- “..The watchwords of the nineteenth century have been, struggle for existence, competition, class warfare, commercial antagonism between nations, military warfare. The struggle for existence has been construed into a gospel of hate. The full conclusion to be drawn from a philosophy of evolution is fortunately of a more balanced character. Successful organisms modify their environment. Those organisms are successful which modify their environments so as to assist each other.” – Whitehead AN. 1925. Science and the modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p 265.
On July 14, 2016, a team of researchers at the University College, London, announced that species biodiversity worldwide had fallen below levels considered safe for ecosystem stability. [i]
“..For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries — an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.
It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study.
Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences — and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.
The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat…”
We cannot exist outside of nature. Our whole evolution as a species has been attuned to the rhythms and limits of nature. We forget that at our peril. From the looks of the latest reports from ocean biologists, climate scientists, and ecologists, our peril has never been greater.
That is why we need to stop discussing “the environment” and “nature” as if it was outside the world inhabited by humanity.[ii]
For those environmentalists who delight in say “Nature bats last” I have news: this is not a game. If your model of the environmental issues is one that pits humans against Nature, that makes of “nature” an intelligence that is better off without human interference, you are labouring under a serious, even fatal, misunderstanding. The human role within the natural world on this planet is not that of an adversary. It never is, for any living creature. In fact, the human role is important to the health and stability of that natural world. Turning large stretches of the biosphere over to “Nature”, free of human activity, is not a solution to environmental problems created by industrial civilization, it is abdication of responsibility.
Let me explain. Out of the darkness of confusion of human affairs we do not always focus on what kind of creature we evolved to be in this world. Those of us who have become preoccupied by the theatre of civilization, absorbed by the human drama, often fail to look up, to check the bigger picture beyond the stage. A few have: Galileo did. Darwin did. Brothers Eugene and Howard Odum looked up too, and together founded modern ecological science in the 1950s. Another who looked up was biologist Edward O. Wilson, before falling back into the oppositional binary error of assuming it was man against nature when he wrote The Social Conquest of Earth in 2012.
It was never conquest. It was never even a contest. The evolutionary niche of the modern human species is not to overcome limits and dangers of the biosphere, but to understand it, and even, to sustain harmony within it.
Models of human social and economic prehistory, despite the insights offered by Whitehead nearly a century ago, have also tended to overlook the role of ecosystem feedbacks. Most narratives about cultural evolution presuppose changes due to competition between groups leading to progressively more superior adaptations.
1) mobile – or immediate-return – hunting and gathering economies represent an early “stage” of cultural evolution, associated with the Paleolithic technology (Stone Age) phase of human evolution during the Pleistocene;
2) more sedentary – delayed return – hunting and gathering communities, were made possible the next “Mesolithic” stage, set in in zones of “richer” wild resources during the early Holocene;
3) then the “breakthrough” of plant and animal food domestication occurred, and “Neolithic” technology appeared. Larger communities of farmer-horticulturalists and herder-pastoralists were now possible;
4) this was followed by intensive “agricultural” economies characterized by even larger and more stratified city-states, with organized religious ritual and monumental architecture. Each economic change allowed greater human biomass, thus won out over less productive economies by force, or by example;
5) this process has now culminated in colonization and on-going conversion of remaining pockets of inefficient subsistence economies in “small-scale” societies, by modernization and development practices connecting them to wider networks of global commerce and communication.
If all this sounds plausible to the reader, it testifies to ubiquity of the myth of progress. That’s right. It is a myth.
It is a myth about how inventing “more productive” economies, a “more secure” food supply, “better” sanitation, and “better” social controls (the rule of law)… made human lives healthier, longer, and less violent than they were “back in the Stone Age”. It is also a myth about the superiority of the kind of human being that inhabits modern civilization; as such it succors fantasies of racial – or genetic – superiority as well.
Until some cultural anthropologists set out to document just how rough the lives of hunter-gatherers really are, and they couldn’t do it. Granted, there was higher infant and childhood mortality, but it was still less than in the 17th century Europe. The general consensus of ethnographies was that hunter-gatherers were extremely competent people using simple technologies to live long, healthy lives of plentiful leisure: affluence without luxury.
You would think that it might be a relief to know that 99% of human evolutionary history was NOT played out in misery. But the idea of progress is important to people who identify with the ideals of the Enlightenment. Ideas about rationality, the rule of law, and the social contract were all closely entangled with the dawn of the “modern era” – the dawn of the age of Galileo and Copernicus that led inevitably to the likes of Hume, Hobbes, Darwin, Pasteur, and Henry Ford: thence to the explosive growth of our contemporary sciences and democracies.
It was the Enlightenment that made, of history, a magisterial progress out of the darkness of past ignorance. The idealization of the age of global colonial conquest by European powers as the “Enlightenment” was like taking a favourable selfie and posting it to Facebook.
Both this myth and its opposite: a golden age represented by the “harmless” hunter-gatherer people; arise from a false duality.
If the data disproves the previous stereotypes – characterized by brevity, hardship, violence, and a constant struggle to find enough food – does the demolition of such a previous negative stereotype necessarily require that we now must consider the domestication of plants and animals the “greatest mistake in the history of the human race”? Does depreciation of civilization necessarily follow from research among modern day hunter-gatherers?
The “post-Neolithic” economies are riskier ventures, less stable in extreme densities, but no less stunning testimony to the adaptive scope and power of the collective cognitive niche; the fusion of two very different heritable replicators. Humanity is inexplicable except as a couples’ dance.
Most of my life has been devoted to testing hypotheses about human cultures as collective cognitive niches: systems that organized and operationalized learned and shared information, technology, and techniques to the management of ecosystems.
Modeling ecological systems feedbacks, and seeking tipping points leading to the domestication of plants and animals seemed a worthy objective. I also hoped that this exercise might indicate later critical links in the chain of those socio-economic changes culminating in the establishment of a number of centers of civilization around the world. A science of humanity must free itself of preoccupation with moral and magical agency, even if these still dominate public narratives today. If we are animals, evolving within the complex dynamic of our ecosystem, then our fate is about how well we function within that ecosystem, not about escaping to other planets after trashing this one.
Vesting any cultural variations with the moral baggage implied by terms like “mistake”, “pre”- or “post-Enlightenment”, or even “pre-state and state” societies still seems to me to trap our explanations in a dichotomy.
If we insist on moral interpretations, let them be bounded by the harm we do to each other, and to the survival of our fellow travellers on this planet. Consider this: what, after all, were any of these stories but system-justifications? It is not a practical kind of myth that insists that human advancement has always come at a cost – we killed off the mammoths and other mega-fauna – that is just what we humans do, so get over it? And it IS a myth.
Today the global industrial economy is destroying ecosystems, leveling mountains, and spewing hydrocarbons and toxic chemicals into the air and water, and it is not doing all these things to magnanimously create “jobs” or to improve the lives of humans in general. It is doing these things to make profit for financial investors. This is not about civilizational “progress”, it is about justifying continuing inequality and ecocide.
Don’t believe me? Well consider this: how can we miss the link between the supposed triumph of technocracy and the triumph of the current global elite?
When did “job creation” or “national security” become the dominant memes of democratic politics? When did “ecosystem services” become the watchword that determined whether a wetland or forest should be drained or logged as part of “development”? The only real beneficiaries if all this destruction are an increasing tiny number of very wealthy and powerful people, people who have throughout the history of state civilizations perpetuated a myth of their own superiority. In the past it was divine will and choice – only Arthur could draw the magic sword from the stone; later it was destiny to be ruled by those of “blue blood”, and then, as the colonial and industrial economy became global, myths emerged to justify world domination by a “great race”, and later more “scientific” bamboozlement was created in the form of eugenics – the elimination of the “unfit” from the breeding pool, and even today there are those who propose that the most “successful” (fittest?) have the highest I.Q.
Are the motivations any different, when there is state sponsored exploration and conquest take land, liberty, or lives away from the “savages”, “barbarians”, non-Christians, “infidels”, “heretics”, or “lesser races” than when states make only token gestures to rein in industrial fishing fleets, commercial agriculture, mining, logging, and fossil fuel extraction, activities that do nothing to improve most human lives – do those few jobs so generated really make up for the destruction of entire ecosystems?
Why will it matter, to the ultimate destiny of the human species, if no elephants, polar bears, or other wild animals, and little “wilderness”, were to survive until 2100?
Well we are discovering today that it does matter.
[i] Tim Newbold, Lawrence N. Hudson, Andrew P. Arnell, Sara Contu, Adriana De Palma, Simon Ferrier, Samantha L. L. Hill, Andrew J. Hoskins, Igor Lysenko, Helen R. P. Phillips, Victoria J. Burton, Charlotte W. T. Chng, Susan Emerson, Di Gao, Gwilym Pask-Hale, Jon Hutton, Martin Jung, Katia Sanchez-Ortiz, Benno I. Simmons, Sarah Whitmee, Hanbin Zhang, Jörn P. W. Scharlemann, Andy Purvis. Has land use pushed terrestrial biodiversity beyond the planetary boundary? A global assessment.
Science, 2016 DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf2201
[ii] The setting “aside: areas of wilderness” to preserve wild animals and ecosystems, and the forcible removal of indigenous people from these areas is something most of wildlife biologists and central planners find sensible, but it is not.. The ecosystems they so value are not endangered by the sustainable economies of tribal people; they are, literally, shaped by them. So the good intentions motivating modern state governments are predicated on a false assumption that wilderness is “pristine”.