “indentured lifetime full time employees” with no benefits, wages or options to quit. Save one, of course.
Of course we know you know, because we are listening through our thousands of satellites in low earth orbit. They intercept all phones, all internet traffic, and of course, all conversations anywhere close enough for modern technology to pick it up. Ipods, Ipads, cameras, ebook readers all have built in hidden microphones. The conversations are all directed to the satellites and redirected to the 400 Elites. We also have access to all video cameras, web cams and still digital cameras.
We are watching Lawrence. Stop that, you’ll go blind.
I am deeply saddened to say that Martin did not make the cut. It wasn’t my decision, I was pulling for both of you, but I was overruled by the Elite of the Elite. I can’t tell you who he is, but I’ll give you a hint. His name rhymes with Loopert Turdoch. I think he has a secret plan to cull 93 percent of the 7 percent not culled and live with Sarah Palin on a secret Island in the South Pacific where he will rule over a cadre of zombie republicans.
How do you tell the difference between zombie Republicans and normal Republicans?
BTW, Lawrence, are you sure your not confusing this plan of culling by the Elite with Stargate Atlantis?
John:”I think human beings differ significantly from the invasive species cited above. Unlike them we can, completely naturally, choose to have awareness of the damage we are doing, and we can voluntarily change our behavior to avoid disaster. Therefore, I think cultural narrative plays a much larger role in how humans impact the environment than does biological determinism.”
I agree that humans have the ability to see ramifications and act accordingly. But, some will do what is best for all, for the future, and some will do what is best for them, in the moment. As long as sex is instinctive, and feels better than almost anything else, most people will continue engaging in it irrespective of results 9 months down the road. As long as money is the end goal for corporate psychopaths, they will continue to ravage the planet for immediate gains. Our species has been intelligent in adapting… up till now.
Mike: “I never click on links like that. Perhaps you can describe the picture for me?”
It said, “Don’t feed the Troll, it only encourages him”
I’m reminded of the adage: “You can wake a man who is sleeping, you can’t wake a man who is pretending to sleep”.
I applaud you for not using the word ‘moron’ in your post.
Mike….well said on the subject of peak energy. You know you spared me the effort, and I couldn’t have put it as succinctly anyway.
But I will pile on that message. Energy is the edge of our petri dish indeed.
Or, as I like to say: “Reality does not require you to believe in it.”
(And I was wondering what this thing on my forehead was for…thanks!)
Here I thought that trolls have become an extinct species on Orion. And one appears in full fledged glory! Ho ho ho! Keep your goats close by, folks. If you don’t feed it, it will go away.
Ruben Nelson â€¢ This is a truly significant and provocative piece. Thank you for sharing it.
This piece names what I see to be the root dilemma we face as a species in the 21st century — consciously choosing to change the trajectory of our modern/Industrial form of civilization or unconsciously continuing to commit to a path that over time leads to the extinction of many more species, likely including our own.
I note that rising to this challenge is new work for our species. While the form of civilization in and through which we have lived has transformed in the past, it has always been a process that was slow, unconscious, local/regional and optional. Now we appear to face these requirements — our present civilizational transformation must be fast, conscious, global and it is required if human life is to be sustained in any way that is remotely humane.
As “new work” it is not surprising that we find ourselves today without any well-developed support systems that would encourage and enable us to see, explore, think through and respond with courageous creativity to this challenge. While it is premature to conclude that we are “done for”, the odds, as of today, are against us.
In my view, adding at least one formal and well-funded capacity that allows some to work on behalf of all of us at the civilizational level in a truly integral way is one of the most pressing pieces of work facing us as persons, families, communities, corporations and nations. In one language, we need an analogue of the Manhattan Project. That this topic is not yet on the agenda of any body with any substantial influence is concerning, to say the least. (Lest this sound easy, may I remind you that we have invested 500 years and trillions of dollars learning to do science as analysis — breaking things down into their “constituent and controllable parts/silos. As of now, we have almost no serious inclination even to undertake science as synthesis — grasping the whole in an integral manner — let alone posses a well-developed capacity and well-funded support system for doing so.)
My deepest commitment is to create a community of interest that sees and is able to think through both the need for such efforts and a strategy for launching them. If your are inclined to do so, let me know if you share this calling.
It pleases me to have so distinguished a colleague as Ruben Nelson join this conversation. His perspective is a valuable one. I pay attention to what he says as well as share his hopes and values.
You wrote: “I agree that humans have the ability to see ramifications and act accordingly. But, some will do what is best for all, for the future, and some will do what is best for them, in the moment.” You are correct, but the situation you describe is more a result of a cultural belief system than it is biology. While difficult, culture can, and does, change, for the better sometimes.
Your second point: “As long as sex is instinctive, and feels better than almost anything else, most people will continue engaging in it irrespective of results 9 months down the road.” Cultures have found ways to control population. One effective way is to empower women. Birth control also works where promoted.
Your third point: “As long as money is the end goal for corporate psychopaths, they will continue to ravage the planet for immediate gains.” The business corporation is a legal entity that is structured to be psychopathic (or not) by the government that charters it. In the US, corporations are structured by law to be “legal persons” whose sole responsibility is to maximize profit to shareholders regardless of the costs to the communities within which they operate. Again, this is not a result of biology but of culture.
John; Good points, all.
It’s not impossible, but will take some major cultural changes to get the majority to be altruistic, rather than selfish. Empowering women is effective, along with encouraging vasectomies. Corporate behavior may be cultural, but psychopaths are biological. Corporations may just be a convenient vehicle for psychopaths to express themselves.
I think it’s going to take coming very near the brink of destruction to scare enough people into making the necessary changes. Or, those with foresight will prepare, and sit back and watch the crash.
Prakash mentioned a very key point which is too rarely noted in articles about Gause-ian petri dishes: residents of most of the developed nations have not only reduced their reproductive rates, they are having children at rates *below* the replacement level. Even China’s fertility rate is below replacement level, granted as a result of harsh government intervention.
Martin was not referring to all employment, but slave-like employment in developing countries, in which debt constrains employees from moving.
also, many modern hunter-gatherers spend far less time making a living than civilized counterparts, with an arguably better standard of living than the majority of civilised people.
Feeding the troll, Hamish? Why would you want to do that?
Unless, of course, you are his sock puppet… wheee! 😉
Mislabeling Leads to Perverse Conclusions
In his recent Orion piece, â€œState of the Species,â€ Charles Mann comes to the following screwy conclusion: â€œBy multiplying till we reach our maximum possible numbers, even as we take out much of the planet, we are fulfilling our destiny.â€ Taking a cue from microbiologist Lynn Margilus, Mann defines the human domination of the planet as â€œspecies success.â€ This is consistent with his propensity to mislabel and confound categories. What weâ€™re really talking about here is a species out of balance with its ecosystem, a species which is not integrating into the Community of Life, but is instead dominating and destroying that community. Only it is not really an entire species that is doing this: it is one particular cultureâ€”the culture of civilization. Other cultures have been well-integrated into the Community of Life, and even a few still are today. It is not uncommon for people to confuse our culture (which in recent times has spread like a virus) with all of humanity. But a critical thinker like Mann, and the editors of Orion, ought to know better. This is important because mislabeling leads to perverse conclusions.
One such perverse conclusion is that in overrunning the planet we are fulfilling our destiny. Are we supposed believe that with four billion years of Earthly evolutionary experience, the Life Force, or whatever is behind the proliferation of life on this planet, cannot do any better than this? I, for one, donâ€™t buy it. He makes it sound like a death wish is built into the fabric of life itself. Iâ€™m sorry, that just doesnâ€™t work for me.
And here is another confounding of categories: â€œThe world is a petri dish.â€ No, the world is not a petri dish. The whole point of a petri dish is that it is exclusiveâ€”it includes two or three selected ingredients, and excludes everything else. A petri dish is allopoetic; it is anthropogenic, and also anthropocentric to its core. Itâ€™s all ultimately about us. The world, on the other hand, is autopoetic, and is wonderfully inclusive. It is complex and diverse; it teems with abundance. If, for the sake of a thought experiment, you wanted to consider a petrti dish filled with one celled organisms and a pile of sugar as a metaphor for our world piled with fossil fuels and we humans consuming this energy windfall until itâ€™s all gone, that might prove instructive, as long as you clearly acknowledge that this is merely a metaphor, and all metaphors have their limits.
The deficiency in all three of these perverse constructions can be traced back to the simple cognitive error of reductionist thinking. One culture is not the entire species; the world is not a petri dish; and being out of balance with the Community of Life does not define success.
I just tuned in to the feedback this essay has generated and have another take to offer. Reading it left me feeling uneasy, so I went for a walk in a place that often helps alleviate that feeling: the old growth forest of my Cascade mountain home. There, I began to understand the source of my discomfort. Humans have walked among these five hundred year old Douglas firs, western hemlocks, western red cedars and Pacific yews, as well as the trees that preceded them, for some eight to ten millennia yet, here they stand. The elk and deer who live in their shadows have fed and clothed humans for just as long yet, here they walk. If, as Mann suggests, the Earth is a petri dish and so-called â€œbehaviorally modern Homo sapiensâ€ is analogous to all-devouring bacteria, then this forest and these ideal human fuel, construction and food species should not be here, but rather, they should have long ago been devoured. Yet, here they are.
Could it be that Mann is missing something . . . something big . . . something vital, irreducible and essentially subjective that has eluded science, but not the forest and not the humans who have thrived in the forest for millennia without devouring it? Could it be that the behaviors he calls modern and attributes to the human species as a whole actually reflect only one cultural expression of an organism with a far greater existential repertoire than his story acknowledges? For all our sake â€” firs, hemlocks, cedars, yew, elk, deer and humans alike â€” I hope so, and I believe so. The forest informs my belief.
Here among the trees, success is not about species exploding in numbers then wiping themselves out, which hardly seems like success at all. Forest success is about mutual reciprocity that results in optimal long-term flourishing for every species who, all together, compose the greater green whole. Humans can be, and have long been, one of those species. Being one of those species is, in fact, far more representative of what it means to be behaviorally modern than is bacterial mimicry in a hyper-controlled artificial environment. For those of us bound to the mimicâ€™s way in the petri dish of civilization, relearning the way of the forest will require us to first remove the cultural blinders that prevent it. Though Mannâ€™s piece offers many insights about the human animal, they are framed in a way that does more to leave those blinders in place than it does to lift them.
“Here among the trees, success is not about species exploding in numbers then wiping themselves out, which hardly seems like success at all.”
Of course not. No species of tree can because of competition and as you indicate the often greater advantages of cooperation when expansive competition is no longer an option. Unlike the trees and other species humans can turn the entire biosphere into a consumable stew without apparent serious challenge by competing species. The ones that hang around would be trained for our needs. That’s why the petri dish analogy is not so far fetched as long as you posit continuing growth.
The question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint? A good marker would be an end to population growth and a movement of population in a negative direction.
Dear David M, Tim Fox, Gary Gripp, Ruben Nelson and Charles Mann,
Perhaps all of you and other participants in this conversation would be helpful by commenting on the topic of human population dynamics and a specifice question: how does the population dynamics of the human species relate to the notion of human exceptionalism? This is one issue that is not being given the attention it deserves. How are we to grasp the gravity of the human predicament, much less gain consensus about how to go forward, if we cannot share an adequate, scientific understanding of the â€˜placementâ€™ of the human species within the order of living things.
Good colleagues all in the Orion community, is the population dynamics of the human species essentially similar to, or different from the population dynamics of other species? In terms of our population dynamics, are human beings actually exceptional (ie, different from the other species on Earth)? If so, please point out the scientific research for the widely shared and consensually validated assertion of human exceptionalism vis a vis its population dynamics. The population dynamics of non-human species are routinely and immediately understood. Food is the independent variable and population numbers is the dependent variable. More food equals more organisms; less food equals less organisms; and no food, no organisms. But the minute our focus shifts to human organisms, everything we know from well established scientific research about population dynamics is turned upside down. Experts in unison automatically broadcast via the mass media the notion that the human species must grow food in order to meet the needs of growing human population. All of sudden human population numbers is the independent variable and food is the dependent variable. Where is the scientific research for this distinctly human exceptionalism with regard to the population dynamics of humankind? I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.
Regardless of what we believe because it is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially correct, religiously tolerated and culturally prescribed to do so, whatsoever is is, is it not? Please assist me by examining research of the population dynamics of the human species. The implications of this research appear to be potentially profound. If human population dynamics is essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species, then the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers in our time could be the proverbial â€œmotherâ€ of the human-induced global challenges looming ominously before the family of humanity. If this colossal global challenge continues to be ignored, the human family could end up winning some Pyrrhic victories over subordinate global challenges but losing the larger struggle for survival itself.
Please note the following perspective from Sir Fred Hoyle that dates back to 1964, a time prior to the publication of Ehrlichâ€™s â€œPopulation Bombâ€ and the Club of Romeâ€™s seminal work, â€œLimits to Growth.â€
â€œIt has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chanceâ€¦ and one chance only.â€
It appears to me that Sir Fred Hoyle was asking people years ago, when I was still a teenager, to carefully consider and rigorously examine a superordinate situation that was too dangerous to ignoreâ€¦ that dwarfed other already identified global challenges. And yet few experts in my lifetime chose to follow his advice. They adopted a ‘head in the sand’ posture or appeared hysterically blind, willfully deaf and electively mute when confronted with scientific evidence of human population dynamics.
Rather than seriously scrutinize population dynamics leading to the human overpopulation of the Earth, which would require experts to rivet their attention on the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things, the topic was assiduously avoided, just as it has been ignored until now. At the beginning of my lifecycle in 1945 there were about 2.8+/- billion human beings on Earth. Only 67 years later 7.0+/- billion people are members of the human community.
So much time has been wasted recently by ‘the brighest and best’ in my generation, all of whom have sold out for ‘success’ to the highest bidder and in doing so, sold out science, sold out humanity and sold out the Earth as a fit place for human habitation by the children and coming generations, sold out to greedmongers who possess great wealth and power. The implications of such widespread intellectual dishonesty, such failure of moral fibre and nerve among self-proclaimed professional researchers with appropriate expertise appear to be far-reaching. We cannot address problems, the root causes of which we consciously and deliberately refuse to acknowledge.
Heretofore unchallenged research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel appears to indicate with remarkable clarity that human population dynamics is essentially similar to the population dynamics of other species. Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps all of you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the published, peer-reviewed article “Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply” by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the following link, http://www.panearth.org/. Other articles and a slideshow presentation on human population dynamics and human overpopulation can also be found at this link.
Thank you again,
I would say that there are “good guys” among the human race who see disaster coming and would like to do something about it but don’t have the position or power. And I suspect that those who really really have the power to control civilization are sociopath “bad guys”. I have a feeling about how things will go.
Food definitely is A limit but with our enhanced killing potential from macro to micro certainly not the only limit. An obvious alternative example would be all out nuclear war.
As far as food, controlling for certain realities to make a point, if the earth was a big pork roast and we went about increasing exponentially we would eat it down to nothing in short order and then after a little cannibalism do the petri dish dive.
We’re exceptional because of our over reach, not because we are any different from any other creature as far as basic needs. We need food, air and water etc. just like them and I don’t see that changing.
It seems pretty simple to me. We control human growth and self-destructive polluting behaviors and we can then lay the basis for a world that the human ape can live in sustainably. I see it as more about employing our common sense than getting endlessly academic and technical.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Many thanks to Ron H and David M for responding so promptly and sharing your perspectives.
What would members of the Orion community think of acknowledging the science of human population dynamics and human overpopulation of Earth as a way of beginning to ‘change course’ so as to take a new path toward sustainability? If we keep on doing what we are doing now and repeating past mistakes by continuing not only to recklessly overconsume, relentlessly overproduce and righteously overpopulate in our planetary home but also to deny science, little that is new and sustainable will occur in a timely way. Without an acknowledgement of ALL the root causes of what is ailing the human family, how are we to move forward meaningfully to raise awareness of the global predicament humankind appears to be induced? Once awareness is raised among a critical mass of people, it becomes possible to organize for the purpose of formulating policies for humane and sustainable collective action.
The willful denial of science has kept us and continues to keep us from gaining momentum needed to reasonably address and sensibly overcome the human-driven challenges that threaten future human wellbeing and environmental health. The tasks at hand for scientists are to freely acknowledge, skillfully examine and carefully interpret evidence as well as to encourage that all evidence regarding the population dynamics of the human species be thoroughly reviewed. It is irresponsible and harmful for professionals with appropriate expertise to remain silent rather than speak out for necessary change, change that is fair and human-friendly in the development of population policy and programs of action.
Once again, thank you,
David said: “The question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint?”
Do you know of *any* species that has ever demonstrated collective restraint? I can’t think of any myself. The way nature works is, each species has predators. The predation keeps each in fluctuating balance.
We humans think we are too above nature and too superior to be controlled by predation, and aim to wipe out all those who predate on us or our food. We wage war on bacteria that could help control our populations and keep the gene pool stronger. We think that we know better than nature. But, as we all know, nature bats last.
I don’t expect biological restraint. But cultural restraint… that I think is possible. And it would help.
BRING BACK THE WOLVES! 🙂
“David said: â€œThe question is can the human race demonstrate collective restraint?â€
Do you know of *any* species that has ever demonstrated collective restraint? I canâ€™t think of any myself. The way nature works is, each species has predators. The predation keeps each in fluctuating balance.”
Human beings are very fashion conscious. Make it very unfashionable to have more than 2 kids and watch what happens. Something radically transforming like that has happened in Iran I understand. Also, unlike other species, we have dolls and pets etc. to act out a lot of parent-sibling roles.
As far as “survival of the fittest” that is basically a tautology. What is fit is what survives. If we decide culturally that wolf-like predator types are unwanted and take social measures to make that point then their fitness component will slip badly. I’ve read of traditional Eskimo communities where a slight lapse in generosity can get you killed or exiled.
If one wanted to start a movement against wolf-like predators, getting rid of Columbus Day would be a good kick off.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
There are pastoralists and scientists here aplenty, but the fate of the huamn species is not going to be found in the remaining arboreal hideouts or conference powerpoints for that illusory word “sustainability,” but in the on-going data points of social power dynamics, run by our fully corrupted social institutions, with not a scintilla of evidence to point to capability for even the rudiments of “change.”
The dynamics of complexity have destroyed the viability of prior reform efforts as guides , so marginal gains in overpopualtion reduction are more than offset by rising energy demands, and self-imposed cultural restraint is not a possibility. The purveyors of futurism and progress cannot overcome this evidence, though hypocritical calls for knocking over dams and aliging with Obama as a leser evil seem to be Orion hallmarks.
Intense, somewhat lengthy read – but so worth it!
S E Salmony I’m for developing all the science related to population dynamics but the one hurdle you will keep running into from my experience is the faith in the technofix to every challenge that comes up. I find this faith in some very bright people. They will seldom broach the issue of population in a serious way as it seems unmanageable and lacks the technical precision they require.
As far as we being the last species on earth capable of evolving an intelligent civilization I don’t buy it. The fossil fuel model of energy acquisition is way too limited. Getting some neomollusks hooked up with hot springs like Iceland could be very promising for the future. And by then they will probably have evolved super filters that will mine the sea for whatever they need.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Hooking depopulation to fashion is a fickle thing. Moreover, if the current trends continue, the majority of Americans in a bit over a hundred years will be Mormon/Amish/Mennonite. Not quite the pic green/liberal folks imagine. 😉
BRING BACK PREDATORS!
The Mormons have shown themselves finally to be very fashion conscious or at least politically so. They gave up polygamy and not allowing blacks into the priesthood so to speak. They show a strong desire to appear mainstream.
As far as the Amish, maybe debilitating inbreeding will do the trick.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
Debilitating inbreeding won’t do the trick, and thank you for the contemptuous attitude. So refreshing! (not)
The Amish have caught on, and I expect that the process is already in motion to bring in blood from other parts. They are far from the morons you think them to be.
The Mormons caved in, not to fashion, but to heavy political pressure. In most matters, they stand pretty staunch.
As previous commenters have said, an excellent essay marred somewhat by its glib self-satisfying conclusion.
Women’s rights are a product of industrialisation. Industrialisation is a product of the exploitation of fossil fuels. It follows that women’s rights will decline with the decline in extractable fossil fuels, unless some other extraterrestrial energy source is harnessed, which is unlikely to say the least.
The ‘ship’ will not be turned by a collaborative effort from humanity, but rather by warfare between its various factions.
On the point of traditional slavery vs. ‘economic slavery’ it would help to consult those whose ancestors have recent relevant experience: blacks in North America and the Carribean, blacks in South Africa, Dalits in India, the rural poor in China… Some would consider their present circumstances an improvement, others wouldn’t.
I do think it worth noting that ‘the emperor has no clothes’ when it is so very evident. Allow me to offer responses from another blog to the question,”Where is the scientific evidence for human exceptionalism vis a vis the population dynamics of Homo sapiens?”,
“SES : I cannot find sufficient scientific support for such exceptionalism.
I donâ€™t think that there is any, is there ? Itâ€™s just people clinging to a comforting myth. As far as I know, we are subject to the same ecological laws as the reindeer on St. Matthew Island. Except that we found coal and oil. Which can be thought of as a handy ship arriving every winter with an enormous quantity of a hayâ€¦ until one winter, it does not arrive anymore…
October 25th, 2012 at 9:07 am
Thank you for summarizing the issue in such clear terms.
At the moment, as we are still in the thralls of the growth and progress delusion, any discussion of depopulation is verboten. The big, ugly questions surrounding depopulation are who decides?, who lives?, who dies? and by what means would depopulation be carried out? The issues are especially thorny since we are running out of time.
The likelihood of a near term managed population and economic contraction (short of some science-fictionesque engineered pathogen) seem pretty slim……
October 25th, 2012 at 9:18 am
SES you are of course exactly right. The problem is that the population is now so large that no restriction of births can help soon enough. As I think I have shown, restriction of all births only gets us to 4 billion in 60 years. So what is the point of talking about population as if it was a problem we could address. It will be addressed by other means â€“ nature through famine, disease, or by humans through war, or germ warfare. But increasingly it looks like climate change will just solve the whole thing by wiping us out. There is nothing more to be done about population other than each individual thinking about what kind of world they would bring a child into and hopefully taking advantage of permanent sterilization before all birth control is gone.
It has been very interesting to follow this thread from the beginning. As far as naturally limiting population, there are examples from the natural world, think about wolves, where most years only the dominant pair breeds.
There are also many examples of long term, stable human societies. The Australian aborigines managed to live with minimal impact. Perhaps someone enraptured with the notion that only modern industrial society is “intelligent” might dismiss that, but I doubt the original Australians would agree.
I also note that never in the discussion have any examples from Jared Diamond’s book Collapse been picked up. He has numerous examples of societies that outstripped their resources and collapsed, but he also has examples of societies that went to the brink and pulled back, who consciously imposed limits on themselves. Admittedly, these are rare, but the examples do exist.
The real problem that must be addressed is the Western notion of capitalism and growth. It cannot be maintained indefinitely. Any logical reflection leaves no other outcome. Every living being goes through a period of growth, then reaches maturity, after which an equilibrium must be maintained or severe problems will result. I realize the analogy, like all, has its limits. But it stands to reason that a society can get to a point where it reaches the maximum carrying capacity of the available resources, and must either stabilize its population or face drastic consequences. I am a farmer; my farm can only grow enough feed for so many animals. I can do some things to improve efficiency and produce more feed, but only to a point if I want to maintain the farm as a viable sustainable entity that has any ecological integrity. Extrapolating from something like a farm to a whole society is a fair exercise.
So to me, the only question is whether modern humans have the wisdom and will to learn from the myriad examples provided by past civilizations that did not heed ecological warnings. Humans DO have the ability to overcome impulse.
Just out of curiosity who around here is arguing for the idea of human exceptionalism other than the obvious, that we have enhanced extraction and application capabilities? There are some folks running around that I have met who believe innovative technology will fix everything and essentially remove natural limits but I haven’t run into any of them on Orion. Nor have I come across any Biblical literalists who think we are mini-Gods who can substitute ourselves for the laws of nature.
I’m just curious SES, who are these exceptionalists that you are talking about? If you mean denialists or mythologists I doubt more science or common sense will have much effect on them.
MORE TREES, LESS PEOPLE!
“I am a farmer; my farm can only grow enough feed for so many animals.”
The trouble is the modern farmer brings in hay and grain from the outside plus fossil fuel energy for both running his vehicles and equipment and providing fertilizer. And we haven’t even gotten to building materials.
It would be nice if we had self-sufficient farms to use as models but presently as far as I know that is not part of the American scene.